In the spring of 1998, ESPN launched a new magazine, with a cover featuring a series of young stars primed to take over their sports. Kobe Bryant led a cast that also included Alex Rodriguez, Kordell Stewart and Eric Lindros. The quartet stared straight ahead, steely-eyed, aside a headline that read, “Next” in big red letters. It was a reference to the aspirations of the magazine, too.
“It was a very brash statement,” John Skipper, the former ESPN president who oversaw the launch of the magazine, said recently on Bill Simmons’ podcast.
Twenty-one years later, ESPN the Magazine – at least the print version – will be canceled. ESPN announced an internal reorganization Tuesday under senior vice president of content Rob King, part of which includes ceasing publication of the magazine in September.
“Consumer habits are evolving rapidly, and this requires ESPN to evolve as well,” the company said in a statement. “The only change here is that we are moving away from printing it on paper and sending it in the mail.”
“Our journalists will continue to create the same exceptional content,” the statement went on. “Our data shows the vast majority of readers already consume our print journalism on digital platforms, and this approach will maximize our reach and impact.”
Staffers had heard rumors for several months that September would be the magazine’s last print edition but were told this week that staffing levels would remain the same despite the change.
“People are optimistic but pretty nervous about where it will be a year from now,” said one current staffer, who requested anonymity to discuss internal ESPN business.
According to two sources with knowledge of the company’s plans, there will be no immediate layoffs. The expectation is that a small handful of people will be out of jobs come the fall. Those positions will likely be in printing, circulation and publishing, as editorial positions have been folded into other operations inside ESPN.
The magazine, the brainchild of former president Steve Bornstein, was launched at a time of ESPN’s cultural dominance and was part of a strategy to expand the TV network into an all-consuming multimedia company. The magazine was headquartered in New York, the first major ESPN operation to be based outside of Bristol, Connecticut, and indicative of ESPN’s growing ambitions.
Skipper, who went on to serve as president of ESPN from 2012-17, discussed the launch of the magazine earlier this month on Simmons’ podcast. Simmons is now the CEO of The Ringer, but got his start at ESPN and was one of the magazine’s star writers for a time.
“Steve Bornstein really had the vision that, ‘Look, we’re going to create a multimedia company,” said Skipper, who launched the magazine, along with John Walsh, another former ESPN executive. “’We want to be in the radio business, we want multiple channels, we want a magazine.’ Steve desperately wanted a weekly magazine to 1/8battle Sports Illustrated 3/8.”
On the podcast, Skipper recalled the foundational vision of the magazine: a biweekly broadsheet that was bold enough to compete with Sports Illustrated and with the cultural heft of Rolling Stone. And it blossomed quickly. Skipper estimated the magazine was bringing in some $150 million in revenue in the mid-2000s and netting between $30 and $40 million a year.
Editorially, it launched features like “The Body Issue,” its answer to SI’s swimsuit empire, while also earning a sterling reputation for long-form journalism. Feature writers like Wright Thompson and Mina Kimes stood out; blockbuster investigations were delivered by brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada; Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham exhaustively covered the internal business of the NFL. In 2017, ESPN the Magazine earned a National Magazine Award for General Excellence, News, Sports and Entertainment.
But the cash-flush heady days dissipated as the business economics of print journalism became increasingly difficult – at ESPN and nearly everywhere else. The number of annual issues of the magazine was cut to 20, then 16, then 12. Circulation for the magazine has never been higher than today, at some 2.1 million subscribers, but print advertising dollars dwindled sharply in recent years. (Sports Illustrated, for its part, has been for sale for the past year after the Des Moines-based Meredith Corporation bought Time Inc. and its stable of magazines – including Time, SI and others – in 2017.)
ESPN said it will consider releasing special issues of the magazine in the future, like the body issue, for example. And its magazine-style work will continue on its website, potentially with “cover stories” that include companion TV pieces. Such pieces could still carry the branding of ESPN the Magazine.
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