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Few magazine categories are hotter than sports right now.

Since its launch last year of a splashy, lifestyle-oriented sports magazine for younger fans, ESPN the Magazine shook up the field -- including weekly titles like Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News and the monthly Sport.

But 18 months after the youthful upstart came along, the entire category is having a banner year. SI is having its best year in history and Sport is healthy and has reinvented itself as a sophisticated glossy. But the category Cinderella story is The Sporting News, which says its revenues have increased more than 60% over the last two years.


Ad sales are up and advertisers are reaping benefits by getting better deals: "There are more choices and options; the competition has been good for manufacturers," says Mark Hogan, VP-marketing for Jockey International.

But now, The Sporting News, a 113-year-old weekly especially known for its preponderance of statistics has been put on the block by owner Times Mirror.

The official reason is that Times Mirror is a newspaper company ill-equipped to develop the cable or broadcast TV resources now needed by the The Sporting News to compete in an aggressively multimedia age, when SI has its powerful link to cable TV's CNNsi and ESPN's growth is fueled by its cable TV powerhouse.

"It's no longer a perfect fit between Times Mirror and The Sporting News," says TSN President Jim Nuckols, a former product manager for General Mills Corp.'s Wheaties cereal brand who brought a new brand marketing sensibility to the magazine in 1996.

Mr. Nuckols says one of the keys to TSN's turnaround was creating an award-winning Web site, proving how important multimedia has become in the sports magazine category and how it may also be the key to its future.

ESPN has heavy traffic on its Web site that has helped drive subscriptions, cross-promoted on its cable TV networks and the same is true for SI.


Since TSN launched its site in January 1997 it has become a highly respected, graphically appealing site deftly combining sports news and analysis with statistics, targeting passionate sports fans at all age levels. This year it won a People's Choice Webbie award for sports.

Augmenting the Web site was a major redesign last year of TSN, when the magazine changed from a tabloid format to a full-color magazine, providing more emphasis on team statistics and year-round coverage of all major sports.

"The kind of reader we attract is interested in deep coverage of sports and lots of statistics and analysis, but he could be at either end of the age spectrum," says Mr. Nuckols.

The new product, in combination with the Web site, "brought a whole new group of people to The Sporting News brand, making us more visible and bringing us more opportunities," says Francis X. Farrell, TSN's senior VP-publisher.


Now TSN is getting into TV through a side door, working on its third TV special airing next month on CBS-TV about the 100 greatest football players of all time. It's also working on the next in a series of highly successful "coffee table" books about top players in sports history and this month opened its first restaurant, Sporting News Grill, in Washington.

The company plans to open at least two more restaurants, both targeting upscale customers with fine food, in locations that may include St. Louis and New Orleans over the next year or two, Mr. Nuckols says.

TSN and SI say their readers are an average of 36 years old with household income of about $50,000; ESPN the Magazine's target audience is younger -- 18- to 34-years-old with a slightly lower household income.

But ESPN has attracted ads from fashion marketers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren not typically seen in TSN or SI.

Despite the likely comparisons with other sports magazines, SI doesn't consider the other sports books its competitors.

"We're competing with the national newsweeklies -- we don't consider ESPN a direct competitor," says Mike Klingensmith, SI president.

Indeed, with its powerful array of print and cable TV resources covering sports, including SI for Kids and the recent announcement that it will publish SI for Women 10 times next year, SI is operating on a different playing field than TSN, with its half-million subscribers.

SI claims more than 3 million subscribers and ESPN the Magazine is telling media buyers it will have a rate base of 1 million next year.


"It will get interesting as ESPN's circulation grows, to see if they hold onto a lot of their smaller advertisers who got in at the ground level," says Scott Kruse, VP-group supervisor at Young & Rubicam's media-buying unit, Print Edge.

The monthly Sport, with a circulation of about 1 million, says it's increased its profits significantly this year after its own relaunch last year. Under new parent Emap Petersen, the company has launched the new NFL Insider appearing eight times a year, and is working with TV production companyIMG/TWI, New York, to produce the first of four TV specials based on its own special issues, starting with "Dominators of the Year" airing on CBS-TV on Dec. 12.

Sport still lacks an Internet strategy, but Editor Norb Garrett says the company is very serious about launching a dedicated site reflecting Sport's big-picture, entertainment-oriented approach.

Meanwhile, Mr. Klingensmith sees good times ahead for the entire category, thanks to trends favoring print.

"We're gaining ground on TV in terms of effectiveness, as advertisers are being

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