A Sporting Chance With Disney's deep pockets behind it, 'ESPN Magazine' makes a play for 'Sports Illustrated's immense market share.

January 10, 1998|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- In the 27 years Frank Deford wrote for Sports Illustrated, he and his colleagues often wondered why no competitor ever rose to challenge the magazine's nearly monolithic supremacy as America's premier sports periodical.

"It was always amazing to us at Sports Illustrated that nobody put up a contender," Deford recalled recently. "Magazines usually come in twos. For every Time there's a Newsweek. If Playboy works, then a Penthouse pops up. It was just crazy that no one would take Sports Illustrated on."

Sanity is about to take hold. On March 23, ESPN, the self-styled "worldwide leader in sports," will launch a new biweekly sports publication. Already a staggeringly successful sports cable company and genuine cultural phenomenon, ESPN now intends to be the formidable adversary Sports Illustrated has always lacked.

Ali-Frazier. Yankees-Red Sox. The annals of sports rivalries may soon gain a new chapter.

Says Mark Mulvoy, who was Sports Illustrated's managing editor for 11 years, "It's the strongest threat that Sports Illustrated has ever encountered."

Even with ESPN's first issue two months away, the skirmishing ** has begun in earnest. ESPN Magazine has hired some talented alumni from Sports Illustrated and made a run at others. Its

executives are guaranteeing advertisers a robust circulation of 700,000 before the end of the first year and expect to reach 2 million within five years. They have also taken to arch references of Sports Illustrated as "your father's sports magazine." With the promotional engine of ESPN's cable networks, the new magazine may have more advantages than any start-up periodical in history.

Is it any wonder that the magazine's top officers are sounding cocky?

"I see a tremendous opportunity to immediately take the No. 2 spot and reach a new audience," says publisher Michael Rooney. "Like what Nike did to Converse."

From its lofty perch at Time Inc., Sports Illustrated is taking public note of the new competition but without alarm. "I don't see anything this magazine can or will do that Sports Illustrated won't do better and quicker and smarter," says Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of Time Inc. "I can think of countless things that Sports Illustrated has done and will continue to do that will be a real stretch for ESPN."

It's not wholly true that Sports Illustrated has never faced competition during its 43 years. Deford himself, one of the most celebrated magazine writers in America, left Sports Illustrated in 1989 to edit the National, a new, much-ballyhooed sports daily. And earlier, the Washington Post Co. started the monthly Inside Sports. Both publications were considered journalistic successes. Both were business failures. The National folded after 18 months, and the Post Co. sold Inside Sports after only two years.

Today, the sports magazine landscape includes Inside Sports, the venerable and newly redesigned Sporting News, and Sport Magazine. Their combined circulation still falls a million short of Sports Illustrated's 3.15 million.

But circulation hardly gets at the financial vibrancy of Sports Illustrated, which, as a Time Inc. publication, is part of the Times Warner media empire. Ad revenues last year for Sports Illustrated were $522 million, second only to People, its sister publication. By comparison, the Sporting News (owned by The Sun's parent corporation, Times Mirror Inc.) had ad revenues of $14 million.

"It's a real gold mine they have," says Steven Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter.

But in ESPN, Sports Illustrated faces a competitor with far greater resources than any previous challenger. The majority owner of ESPN is another media giant, the Disney Co., whose chairman is the famously competitive Michael Eisner. (The Hearst Co. owns 20 percent of ESPN.) No one expects ESPN Magazine to be profitable in under three years, but Disney, unlike the Post Co. with Inside Sports, is unlikely to suffer a loss of nerve despite start-up costs reportedly as high as $100 million.

"This venture will not fail because of financial constraints," says John Skipper, a senior executive of the Disney Publishing Group who was named general manager of ESPN Magazine.

Sports Illustrated actually threw the first jab in this fight. Last year, while Disney was still pondering the idea of a sports magazine, Times Warner announced that Sports Illustrated and CNN would team up to start a 24-hour television cable sports network to compete with ESPN. CNN-SI now reaches about 10.5 million homes.

"After that announcement," says John Walsh, a senior vice president at ESPN, "it was pretty clear that the magazine was going to be a go."

ESPN may not have undertaken a magazine without Disney, but, as Walsh says, "Without ESPN, Disney wouldn't be launching it either."

'Cultural gathering place'

If Sports Illustrated made sports important in America through its penetrating and literate storytelling, ESPN made sports

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