The Big Leap

Jeff Gremillion

Mediaweek contributing editor Jeff Gremillion is senior editor of The Times in Lafayette, La., and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Southwestern Louisiana.

For the men who created ESPN, the spurts part was easy. The magazine was another story.

Jumpin’ Johns: Editor John Papanek, general manager John Skipper and executive editor John Walsh

ESPN could not have picked a better year to launch its brightly designed, forward-looking biweekly challenging longtime genre leader Sports Illustrated with a new vision of sports journalism and shaking the sports publishing world to its core. It was the perfect year, not only because in 1998 young males were the hot demographic, inspiring vigorous competition for their attention among a half dozen other titles (babes and beer were never so chic), but also because of something rather spiritual.

No, really. In a year when not one but two pro sluggers surpassed Roger Mans’ home-run record, thrilling the nation with their challenge to the past, mustn’t it be that ESPN The Magazine, Adweek’s Startup of the Year–standing out in a year blessed with a number of notable launches–is a part of some cosmic paradigm shift?

“The stars were all aligned” is how John Skipper senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine, puts it. But his explanation leaves little credit to the cosmos.

“The magazine that had dominated the market for years and years and years had gotten older,” Skipper says of Time Inc.’s weekly SI, the category’s 3.3 million circulation Goliath. “The median age of the reader was older. They weren’t reaching the younger audience, the 18-34-year-olds. And there was an important brand name, ESPN, that meant more to [young men] than any other sports brand.”

ESPN publisher Michael Rooney says his research shows that 80 percent of the young men’s demo is in some way interested in sports, and that a majority of that group watches ESPN with some regularity.

Essentially, those are the secrets: market void, strong brand. And the results have been spectacular, despite industry hand-wringing at the onset over editor John Papanek’s brazenly synergistic tactics and “busy” graphic design. Since its launch last March, ESPN The Magazine has doubled its rate base to 700,000, as projected from the beginning. The rate base is slated to jump to 1 million next January, making ESPN one of just a handful of men’s books to break seven figures.

The book has made good use of its network partner in its circ-building efforts, running frequent direct-response ads for subscriptions. Skipper says the TV promotion accounts for a fifth of the total circ; direct mail, on-campus subscription drives, stamp sheets and newsstand sales account for the rest. On the ad front, the magazine racked up 1,222 pages, topping $80 million in revenue, for the 10 months it published in 1998, according to Publishers Information Bureau. And Rooney says they did it without the benefit of offering charter deals or budging one iota from the rate card.

The magazine’s success can also be measured by the impact its launch had on its competitive set. Petersen’s 817,000-cire Sport and Times Mirror’s 540,000-circ The Sporting News both chose to undertake substantial redesigns. Sport, whose ad-page figures dipped 4 percent to 375 last year, overhauled its look twice. Sporting News quite successfully changed its format from tabloid newspaper to oversized glossy and saw a 20 percent ad-page increase, to 820. Both books made modest circ gains.

Perhaps the most dramatic reaction among competitors was the folding in June of Inside Sports by its owners, Evanston, Ill.-based Century Publishing. Petersen bought the assets to merge with Sport. “With the launch of ESPN, it became obvious to me that the sports category was overcrowded,” said Century owner Norman Jacobs at the time.

For its part, SI also tweaked its design, experimenting with large, youth-attracting images, hut managing editor Bill Colson vehemently denied the redesign was a reaction to ESPN. SI’s circ was flat for the year; its ad pages slipped nearly 5 percent to 2,762.

It’s easy to look at ESPN’s success and in hindsight think, what an obvious idea. Of course a hip, ESPN-branded sports magazine shaped like Rolling Stone–with Ray Gun-inspired graphics, stylized portrait photography and a mildly in-your-face, sports-as-pop-culture editorial spin-would be a hit. “It’s one of those ‘a-ha’ phenomena,” says Skipper. “The proof of a good idea is that everybody will say, ‘Why didn’t anybody think of this before?”‘

But one must note that this is not ESPN’s first life as a magazine. Two other lackluster attempts to translate the successful cable brand to print came before.

More than a decade ago, Capital Cities/ABC’s ESPN put out a viewers’ guide disguised as a magazine. “It was basically just a promotional supplement,” says John Walsh, ESPN executive editor and “fiber-mentor” to the magazine staff, according to Skipper. “The company lost a million dollars on it.” Then in 1990, Nabisco,. a part owner of the cable company, sold its 20 percent share to Hearst. “Because it went to Hearst, it didn’t take long for them to say, ‘ESPN’s in sports, and sports publishing is a business,'” says Walsh. “‘They have a really good brand. There must be some way to do something here.'”

