Sporting Snooze

A leaner, splashier Sporting News struggles to find its editorial compass

"People do know what to expect, and that has not changed in the thirteen years I've been here. We're going to provide coverage of our core sports every week," Rawlings says. "It [i.e., Husni's critique] all sounds kind of poetic, but it doesn't translate into a business plan. The notion that you have to stay the way you're born -- I think any business that approaches customers that way is in a danger zone."

Husni's not necessarily anti-change, he says, pointing to Sports Illustrated's subtle effort to spice up the front of its book to blunt surging competition from the flip, futuristic, in-your-face ESPN The Magazine, which has swelled its bi-weekly circulation to some 1.5 million since bursting onto the scene in 1998. By comparison, Sports Illustrated's weekly circulation has held firm at around 3.2 million for the last decade, while The Sporting News claims a weekly circulation of about 700,000, up from 617,447 in December 2002, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

After a record 2002 campaign that saw the magazine's ad revenues increase by nearly 40 percent over the previous year, Sporting News ad revenue has reached a plateau, according to Lisa Granatstein, a senior editor at Mediaweek, a magazine industry watchdog.

John Rawlings, editorial director of The Sporting News
John Rawlings, editorial director of The Sporting News

"Through the June 16 issue, they're down 3.2 percent on ad revenue year-to-date over the prior year," she reports. "That's not a terrible drop. They're doing OK -- they're chugging along. They're trying to find their footing -- that's a natural cycle. There aren't many sports magazines around anymore, but they've managed to hang on.

"They provide the meat-and-potatoes of reporting," Granatstein adds. "They're not Sports Illustrated and they're not ESPN, but I think they've been somewhat influenced by ESPN."

Russell Adams of SportsBusiness Journal feels that ESPN's entry into the print realm has affected The Sporting News more than any other publication and that the results, at least in terms of TSN's front-of-book content, haven't been all that pretty.

"They're trying to add more humor to it -- and it doesn't really work," says Adams of The Sporting News' attempt to pep up its front pages. "It's kind of sad. They've kind of dumbed it down to adapt to smaller attention spans and the real loser is their loyal, hardcore reader who appreciated what their strengths were for so long."

"It's like one giant surprise after another," Husni says. "In this case, it's an unpleasant surprise."

Mediaweek's Granatstein, for one, was surprised to learn that TSN's latest incarnation no longer includes statistics and customized team-by-team baseball reports.

"Wow. Maybe they are having some problems and may take it all online at some point," Granatstein says.

Considering TSN's impressively voluminous Web site, techno-centric ownership, recent online deals with Major League Baseball and Stats Inc., its purchase of the 400-plus affiliate One-On-One radio network, and a subsequent radio sponsorship deal with Century 21 that gave the realtor studio naming rights and dedicated on-air promotional space, there is no question that synergy is more than a mere buzzword for the twenty-first-century Sporting News. But Adams cautions that it's still far too early to put a fork into the former baseball bible just yet.

"I hesitate to say that The Sporting News is dying, because they had a pretty good year in terms of circulation and ad sales," Adams acknowledges. "And they still put out a pretty good magazine."

Adams is essentially right about the new-look Sporting News. Despite a convoluted four-color graphic scheme that makes the traditionally understated Sports Illustrated's page layout look positively ingenious, The Sporting News' strength nowadays lies not in the sheer detail of its data but rather in the prose and insights of an accomplished stable of "Insider" columnists that includes award-winning writers Dan Pompei, who covers the NFL, and Dave Kindred, who serves as a more-than-powerful back-of-the-book counterpunch to SI's Rick Reilly.

In the vacuum TSN left when it got out of the box score game emerged USA Today's Baseball Weekly, an interesting case study that both validates TSN's overhaul and causes one to question whether the publication couldn't have found a way to rejuvenate its time-honored format. Founded in 1991, Baseball Weekly ran box scores up until about a year ago, at which point it made some concessions similar to those of TSN -- changing its name to Sports Weekly and welcoming pro football coverage into its fold. Sporting a cover price of $1.50 (TSN's is $3.99), the publication relies heavily on newsstand sales to achieve a peak circulation of about 250,000.

While these comparatively paltry figures seem to indicate that fewer readers want the sort of printed statistical depth that the old Sporting News used to provide, it is important not to lose sight of two factors: the publication had 111 years of brand recognition built up before abandoning its tabloid format, and it was a better, more comprehensive publication than Sports Weekly is now.

At the end of the day, The Sporting News appears to be mildly interesting but far from essential, a distant third banana to Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine that is arguably -- in the most contentious sense of the word -- better positioned to surf the ever-changing waves of the modern media environment than it would have been had it stuck to its tabloid guns and continued to spread the old testament of baseball and box score minutiae.

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