ESPN The Magazine hits the road to get read on growing readership

Media Watch

November 24, 1998|By Milton Kent

Over roast beef, potatoes, salad and apple crisp at the ESPN Zone last week, John Skipper was looking for a truth about the quality of his product and Robert Johnson was only too happy to give him a mouthful.

Skipper, the general manager of ESPN The Magazine, wanted to know what Baltimore-area subscribers like Johnson thought of the publication.

And he got what he asked for, just from Johnson alone.

Over the course of dinner, Johnson, a salesman, told Skipper that a photo of New England's Drew Bledsoe in a recent issue made the quarterback look "stupid" and "like a bubble boy." Johnson wanted more pieces written by ESPN anchor Dan Patrick, more of the musings of Dick Vitale and less -- a lot less -- of coverage of women's sports.

"Men don't want to read about women's sports. They [educational institutions] have to spend the money on it, so I guess you have to cover it, but I don't want to read about it," Johnson said.

Unlike a number of focus group presentations, where executives sit behind a one-way mirror while their customers speak without getting to see the people they're talking to, Skipper decided that could take the heat.

So he, and a host of the magazine's executives -- from John Walsh, who heads up ESPN's editorial operations from the television newsroom to the magazine, to editor in chief John Papanek to graphics and photo personnel -- made the trip to Baltimore to talk with about 30 or so subscribers in groups of five or six at a table.

"I wanted to make sure the editors saw the readers," Skipper said. "Sometimes, you're in New York and you forget that people in Baltimore, Charlotte, Des Moines and Los Angeles might be different."

The conversations were frank, but overwhelmingly positive. Throughout the evening, Johnson and the four other men at Skipper's table made suggestions for the 8-month-old publication.

And while that was all well and good, the ESPN executives weren't looking for specific story ideas, but more a sense that, as Walsh put it, they aren't "screwing up."

Apparently they aren't. The biweekly magazine's circulation is already over 600,000, about a fifth of the circulation of the acknowledged industry leader, Sports Illustrated, but nonetheless, a pretty decent start.

"It's well off the ground and flying under its own power and comfortably above the trees," said Papanek, a former SI editor. "I'm not going to say it's at cruising altitude, but we know we're on the right track and doing the right things. We feel really good."

Said Walsh: "I think it's a hell of an accomplishment eight months into this to say that you've established a familiarity with your customer to think that they look forward to this. We're not without our flaws, but things look pretty good."

Now if they could just stay away from Drew Bledsoe photos.

Fit for a King

Tennis pioneer Billie Jean King has been selected as the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, to be presented in February at the annual ESPY Awards.

King, a pioneer of women's tennis, was the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in a single year, and defeated Bobby Riggs in a much-ballyhooed "Battle of the Sexes" match 25 years ago.

King joins such notables as Jim Valvano, Howard Cosell, Muhammad Ali and Dean Smith as winners of the award named for the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion and social activist.

Local kudos

You had to figure that Channel 2's Scott Garceau and Keith Mills would do a solid job behind the microphones at last weekend's "Battle of Baltimore" college basketball tournament, and they didn't disappoint. They are both professionals who may not necessarily dazzle you, but never get caught unprepared and bring as much enthusiasm to the work they did last weekend as they do to an Orioles or Ravens assignment.

But the revelation was how much the Channel 2 technical crew has improved over last year's work. There were few if any stray camera shots or wild pans, the graphics were good and timely, and the replays were telling and informative. The station has a lot to be proud of, and viewers should look forward to more of its productions.

(By the way, that was a nice touch by Mills on Sunday night to work in highlights of the CFL's Grey Cup. For two years, the Canadian league filled a huge void for football fans here, and there are doubtless some people who were interested in the outcome.)

And while compliments are being handed out, here's one for Channel 45/54 weekend man Steve Davis, who has rebounded from a shaky beginning here in town to make himself a reliable watch. His steady rise along with weekday anchor Bruce Cunningham's fine delivery have made the Channel 45/54 sports operation a good and early alternative to the VHF stations here.

Stop the madness

During a particularly raucous Sunday night "SportsCenter," Dan Patrick begged NBA owners and players to end the lockout so that he wouldn't have to be so riotous on NFL highlights.

But John Henson, host of E's hilarious "Talk Soup," did Patrick one better, as he leaned forward into the camera at the end of the weekend show to beg an end to the work stoppage or else "I'll reveal the names of all your hookers."

Now, there's incentive to get this over.

Pub Date: 11/24/98

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