IN HEAVYWEIGHT ARENA, 'ESPN THE MAGAZINE' SCORES; LAUNCH OF THE YEAR: BRASH ATTITUDE OF BRAND SPINOFF SNARES COVETED YOUNG MALE READERS

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Players in the competitive sports publications category had every reason to be nervous when ESPN The Magazine charged onto the scene last year.

Backed by the deep pockets of Walt Disney Co. with distribution assistance from Hearst Magazines, the magazine burst forth with a ready-made audience from its cable TV progenitor.

The magazine also boasted powerful built-in cross-promotional and media-buying opportunities through tie-ins with ESPN, ESPN 2, plus the popular Internet site (www.espn.com) and ESPN Radio.

Rivals were right to be concerned. The magazine's impact has already been stronger than expected, although some rivals applaud the newcomer for boosting overall awareness and advertising within the sports magazine category. For its big-time arrival, ESPN The Magazine is the Advertising Age Launch of the Year for 1998.

The keys to the publication's success in a crowded field were its ability to take a sharply different approach to the sports category, to translate the brash attitude of its cable TV version to print and to go after young men ages 18-34 who love sports and have active lifestyles.

The result is a splashy, tabloid-size twice-monthly filled with wild colors, splashy photos and a diverse mix of sports stories punctuated by lighter, quirkier copy.

FRESH CROP

ESPN claims it's attracting a fresh crop of young male readers around 29 -- five or 10 years younger than the average sports magazine reader -- along with a fast-growing array of advertisers from a wide field of fashion and lifestyle products.

"Our leading advertising category is fashion followed by footwear and automotive," says veteran magazine developer John Skipper, senior VP-general manager for ESPN The Magazine. "We also have automotive, tobacco and spirits like the other sports magazines. We are not avoiding categories, its just our emphasis is different."

While ESPN includes traditional advertisers such as Nike (for its Alpha Project brand) and Tommy Hilfiger, it also includes a smattering of fragrance marketers and Internet product marketers such as E-greetings. Automotive, liquor, and cigarette advertisers are also prominent, along with haircare and soap ads.

E-GREETINGS SURPRISE

"It was a tough choice for me, a longtime Sports Illustrated reader, but we chose ESPN for our first sports magazine ads because the demographic matches our needs for adults 18 to 34 who are wired," says Tony Levitan, co-founder of E-greetings Network. "ESPN reflects a lot of our attitude of a young company with an edgier feel than traditional magazines -- and frankly, it was a less expensive media buy so it met all our objectives nicely."

"Our reader is a little younger and more diversified. He's a sports fanatic but also does extreme sports, he surfs, he skates and he likes music and hiking," says Mr. Skipper, who also was behind the launch of Family PC and played a role in the redesign of Disney Adventures and relaunch of Discover before hatching ESPN.

ESPN says it's on track to become profitable within a few years. It already boasts a rate base of 700,000, with the goal of reaching 1 million by January. Its cover price is $3.99.

Finding the positioning wasn't hard: The Sporting News was immersed in statistics; Sports Illustrated functioned as a weekly book of record for all sports, and Sport added another layer of monthly feature sports coverage. ESPN differentiates itself with irreverence, drama and wacky humor in the style of its TV sibling's award-winning "Sportscenter" TV spots, Mr. Skipper says.

"Sports fans don't live on a desert island. They read everything and watch everything, so we want to give them something extra, more of the humor, the personalities and the inside stories surrounding sports," Mr. Skipper says.

Despite its emphasis on fun and lifestyle activities beyond pure league and college sports, ESPN doesn't want to be seen as less than serious. It has recruited big-name sports writers, including John Papenek, formerly of Sports Illustrated, who is now editor-in-chief; Chicago sports maven Rick Telanger is a contributing editor and sports writing veteran Tom Friend is a senior writer.

STILL ENTERTAINMENT

"We're serious about sports, but we acknowledge that sports is also about fun and entertainment. It's live action drama, with comedy, and the kind of sports that people participate in as well as watch," Mr. Papanek says.

Hardly by coincidence, other sports magazines have tinkered with the design, distribution or subscription prices since ESPN's launch. Due to a combination of factors, several now say they're actually enjoying more profits since ESPN's arrival.

SLASHES PRICE

Sports Illustrated dropped its newsstand price from $3.50 to $2.95 last summer and The Sporting News was relaunched last December with a glossy cover and a new look.

"The category has been energized by ESPN's arrival and one reason may be that the average young media buyer knows those four letters and is paying more attention to the category than before," says Norb Garrett, editor of the monthly Sport, which recently completed its own recent "rebranding" effort.

Because of its approach, ESPN is not taking away advertising from any specific magazine in the category, say publishers.

ESPN is competing with general men's magazines such as Maxim as much as the various sports magazines.

ROOM TO GROW

"There's a ton of room for [advertiser] growth in the men's magazine category, and ESPN's success is proof that men want more information," says Drew Massey, publisher, P.O.V.

Advertisers seeking younger demographic targets, including footwear and fragrance marketers, are seeking out ESPN for strategic reasons, says Michael Rooney, ESPN's VP-publisher. "Advertisers recognize that we understand the very sought-after younger audience of Gen-X and [even younger] Generation Y men, and they want to go after this group with us," Mr. Rooney says.

ESPN's Internet empire is another powerful source of opportunity for the magazine: Mr. Walsh says it has sold more than 50,000 subscriptions to the magazine through the Web site. ESPN Radio also promotes the magazine.

Although Mr. Skipper has worked for a variety of magazines, ESPN is his favorite: "One way of looking at it is that we finally created a magazine that

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