A-List Profile: ESPN the Magazine

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If ever there was a moment that defines ESPN the Magazine, it was when San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens followed up a touchdown on "Monday Night Football" last year by pulling a Sharpie pen out of his shoe, inscribing the ball and handing it to an acolyte in the stands.

"The preponderance of people over 35 thought this was a travesty and a disgrace. And the majority of people under 35 thought it was the coolest thing in the world and great entertainment," says Gary Hoenig, who has the silvered beard and fine mess of office debris one would expect from the editor in chief of the most male of all magazine species.

The sheer audacity of Mr. Owens' move made it cover story material for ESPN the Magazine, which directly aims at the "cool" set, employing a style that's big on visuals and articles that tend toward the irreverent. That's in keeping with what was the modus operandi of the magazine's cable TV forebear at the time the every-other-weekly was created almost six years ago.

The magazine's stories may be lean, but don't tell Mr. Hoenig and crew that the wordcraft is wimpy. Mr. Hoenig says there was a "staff rebellion" about two years ago, when the edit team took exception to the opinion the content wasn't as potent as it could be. The validation came this year, when ESPN the Magazine won a National Magazine Award for general excellence in the 1 million-to-2 million circulation category.

"We feel we can be to athletes what Rolling Stone was to musicians in the `70s and what Vanity Fair was to celebrities in the `80s," Mr. Hoenig says.

The strategy has certainly paid off for ESPN the Magazine. Its nearly half-century-old competitor, Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated, is still clearly a champion with close to 1,700 pages of advertising through the first three quarters of 2003, compared with ESPN the Magazine's 1,131.9 pages, according to Publishers Information Bureau. But SI's ad pages are down 6.8% from a year earlier, while ESPN the Magazine is up 8.6%.

The title's performance has scored ESPN the Magazine a spot on Advertising Age's A-List.

REACHING GUYS 18-34

There's nothing to suggest ESPN the Magazine's performance is eating into SI's advertiser base, says Christopher Collins, VP-publisher of the ESPN title, which is the product of a joint venture between ESPN parent Walt Disney Co. and Hearst Magazines.

Media buyers say ESPN the Magazine has actually helped grow the number of advertisers that consider magazines an opportunity for reaching the 18-to-34-year-old male base.

Originally, ESPN the Magazine only targeted major sports like basketball, football and baseball, notes Pam McNeely, senior VP-group media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Dailey & Associates, Los Angeles. "They missed out on a lot of business," she says. "But they realized the error of their ways and embraced all sports. The readership has grown, and it's a much more relevant publication."

Ms. McNeely also gives ESPN the Magazine kudos for not falling into the trap of merely serving as a TV listings guide for the ESPN TV network, as has been true for some other spinoff magazines of TV channels.

Despite all the success, ESPN the Magazine has had to contend with a growing number of laddie titles that are going after the same advertisers. And that's kept ESPN the Magazine on its spikes. "In the last year and a half, we've gone from being the hunter to the hunted," says Mr. Collins.

The publisher doesn't divulge his magazine's renewal rates. But he can't avoid Audit Bureau of Circulations figures that show the magazine's single-copy sales fell 16.7% in the first half of 2003. Mr. Collins, however, contends the publication started to trend up in that area during the last couple of months, and that ESPN the Magazine never factored in newsstand sales as a big part of its growth.

But the loss is "pretty significant," in the opinion of George Sansoucy, senior VP-director of print and convergence for Interpublic's Initiative Media, New York. Nevertheless, Mr. Sansoucy draws no ultimate conclusions. "The newsstand situation [for magazines as a whole] is in amazing flux," he says. "I'm not seeing any trending per se."

On the plus side, total circulation climbed 10.2% to 1.7 million in the first half. ESPN the Magazine expects it to reach 1.75 million by yearend, and will raise its rate base 6.1% to that number from 1.65 million in January.

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