After Six Years, ESPN The Mag Rivals The Success Of ESPN The Network

by , Oct 30, 2003, 12:00 AM
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In terms of brand power, few companies or individuals not named Oprah are a match for ESPN. Since its quiet debut in 1979 as the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, the company has evolved into a sports behemoth, reaching around 90 million homes in the U.S. with five of its channels (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPNNews and ESPN HD). Of its other brand extensions, the ESPN radio network, ESPN.com and ESPN Zone sports-themed restaurants have all seemed as natural and automatic as an extra point.

But around six years ago, when ESPN announced plans to try its hand at magazine publishing, the doubters came out in full force. The arguments weren't especially novel: some said ESPN's core audience of young men didn't read magazines, while others argued that between mainstays like Sporting News and Sports Illustrated and the plethora of special-interest publications, there was no need or demand for another sports title.

Five years after the launch of ESPN The Magazine, it's probably safe to say that the doubters were off the mark. With its flashy design and attention to so-called extreme sports that were largely ignored by other sports mags, ESPN The Mag found an audience relatively quickly. Though the magazine has been dogged by rumors that it was hemorrhaging cash at a dangerous pace, its Publisher Information Bureau numbers indicate a strong level of ad support. It grew its ad pages 10.7% in 2002, and is on pace for another strong year in 2003: through September, pages are up 8.6% (to 1,132 from 1,042) and ad revenue has surged 28% (to $154.8 million). By comparison, in 2003 SI has notched 1,669 pages (down 6.9%) and SN 558 (up 2.4%); in terms of ad revenue, SI remains the category giant, with $459.0 million in the year's first nine months.

As for circulation, ESPN The Mag is slightly overdelivering on its rate base of 1.65 million, which has been hiked to 1.75 million for 2004. According to Audit Bureau of Circulation figures, in the first six months of 2003 the publication grew its subscription base (up 11%) over the year-ago period but saw a 16.7% decline in single-copy sales. SN and SI both saw increases in subscriptions (15% and 0.3%, respectively) and single-copy sales (2.6% and 3.5%) during the same period.

Addressing the mag's recent performance, vice president/publisher Chris Collins seems almost bored. He calls the mostly positive numbers "a neat validation of what we do" and shrugs off the less positive ones as "a sign of the times. It's rough out there."

When it comes to discussing his mag's competitive position, however, Collins perks up considerably. Having been anointed one of the publishing industry's "hot" properties - by virtue of recent kudos from the two ad trades and a National Magazine Award trophy for general excellence (1-2 million circulation) - ESPN The Mag is naturally experiencing its share of sniping from competing publishers and sales folk, one of whom goes so far as to call it a "great magazine for people who don't know how to read." Collins, however, takes the high road when assessing the competition: "The category only goes a few magazines deep. I think everybody's doing relatively well."

While he doesn't come out and say it outright, one gets the impression that Collins is less concerned with SI and SN than with mags specifically targeting young men, whether Rolling Stone or Maxim, FHM and their ilk. Too, he seems concerned about the relative importance of magazines to these younger readers. "[Young men] are inundated with information from TV and the Internet," he explains. "I think it's a real challenge for any magazine targeting them to be relevant." To accomplish this, ESPN The Mag has focused on the concept of "next" - which, not coincidentally, headlined its March 23, 1998 debut issue. "The idea is to communicate information in a way [readers] haven't seen," Collins continues. "Why give them information they might have gotten from a game they watched or from ESPN.com? We focus on what everything means, what it means for the future."

The average ESPN The Magazine reader is a 30-year-old guy with a median household income of $62,000. Collins touts the "younger mindset" of that reader as well as his active lifestyle, and bills him as the "A fan" who is both passionate and open-minded. "He can identify with [San Francisco 49ers wide receiver] Terrell Owens pulling out a Sharpie and signing a football after scoring a touchdown," Collins explains. "If not, he at least accepts that as being part of the world of sports and entertainment."

Such an attitude obviously resonates with advertisers. Though he is borderline militant about not discussing specific companies or brands, Collins cites automotive, apparel ("especially footwear"), and food/beverage companies as the magazine's biggest supporters. He allows that he'd like to get more watch manufacturers into the magazine, and cites "depth" as one of his major challenges. "We're in just about every major category, but there's a few, like fashion, where we'd like to get in a little deeper," he says.

Surprisingly, Collins attributes a large amount of credit for ESPN The Magazine's success with advertisers to its overall tone, as opposed to the ad-friendly subject matter or great reader demographics. "There's no other magazine out there that reaches young men that has the positive and offensive-free environment we do," he notes. "We're hearing a lot of that from marketers. You wouldn't feel uncomfortable showing [ESPN The Magazine] to your mom or grandmom. I'm not sure if you can say that about some of those other magazines."

Beyond the obvious - the still-languishing economy, increasing out-of-pocket costs - Collins isn't especially eager to reveal the challenges he expects to face in the months ahead. Only when pressed does he add, "The main challenge for everyone is providing the right value proposition for advertisers." As for whether the magazine will continue to grow, Collins laughs before snapping, "It better, or you'll be talking to someone else next year."

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