Originally created 11/29/97

Sporting News spending $30 million on new look



ST. LOUIS -- The Sporting News, the 111-year-old sports weekly, is getting a makeover, trading in the tabloid format for a slicker, magazine style.

But the publication long known as the "Bible of Baseball" is making an even bigger change: It's new favorite is the NFL.

Times Mirror Co. is spending $30 million over the next five years to revitalize the St. Louis-based publication. The tabloid format, with its inconsistent print quality and limited use of color, is being replaced by an all-color magazine about the size of Rolling Stone.

"We were fighting a losing battle," editor John Rawlings said. "Now we've got more than a chance."

The new look debuts next week, with the Buffalo Bills' Bruce Smith on the cover. Subscription rates will hold steady, though the newsstand price will rise to $2.95 from $2.50.

Sporting News officials hope the new design pushes circulation to 1 million, nearly double the current number.

A decade ago, The Sporting News had a circulation of 700,000. That number dropped to about 550,000, mostly because the publication stopped offering discount subscriptions, Rawlings said.

Ad revenue has grown in recent years, but ads still make up only about a quarter of each issue, Sporting News president Jim Nuckols said.

"The newsprint format is a barrier," he said. "You don't get the same reproduction as you do on glossy stock, and that's important to many advertisers."

Plans for a major redesign began soon after Nuckols took over as president a year ago. Sporting News officials decided to reconsider not only how the publication looked, but what was in it.

A research firm spent eight months interviewing sports fanatics.

"We came out very assured that what most hard-core sports fans want to read about are the six team sports we cover," Rawlings said.

That means sacrifices. No Tiger Woods, no auto racing, no Kentucky Derby ... nothing but the NFL, NBA, NHL, major league baseball, college football and college basketball.

Those surveyed were asked to rate their interest in each sport on a scale of 1-10. The answer was another jolt to baseball's apparently waning popularity.

"The NFL far and away had the highest score," Rawlings said. "Not even close."

So the publication that didn't even recognize pro football until 1942 is putting the NFL front and center. Tough decision for the "Bible of Baseball?"

"Not for me," Rawlings said. "I'm very pragmatic about it. If that's what serves readers best and that's what will sell, that's best for us in the long run."

The magazine will include more football stories and pictures, longer team-by-team analysis. A full-time staffer, Dan Pompei, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times, has been added to write the weekly "Inside the NFL" column.

Baseball fans need not worry. Nuckols said baseball will get even more space than before. And the magazine will continue the recent trend toward commentary and analysis.

Dave Kindred's column moves to the last page, and the love-it-or-hate-it unbylined wise-guy "Caught on the Fly" column remains near the front. Three new columnists will also be added.

As for the stories, Rawlings wants more than game summaries and team and player profiles.

"People are real interested in behind-the-scenes information," he said. "And, I was surprised, but they are interested in statistics.

"People want us to take all these things and explain it so they understand it in a better way."

Publishing industry analyst Michael Kupinski of A.G. Edwards said the format change should help The Sporting News prosper in what is becoming a crowded market.

Sports Illustrated remains the industry leader with a circulation of more than 3 million. Sport, Inside Sport and Baseball Weekly also compete for readers and advertisers, and ESPN plans to launch its own sports weekly next spring.

"The Sporting News is really trying to find its market," Kupinski said. "Now that they are providing more commentary, it's an easy transition to go to the magazine format. It's the best bet at this point."

It's the latest evolution for The Sporting News, which began as an eight-page broadsheet in 1886, long before pro sports, except baseball. For most of its pre-World War II existence, the publication focused strictly on baseball.

The Sporting News didn't begin regular coverage of pro football until 1942. Basketball and hockey were added that winter, though all took a back seat once spring training began.

The Sporting News switched to a tabloid in 1943, originally as part of the effort to conserve paper during the war. The first color cover was a photo of Frank Robinson in 1967.

Ads and promotions for the latest redesign feature the slogan, "See a different game."

"It works as an advertising slogan, and it's also a good slogan for us in the newsroom, because it's what we need to give readers," Rawlings said.