US Sports Daily Builds Strength


THE publishers of the National Sports Daily have found launching a national newspaper brought some unexpected challenges. But editor Frank Deford is undaunted. The sports newspaper, which appeared first in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles last January, was to have a lot of local sports coverage in the cities where it appeared. That was scaled back last spring.

Then in a reorganization, management announced Nov. 8 that it would ``suspend'' the Sunday edition - yesterday's was the last - and publish Monday through Friday. The paper also fired three managers and laid off about 20 writers. Owner Emilio Azcarraga, a Mexican media magnate, brought in executive Jaime Davila to supervise daily operations, in lieu of publisher Peter Price.

While there is skepticism the paper will succeed, the new paper gets good reviews from other journalists.

``It's a terrific product,'' says Don Skwar, sports editor of the Boston Globe. ``It has a terrific group of writers who cover the national scene thoroughly.''

``I think it's a good editorial product,'' says Jack Falla, a writing professor at the Boston University College of Communications and a former reporter with Sports Illustrated. ``I'm not as convinced it's as sound a business proposition.''

Mr. Deford, also a Sport Illustrated alumnus, is upbeat. He says advertising sales are on track, circulation will reach about 275,000 by the end of the year, and the paper will be printing in 10 cities.

The technological challenges of local coverage ``turned out to be too much,'' Deford says, explaining the changes the National has seen so far. In addition, he says, reader surveys showed people wanted to read national stories, not material they could get in their local paper.

Mr. Skwar says such national coverage is the paper's strength. He cites as stories in which the National excelled the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight in February and the death of Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers last March during the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

With correspondents in several cities, he says, the National ``could bring it all together the next day. It's impossible for anyone else to do that, with the exception of USA Today.''

As for the demise of the Sunday edition, Deford says the editors found that distributing a paper on Sunday was much more difficult than on weekdays.

Currently, 96 percent to 98 percent of the paper's sales are from newsstands, Deford says. Besides the three start-up cities, the paper is now printed in Boston, Detroit, Dallas, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and San Francisco. It will appear in the Baltimore-Washington area on Dec. 5. Start-ups are planned for Philadelphia in January 1991, Atlanta in February, and Seattle and Denver later in the spring.

The expansion is somewhat slower than forecast. The first plan was to be in 12 markets by the end of this year. Circulation goals also appear to be down: Reports at the beginning of the year said the paper wanted 1 million subscribers, but Deford now says it is hoping to reach 500,000, with ``no upper limit.''

Deford says the paper's biggest challenge has been distribution. ``You must build on existing networks,'' Deford says. ``You can't sell a specialty publication door to door.''

John Morton, media analyst for Lynch, Jones & Ryan, a Washington, D.C.,brokerage firm, says it is too early to tell if the National will be a success. ``First of all, we've never had a national sports daily before. We're finding out whether there is a market for one.'' But Mr. Morton sees ``ominous signs'' in recent changes at the paper. ``When you have layoffs and the anointed leader [publisher Price] steps aside, these are signs things not going as expected,'' he says.

Morton also notes that 1990 is the worst year in 20 years in the newspaper business. He says getting advertisers will be difficult because of the economic slowdown and because many advertisers want to see audited circulation figures before buying. A newspaper must publish for a least a year before its circulation can be audited.

But Deford says the layoffs were necessitated by the switch away from local coverage. And he insists that advertising sales are ``right about on pace, especially given that it's a recession year.'' He believes the key to success will be that the National is one of the few places advertisers can reach young males.

Skeptics say the paper will cost far more than the $100 million that Mr. Azcarraga plans to put into it over the next five years. After all, they point out, the Gannett organization put $115 million into USA Today in each of its first two years.

Deford says the paper would like to break even after five years, but that that isn't the main goal. ``No one is saying that if we're not making money in five years, we're shutting the store down. If we're not along a reasonable path toward profitability, we will rethink it.'' He notes that since the company is privately held, it does not have the pressures of having to answer to stockholders.

Asked what the paper's greatest triumph has been so far, Deford says ``I think the main thing was in creating everything from scratch.'' And he cites ``the day-to-day impression we have made. We're a very provocative newspaper. We even attack each other in our columns. I think you need that kind of feisty print journalism to succeed in the '90s.''

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