The National, the colorful tabloid that hoped to establish itself as the first American daily devoted exclusively to sports, published its final edition today, 17 difficult months after it had begun.
At the end, the sports daily had a circulation of only about 200,000 nationwide, roughly a third of what it would have needed to break even, according to staff members, and had lost between $100 million and $150 million.
Still, the timing surprised many staff members. The National was about to embark on a plan to develop its own distribution system, which management had decided was key to building circulation.
"Eroding business prospects for the publishing industry as a whole have meaningfully increased the risks associated with the venture," spokesman Stephen Hammond said in a prepared statement.
The paper has 283 employees, about a dozen of whom signed contracts of two to five years. A memo to The National's staff said that all contracts will be honored and other employees will be paid to Aug. 15.
The National had begun in style, attracting some of the best-known names in sportswriting--among them celebrated Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, who became editor.
But insiders now say the paper also made some early and costly business mistakes. It was launched, for instance, without a detailed business plan and after only four dry-runs on its computer system. Some of the production equipment proved inadequate and soon had to be replaced, adding significantly to costs. And the contract to be distributed by the Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones, according to some on the staff, left the paper in a position where often it did not include late scores, in unfortunate contrast to rival USA Today.
"We had trucks leaving before games had ended," assistant managing editor Rick Jaffe said.
After nine months, Emilio Azcarraga, the Mexican broadcasting magnate who owned the paper, removed Peter O. Price, the publisher and chief architect of the paper's business operation, and three of Price's deputies. Among other things, Price's estimate that the National would probably lose $100 million over five years before breaking even "woefully underestimated" the costs, one official said.
Price was replaced by Jaime Davila, an executive in Los Angeles with Azcarraga's Univision Inc.
According to staff, Davila became convinced that the National would have to take over its own distribution system to be certain of getting to the newsstands with late scores. At a meeting only a few months ago, Davila told Azcarraga that the task would cost another $65 million, but had no guarantee of success.
Rather than risk the investment all at once, Azcarraga and Davila had decided to start the new distribution system in only four cities--Detroit, Washington, New York and Chicago--using a process that would take about two months to start and another few to evaluate.
But the management team apparently changed its mind in the last few weeks. In its prepared statement announcing the closure, the paper's management indicated that Azcarraga saw the likely passage of a Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Mexico as enhancing the opportunities in the United States for Spanish-language television, Azcarraga's primary business.
THE NATIONAL SPORTS DAILY
The Short Life of a Sports Newspaper
Jan. 31, 1990: Launches six-day sports daily in New York, Chicago and Los Angles.
June 25: Expands market to San Diego.
June 27: Announces plans to expand to San Francisco, Dallas and Detroit in summer; Boston an Miami in fall; Baltimore-Washington by year's end; and Philadelphia and Atlanta by early 1991.
Nov. 12: Confirms President an Publisher Peter O. Price was stripped of responsibility for day-to-day operations; discloses firings of circulation director, assistant publisher and director of finance and administration.
Nov. 15: Lays off 18 editorials employees, 6.5% of 275-member work force.
Nov. 25: Publishes last Sunday edition, paring back to Monday-Friday publication.
Dec. 21: Announces plans to boost daily cover price from 50 cents to 75 cents, effective Jan. 21; and to test a $1 cover price in a couple of markets.
June 12, 1991: Announces that publication of The National will cease with today's issue. The newspaper's owners lost an estimated $100 million and saw no quick prospect for profitability.