Walsh says that set in motion “along, long period” of meetings and decision-making. “We had business plans from here to eternity,” says Walsh. The resulting product, ESPN Total Sports, was a series of test issues (10 over two years), not one of the better examples of Hearst’s famous test-cautiously-before-launching strategy “This just wasn’t the right way to test,” says Walsh. “Whether it was its frequency or its sense of timeliness, I don’t know.

“We didn’t realize that, unless there was a full commitment to doing something the right way, it would be difficult on the business side,” he says now. “And it was a frustration to Gary Hoenig [editor in chief of Total Sports, now an executive editor of ESPN The Magazine] and his staff. But [the test phase] did give a sense that these four letters could sit comfortably on a magazine cover.”

Enter Walt Disney Co. When the The Mouse acquired ABC and its 80 percent of ESPN three years ago, the publishing plan quickly gathered steam. “It was inevitable they would get serious about the magazine prospects,” says Walsh, adding. “By that time, ESPN Radio was firmly ensconced as a real-live national radio network, and our Internet presence [now called] was striking and viewed as an early ground-breaker in that medium. From where I sat, I couldn’t imagine Disney not saying, ‘We need to do a magazine.”‘

As it happened, one of the key players was already in place. Skipper was on board at Disney Publishing, as senior vice president overseeing Discover, Family Fun and other titles. “Here was a guy with a significant presence at Disney and a good track record,” explains Walsh. “And the fact that Skipper’s a pretty big sports fan had a lot to do with it.”

“I recommended to Disney that we start a new, oversized, biweekly sports magazine aimed at a young audience,” says Skipper, picking up the chronology. “They were struggling with whether to do specials or a monthly feature magazine or a weekly news magazine. I knew immediately … that you don’t want to be any of those. A monthly is too old and out of touch. Weekly news can’t compete with television. What we decided to do was go right down the middle.

“In the fall of 1996, I spent about three months doing a prototype and business plan,” continues Skipper. The plan called for a book that co-opted some of the spunky attitude of ESPN’s popular SportsCenter program and cast a forward-looking eye on personalities, contests and issues. “In May of the following year, I got the funding and the go-ahead,” he says

Skipper is coy about how much funding, but he says reports putting the figure somewhere between $75 million and $100 million are “in the ballpark.” lie adds, however, that those figures are both “far north of what this will end up costing,” given the book’s strong performance.

That same month, Skipper hired his old pal Michael Rooney away from Times Mirror, where he had been overseeing outdoor-oriented titles. And the search began for an editor.

They considered several other candidates before meeting with Papanek, the former SI managing editor whose rocky relationship with the sports weekly was chronicled in Michael MacCambridge’s dishy The Franchise. (Ironically, MacCambridge says Papanek was ignominiously canned because he pushed for longer, writerly journalism and more social consciousness in the magazine–nearly the opposite of the splashy, photo-driven ESPN book.) Papanek, who was working for New Century’s new media company at the time, had been the launch editor of the highly successful SI for Kids before his SI managing-editor stint and head of Time Warner’s new media division after.

“We made the mistake early on of letting it bother us that Papanek had spent all this time at SI,” recalls Skipper. “It took about two hours for me to realize that was all wrong.”

Skipper says he was taken with Papanek’s experience in closing a weekly, with his sports-world contacts and with his success in the SI for Kids launch. But mostly, the general manager was impressed with Papanek’s take on corporate synergy. “In our first meeting, he articulated better than I did this vision of how ESPN The Magazine should work with ESPN online and the network,” says Skipper. Papanek says that he developed his synergistic strategy for SI, but that he couldn’t persuade the powers that be at Time Inc. to institute it.

“My first reaction when I was approached by Skipper was that I had done sports; that was behind me,” says Papanek. “I was much more interested in the new-media challenge. My first conversation with [Skipper] made it clear tome this opportunity was absolutely a new media opportunity, an opportunity to invent a new kind of magazine for a new time and a new audience. This was as automatic and stunningly exciting as any opportunity I’ve ever walked into. The mission was crystal clear. It just seemed natural.”

The greatest surprise in media circles when the book premiered was how different it was from SI–not a clear-cut, direct challenger at all. In fact, despite MRI statistics citing a 17 percent drop in 18-84-year-readership of SI following the ESPN launch, pop-culture and men’s lifestyle books seem to face an equal, if not more fierce, threat from ESPN.

