Sporting Snooze

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

 Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

As a boy in Niagara Falls, Greg Mitchell loved the baseball Giants, but they didn't love him back. Long before he needed to borrow his dad's razor for the first time, the Giants took flight, moving from New York City to San Francisco. Mitchell had trouble keeping up with his beloved team.

"I was particularly affected by not getting box scores," recalls Mitchell, now 54, of the daunting challenge East Coast papers face when it comes to printing night prior box scores from three time zones away. "I'd know who won but had no idea about the details."

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

And, of course, in a day and age where televised sports was still on training wheels and cross-country radio broadcasts were uncommon, the details were what young Mitchell relied on to get him close to his heroes.

Then Mitchell discovered The Sporting News. Game on.

"I'm sure it was the first magazine I ever personally subscribed to," says Mitchell, who is now editor of the prestigious newspaper industry publication Editor & Publisher. "I'd get The Sporting News and it'd say Juan Marichal won the game and Willie McCovey had two home runs. There was no other way to get that detail and gossip -- how someone was doing in Triple-A or if Orlando Cepeda had a bum ankle. The Sporting News was the bible for that stuff. It was overwhelmingly baseball -- they'd have all the minor leagues, each team had its own page."

WGNU sports director Skip Erwin, the irreverently gregarious, yarn-spinning dean of the St. Louis press box set, is similarly gushy in his recollection of the glory days of The Sporting News. "They had writers from all over the country -- the best in the business from daily newspapers," Erwin says. "It was a marvelous paper."

But times have changed at the 117-year-old, St. Louis-based institution, which, over the past dozen years, has deliberately and incrementally cannibalized its statistics-drenched newsprint format that earned the publication iconic status in the world of sports journalism.

Founded in 1886 by Alfred Spink, The Sporting News was a family-owned downtown business for most of its existence. C.C. Johnson Spink, grandson of Alfred's brother, moved the company to Creve Coeur in 1969 and sold it in 1977. The buyer, media giant Times Mirror Company, kept the company here but began tweaking the formula that made The Sporting News a national institution.

Although subtle content alterations are par for the course for all media, the first signal that serious change was afoot came when the publication stopped printing box scores in 1991. Five years later, after extensive consumer polling, Times Mirror decided to abandon the tabloid format and baseball focus in favor of a glossier magazine format that gave equal coverage to professional football.

"Even then, before the growth of the Internet, they [box scores] were so widely available that they weren't unique content anymore," says John Rawlings, editorial director of The Sporting News. "It's just a constant assessment of what we can do that's unique and readers can't get anywhere else," says Rawlings, who has been with the publication since 1990.

Since Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen acquired the publication in 2000, The Sporting News has aggressively sought to partner with and acquire multi-media companies to bolster its online and broadcast presence while eliminating statistics from its skinny print product. And last month, the publication shed its veteran statistics editor Craig Carter, as well as seven other full-time editorial employees and its entire fleet of nationwide baseball correspondents.

While Rawlings and some industry analysts say editorial facelifts have been a natural response to the proliferation of sports data on the Internet and expanded competition -- namely from ESPN The Magazine --others, like Dr. Samir Husni, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, argue that The Sporting News has become a muddled mess that, despite steady -- if not spectacular -- circulation and ad revenue figures, might doom it to irrelevance.

"They've changed so much and way too often that any sense of continuity -- which is essential in the magazine industry -- has been lost. It's a hodgepodge," says Husni, one of the nation's foremost experts in the consumer magazine field. "We've seen the demise of The Sporting News as you and I know it. They had a unique feature, which was being the baseball bible, and when they started adding, changing and diluting, they lost their uniqueness.

"You can't revolutionize yourself like that and expect to survive," he continues. "It's fluctuated through so many facelifts and revolutions, as opposed to evolution, that you don't know what to expect every week anymore. We have zillions of historical lessons where you don't abandon established readers. You don't go chasing the unicorn when you have the horse in your backyard."

Balderdash, says Rawlings, pointing to his magazine's unfailing coverage of the "Big Six" -- major league baseball, pro football, college football, pro basketball, college basketball and pro hockey -- since the switch to magazine format in '97. The only change to that core format, he says, was when the magazine added extensive NASCAR coverage in 2001 to form a new, improved "Big Seven."

"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.

"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.

"It started drifting away from baseball," says Editor & Publisher's Mitchell. "And I got less interested."

Correction published 7/2/03:
In the original version of this story, we misspelled the name of Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly and misidentified the name of the publication where Russell Adams works. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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