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 said 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 the weekly 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.
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 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 less than 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.
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.”
If Sports Illustrated made sports important in America through its penetrating and literate storytelling, ESPN made sports ubiquitous. Although dismissed by most industry experts at its 1979 launch, ESPN has been a remarkable success, and not only on journalistic and financial grounds. Its irreverent but authoritative approach toward sports is emblematic, its reach global, and its immediacy unsurpassed. For most Americans, ESPN has become the first and sometimes the last stop for sports news.
The impish Walsh is obviously tickled to have arrested Sports Illustrated’s attention. He has already accused Sports Illustrated of borrowing design ideas from ESPN Magazine’s prototype, which has been circulating among advertising agencies. “We hear that Norman Pearlstine referred to this as the greatest challenge to Time Inc. since the start of Newsweek.”
Pearlstine says he doesn’t remember saying such a thing. But even if he did, he adds, “That’s sort of like being the best left-handed heavyweight in Jersey City. I think John is desperate for attention and ink.”
Let the games begin.