Mag Finds The Really Lost Boys: Male Teens

Asked recently how magazines could overcome their inability to reach teenage males, one publisher didn't hesitate before answering: "We should get into the video game business." When it was suggested that plenty of titles cater to young video game enthusiasts, the publisher said, "No, I mean that we should start making video games. That's probably our only chance."

Indeed, while teenage girls have been known to devour several titles per month, boys between the ages of 12 and 18 are almost written off by magazine publishers. They lead active lifestyles, the argument has traditionally gone, and don't stop to read much beyond the sports section of the newspaper or maybe the trifecta of major sports titles (Sports Illustrated, ESPN The Magazine and Sporting News, each of which boasts an average reader age of 30 or older). "They're just as likely to be shooting hoops on the [television] screen as they are in the playground," says SchoolSports chief executive officer Jim Kaufman. "What they're not likely to be doing much is reading magazines."



SchoolSports, a six-year-old title that covers high school sports, doesn't claim to be the entity that will awaken teenage boys to the glory of the printed word. But the publication has been successful in offering younger readers detailed regional and national sports coverage they are unable to find elsewhere. And with its planned 2004 expansion - a circulation jump from 400,000 to 650,000 and entry into the sports-crazed Denver, Detroit, Houston, Phoenix, and Seattle markets - SchoolSports may well prove one of the more effective marketing vehicles through which advertisers can reach male teens.

It's not that high school sports haven't registered on the radar of major publishers. Sporting News recently unveiled a special issue dedicated to high school basketball (jointly produced with SchoolSports), while Sports Illustrated and ESPN have upped their coverage of younger athletes in the wake of the LeBron James phenomenon. It's just that few publishers saw the upside in writing about high school sports, especially since the primary audience for such a publication rarely bothered with magazines.

This hasn't deterred SchoolSports, which believes the key to attracting these readers lies in regionalizing coverage. "Sports is the way you reach these kids, but you have to localize everything," Kaufman notes. "There are thousands and thousands of high school athletes out there who want to read about themselves and their peers, but they're getting pushed off the pages of newspapers in major metro areas."

Launched in Boston in 1997 by current Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Segal,SchoolSports didn't make its push for the varsity squad until 2000, when it launched nationally in ten markets. Each market receives its own edition of the magazine, which is distributed at 4,000 schools across the country.

Considering that there are about 17,000 high schools in the United States, there's room for growth. But since schools in the 15 metropolitan markets are usually significantly larger than those in other areas, SchoolSports is blanketing a significant part of the country.

Still, Kaufman's primary concern is generating awareness for the title. "We're not published by a Time Warner or a Rodale or a Conde Nast," Kaufman says. On the other hand, none of those behemoths publish a title whose primary audience is teenage boys, which is why SchoolSports has done quite well in attracting big-name advertisers. Longtime supporters include Gatorade, Reebok, Nike, Champion, and all four branches of the armed forces, and the magazine has recently added music/entertainment companies (Paramount plugged "School of Rock" in the September issue) and "Got Milk?" to its mix.

"Once [advertisers] know who we are, they're usually really willing to sit down and listen to what we have to say," Kaufman explains. "We're still small and relatively new, so we have to be very regimented in going after them." Future targets include Adidas (one of the few shoe/athletic gear companies not running in SchoolSports) and urban clothing lines like Rocawear, FUBU, and Sean John.

One important consideration for Kaufman and his staff is limiting the mag's slate to "appropriate" marketers. SchoolSports doesn't run tobacco or liquor ads, and has been supportive of government anti-drug and anti-violence programs. The problem, as Kaufman freely acknowledges, is that teens tend to gravitate toward racier editorial and marketing content ("they see it everywhere they go"), meaning that SchoolSports often finds itself walking a fine line. "What we do has to be edgy and relevant, but it also has to be appropriate for schools," he explains. "Sometimes those goals are mutually exclusive."

Kaufman admits that he's fielded calls from school athletic directors about the mag's advertisements, although not as many as he's received about its editorial content. "Most of what we hear is 'how can you rank our team so low in the greater L.A. area?'" he laughs. "I guess that if we're generating that kind of debate, we're probably doing something right."

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