Inside Move: Sports mags in overtime drive

Publications shuffle their game plans

After five years of intense rivalry in the sports mag arena, Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine are suddenly borrowing from each other’s playbooks.

Known for its brash covers and hip headlines, ESPN the Magazine is putting on a new game face. Under new editor in chief Gary Hoenig, founding editor Jon Papanek (now a senior VP at ESPN) is heading an investigative team directed to hunt down newsy, “serious” stories (read: the kind of stories Sports Illustrated runs).

At Time Inc.’s SI, managing editor Terry McDonnell — imported from Us Weekly last year — has been running six-page photo montages and catchy taglines as the 49-year-old mag tries to cop an ESPN-like ‘tude.

In short, it’s gut-check time on the newsstands.

The Disney-owned ESPN, following leaps-and-bounds growth to its current circulation of 1.65 million, dropped in newsstand sales in the second half of 2002 by 19% compared with the same period in 2001. But subs were up 10%.

Sports Illustrated, which has a rate base circulation of 3.1 million — second only to People at Time Inc. — had an 8.4% spike in newsstand sales for the same period, though subscriptions were down marginally.

And while ESPN recently took home a national mag award for general excellence, it will need to attract more than just its 18- to 34-year-old readership to grow. The median age of the more news-focused SI reader is 36.

“We’re interested in killing off any vestiges of, ‘Hey, you guys are hip and cool and look great, but (the magazine is) soft,’ ” says John Skipper, exec VP of ESPN.

Still, ESPN isn’t quite on a level playing field with SI yet: It’s still a biweekly pub.

“The reality is that no matter how good ESPN is at what it does, you still need a weekly sports magazine,” says Michael MacCambridge, who wrote “The Franchise: a History of Sports Illustrated Magazine” — and is editing a book for ESPN. “You want to be able to get a magazine on Wednesday or Thursday and find out why the 49ers lost last week and what’s going to happen this weekend with the Eagles.”

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