“The expectation was we’d be a lot like SI,” says publisher Rooney. That expectation was fueled by a string of prelaunch press stories, including several in Mediaweek, gleefully supported by Skipper et al., playing up the animosity between ESPN and SI–making note of every staffer who defected from the weekly to the upstart. “I think there was a lot relief when we came out and were not a direct threat to SI. Truth is, with our design and look and content, we’ve had an effect on the entire young men s category I think Rolling Stone and Spin and Details and Maxim and Men ‘s Health have all awoken to us in the last six months,” Rooney adds.

Speaking of animosity, Skipper and Walsh both were canned earlier in their careers from their jobs at the father of all oversized popculture glossies, Rolling Stone. Despite denials that there’s any bad blood with RS or SI, it’s fun to consider that three of the four top players at ESPN were fired from high-level posts at competing magazines. “That’s an interesting psycho-dynamic to suggest,” says Skipper, “but this is completely business-driven. This isn’t driven to avenge slights from Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated.”

The most stunning example of ESPN’s place in the pop/lifestyle world is its advertising roster. Its top ad categories include fashion, fragrance and footwear; leading categories at the other sports books are automotive, tobacco and alcohol. Rooney says the marketing director at a major fashion company told him, “Oh, I get it! You’re Rolling Stone meets Sports Illustrated.”

Rooney says advertisers are thrilled to have a “safe” way to reach large numbers of young men. Agreeing that cleavage is a core theme in the current wave of new or re-imagined men’s hooks, represented most ably by Maxim and Details, the publisher says: “Guys’ tastes in cleavage changes. How does an advertiser figure that out and attach a brand to that and follow that out?”

“Sports is a fundamentally powerful human interest that begins at your first moment of awareness and lasts throughout your lifetime,” notes Papanek, expanding Rooney’s thought. “It’s an amazingly universal touch point. When two sports fans get together, whether from opposite coasts or even other countries, they can talk about that subject. I suppose they could talk about cleavage, too. But we’re leaving that alone.”

Papanek took some hits in the book’s first few months. He was criticized for giving ESPN TV personalities valuable real estate in his book. He was knocked for allowing design director F. Darrin Perry and photo director Nik Kleinberg to produce a “busy” package that was hard to access. Some accused him of forsaking his roots in long-form literary journalism. The editor returns every jab.

“The most popular page in our magazine has been [Sports-Center anchor] Dan Patrick’s ‘Outtakes,”‘ he says. “We get very smart writing from several of those guys, and running it is a great idea.” Papanek seems to hedge slightly when he adds, “We maximize the way their thoughts are presented in the magazine. We have very good editors.”

Skipper weighs in on the point: “The notion ‘Isn’t it awful they have to use those TV guys in the magazine?’ comes from a distrust of other media. The print guys think that television is shallow and silly but they have resources we don’t. Besides, the readers want to see the guys who are on the air in the magazine. They tell us that. They don’t think it’s a conflict. It’s an advantage for us.”

Papanek says he and his editors are in constant contact with their counterparts at the network, always thinking of ways to cross-promote stories. “We know everything they’re doing,” he says, “and they know everything we’re doing.” He says Walsh, who oversees content matters for both the magazine and the network, encourages and facilitates the interaction.

As for the design, Papanek says his readers love it, Skipper elaborates, noting that the question, “Is the design too busy or too colorful?” is asked at focus groups. “These kids look at you like you’re nuts,” he says. “They say ‘Why wouldn’t I get this?”‘ In fact, the magazine has been well received by the graphic design and photographic communities, already having racked up dozens of awards in those arenas.

And regarding long-form journalism, Papanek says: “If the question is, ‘Aren’t you going to do more articles on the evils of steroids and on illegitimate fatherhood and on the International Olympic Committee scandal?’ You know what, I really don’t think our readers are asking for that.” Papanek says he will tackle tough issues with long features when they seem of interest to his young readers; he notes the much-touted piece he ran early last year on boxer Tommy Morrison’s battle with HIV

“The questions you’re asking me are questions that are asked by older, more conventional types,” says the editor. “I’ve heard ’em, and I answer ’em: ‘This magazine isn’t for you

Why argue with Papanek’s simple logic, especially after 1998? McGwire and Sosa proved that turning a new page in history can be exhilarating. So, too, does ESPN The Magazine, Adweek’s Rookie of the Year, enliven and challenge. What a year in sports. What a year in publishing. What an intriguing new page, indeed.

COPYRIGHT 1999 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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