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ESPN Is Getting Ready to Play Some Hardball

The brawny sports network turns to magazines, itching for action. Watch out, SI.

March 06, 1998|PAUL D. COLFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Many magazine offices here are solemn preserves, the hum of editorial activity muffled by thick carpeting or contained in tiny offices behind closed doors.

At the new ESPN Magazine, however, it's game time: An expanse of open cubicles is bordered by a running track, albeit one with 90-degree turns. A basketball net towers over a lounge area. A gym-dandy scoreboard counts down the days to the magazine's launch.

Loose and casual as the space and the players appear, theirs is serious business. The long-awaited debut of ESPN Magazine on Wednesday is the biggest start-up in years and certainly the strongest threat to Sports Illustrated's 3.2-million circulation dominance since the National came and went as a daily sports newspaper when the '90s began.

Walt Disney Co., which owns 80% of the ESPN sports networks on cable television, is expected to put $50 million to $100 million behind the biweekly, which will be distributed by Hearst Corp., a publishing giant that owns 20% of ESPN. On the editorial side, the magazine is being guided by John A. Walsh, a publishing veteran who has shaped ESPN's brash style and information programming as executive editor, and editor in chief John Papanek, who worked more than 20 years at SI, including a stint as managing editor.

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In an impressive early measure of how easy it may be to parlay the ESPN name into yet another brand extension, the new magazine reports that more than 250,000 subscribers already are on board, many of them responding to ads running on ESPN, ESPN2 and the ESPNEWS channel, as well as on the popular ESPN Sports Zone site on the Internet (http://www.espn.com). ESPN is guaranteeing advertisers a launch circulation of 350,000 copies and projects that to double by January.

Still, the go-ahead was no slam dunk.

"There were many times that I thought we would not be doing this," said John Skipper, a former head of Disney Publishing, who was in on conceptual discussions before the launch was announced last May. He was named the magazine's general manager. "Mostly, the delay in deciding to go forward was because of the daunting nature of it, because there is a very established magazine in the field, Sports Illustrated, which had an unbelievable dominance, and I think it's created this notion that nobody can take them on."

The business plan stems from the belief that a generation of younger sports fans does not feel connected to Sports Illustrated or the other sports magazines. What's more, this thinking goes, these young men already receive much of their sports news and information from ESPN.

Aimed at men 18 to 34 years old--the median age of Sports Illustrated's audience is 36--ESPN Magazine will reach subscribers in the weeks of publication the same time as its competitor, Wednesday and Thursday, but the newcomer will be published in an oversize 10-by-12-inch format resembling that of Spin, Vibe and Rolling Stone. And ESPN Magazine hopes to further differentiate itself from SI by being preview-driven in its coverage, instead of offering the last word on key games and other developments of the week before deadline.

"The same idea will drive every story we do--whether it's a feature on a player, on a coach or on a team," Papanek said. "It's not, 'What have they done to get here?' It's 'What are they going to do the next time you look at this team or player? What can we tell you that would make your experience following this team or watching this player more interesting and more worthwhile?' "

Michael MacCambridge, author of "The Franchise" (Hyperion), a lively history of Sports Illustrated, said he believes that Walsh and Papanek give ESPN Magazine formidable editorial leadership. But MacCambridge questioned the new magazine's ability to preview the sports calendar, especially when it's crowded with events, such as the NCAA Tournament (see Vol. 1, No. 1), and still be topical over the two-week life of an issue. He also observed that the Sporting News, the century-old weekly owned by Times Mirror Corp. (which also publishes the L.A. Times and Newsday), has been offering the same kind of goods that ESPN Magazine will be touting. "The Sporting News has been facing forward, coming back week after week with short reports on individual teams," he said. "I think it gives ESPN Magazine a little less wiggle room."

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What ESPN Magazine has, though, is ESPN. As Brandweek magazine reported last fall: "At a time of an unending variety of sports programming . . . and a plethora of regional and national sports networks, ESPN in 18 years has built not only the most consistently fun, smart, edgy, even clubby, destination among sports media, but quite possibly the strongest brand of any TV network."

Among its other brand extensions are an ESPN store in the Glendale Galleria and ESPN restaurants being developed in Baltimore and Chicago.

The publication's biggest challenge may be the need to enliven an essentially static medium for readers who are accustomed to ESPN's dazzle and 'tude.

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