Apparently, adding just four letters to the cover of a magazine can make or break the publication — so long as those characters are ESPN.
The sports network first took a crack at the publishing world in 1988 with the launch of TV Sports, a monthly magazine that detailed TV sports listings, largely designed to promote its own coverage. The publication folded about a year later, after failing to spark interest from advertisers.
“At that point in ESPN’s history, they were trying to do everything they could to get any kind of brand extensions, and the idea wasn’t right,” ESPN executive vice president and executive editor John Walsh said. “It didn’t make sense at that point.”
But ESPN has found an entirely different response from the market with ESPN The Magazine, the twice-monthly magazine that debuted in 1998. At that time, ESPN — already a fixture among sports fans with such programming as National Football League and Major League Baseball games — had extended its brand with new networks ESPN2 and ESPNEWS.
“The timing was perfect, in terms of sports magazines,” Media Industry Newsletter editor-in-chief Steve Cohn said.
ESPN The Magazine launched 15 months after Time Warner Inc. moved onto ESPN’s turf with the launch of the CNN/Sports Illustrated all-sports channel.
Observers viewed ESPN’s play to rival Sports Illustrated as revenge at Time Warner for rolling out CNN/SI — something ESPN officials have steadfastly denied.
And many, including Cohn, didn’t think either ESPN The Magazine or CNN/SI would succeed.
They were half right. Time Warner pulled the plug on the CNN/SI channel in May 2002, but ESPN continues to grow year after year.
Circulation has rocketed from 350,000 in 1998 to 1.75 million, and will increase again in January to 1.85 million.
For fiscal 2004, the magazine had 1,544.8 ad pages, up from 1,429.7 last year.
ESPN has succeeded in an area where other cable networks have failed. Hearst Corp. and The Walt Disney Co., ESPN’s corporate owners, will stop publishing Lifetime Magazine after next month’s issue, and A&E Television Networks cut Biography Magazine into a quarterly title for fans in the “Biography Club” last year.
Earlier this year, Independent Film Channel stopped publishing the IFC Rant print magazine, turning it into a Web publication. The last issue of IFC Rant hit newsstands in July, and the network replaced it with a film-news Web site that debuted on July 7.
“ESPN went into a marketplace where there was definitely one competitor, while the film magazine market is much more crowded,” IFC senior vice president of marketing Evan Shapiro said.
“Our original goal in all of this from the beginning was to find ways we can best expand the audience for independent film,” he said. “This Web site and the tie-ins we have with the network is untimely what our viewers demand.”
Walsh attributes the success of ESPN The Magazine to four factors: the ESPN brand, its business model, the editorial direction and cross-promotion from ESPN’s cable networks. Viewers don’t need to watch SportsCenter for very long before hearing an anchor mention that an athlete featured in a highlight is also spotlighted in the current or upcoming issue of ESPN.
Reporters from the magazine appear frequently on ESPN, and ESPN anchors Stuart Scott and Dan Patrick are regular contributors to the magazine.
“If Dante Hall is on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and [his team] the Kansas City Chiefs are playing in the Sunday night [ESPN football] game, and we’re going to talk about Dante Hall, yes, it’s appropriate to point that out,” Walsh said. “But if some other players were on the cover, and they’re not playing in the game, we probably don’t.”
While Sports Illustrated focuses much of its weekly issues on covering the previous week’s news, ESPN The Magazine contains more features, columns and some Maxim-style Q&As.
In Patrick’s “Outtakes” column in the September 27 issue, the SportsCenter anchor asks San Francisco Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt if he ever mentally undresses Anna Benson, the model wife of pitcher Kris Benson, now with the New York Mets. (Both are former Pittsburgh Pirates.)
Schmidt says he hasn’t, and Patrick responds: “I have. It seems like she’s pretty proud of her body on her Web site.”
Walsh said ESPN executives have considered taking the magazine weekly, but that the company is sticking with the biweekly strategy.
“We feel we have something that is distinguished by several factors, one is the size, one is its frequency of publication which kind of dictates that it comes from a different mentality,” Walsh said. “I think it’s easier to be relevant because you’re talking about being relevant, as opposed to being a slave to last week’s news.”