The growth of women's sports participation is an obvious step of progress but also a potential source of confusion for editors trying to determine exactly what a new generation of sports-minded women wants to read.
Two major publishers have tried to sort this out by introducing magazines geared specifically to female readers.
Cond Nast Sports for Women has a strong tilt toward active women. Sports Illustrated Women/Sport, not surprisingly, is more like Sports Illustrated (SI) in its closer attention to the athletes and issues.
SI has put out two test issues and is expected to decide any day now what the next step will be.
Both magazines reportedly have been well-received. Lucy Danziger, the editor of Cond Nast Sports for Women, says "Our readers tell us they love this magazine. We have a core group of devotees and are growing with every issue." The hope is that the current base circulation of 350,000 will double within five years.
Sandra Bailey, editor of Sports Illustrated Women/Sport and a former sports staffer at The New York Times and The Washington Post, says she's never been involved with any publication that received a greater outpouring of reader support. If the magazine goes into regular production, the anticipated start-up readership might be about half a million, compared with 3.5 million for the flagship weekly.
Donna Lopiano, the executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation, an influential advocacy group based in East Meadow, N.Y., likes competition in this new marketplace and hopes both ventures survive.
She sees each searching for an identity that works. "There is something in between both of them right now," Ms. Lopiano says. "They're trying to find this place and, boy, is that tough to do. Anybody in the magazine business will tell you you've got to be in it for a long time."
Lopiano likes what she calls Sports Illustrated's "signature branding" - the strong action photography and good writing - found in Women/Sport.
Cond Nast Sports for Women, she says, offers an invitingly varied approach to the subject matter. Her advice to
Ms. Danziger is to separate the magazine from publications like Self and Shape, which place a heavy emphasis on fitness and beauty, two traditional pillars of women's magazines.
As for Sports Illustrated, she recommends a not-too-tight focus on major spectator sports. "Women are much more eclectic," Lopiano says.
Bailey, the Sports Illustrated Women/Sport editor, says any future magazines might include more reader-service stories, since "women are just so used to reading that in magazines."
But as Lopiano suggests, the winning entry may lie somewhere in the middle, blending the elements of traditional sports coverage with stories that make a more personal connection with readers.
For the editors of both magazines, the challenge may be to determine where the market is headed, not just where it is now. Or put another way, will all the young girls and women playing sports today eventually want to push back and read about professional athletes and leagues?
Lopiano argues that a strong female constituency already exists, with 35 to 45 percent of all in-arena and televised sports audiences composed of women. "There are enough women who have been allowed to play sports," she says, "that they have developed the same kind of passion the guys have. They're already there."
Coverage of newly emerging women's pro leagues is one avenue. Both the American Basketball League and the Women's National Basketball Association have exceeded projected attendance figures. It was the WNBA's smashing success last summer, however, that really turned heads. (Average game attendance was 9,804.)
"The fact that they came out of the box so well is something we are looking at closely," says Ms. Bailey, the Sports Illustrated Women/Sport editor. "This is obviously a good time [for women's sports] and even if it is not the top of the wave it is certainly getting there faster than we had expected."
Bailey says the target age group for Women/Sport is 18 to 34. But it's at the lower end of this range that a promising concentration exists. Older teenage girls who've been playing sports since adolescence, she says, are now more ready to drop peer-group magazines like Seventeen and move on to a special-interest sports magazine.
"These girls are growing up and reaching the age when they are buying magazines," Bailey observes. "Probably in two to five years we're going to see a much bigger explosion of hard-core sports interest."
While the test issues of Women/Sport contained serious journalism, there was an undercurrent of cheerleading. "There is a set of expectations that go with being a groundbreaking magazine, so we thought a whole lot about the upbeat bent that women readers want," Bailey says. "We feel a mandate to be more inspirational than dissing."
Thus, a long feature on controversial figure skater Tonya Harding in the first issue met with negative feedback. Stories about relationships and positive role models were well received.
It helps that women athletes haven't been overprofiled. "You haven't read their stories 300 times," Bailey says. "Maybe in 20 years we'll be bored with their stories too, but I'll take 20 years of fresh stories."
While SI's Women/Sport looks to elite athletes for inspiration, Conde Nast's Sports for Women looks in the mirror.
"When our readers look at the cover they should see a version of themselves," Ms. Danziger says. "They should say, 'This magazine is talking about me, not about professional athletes.' "
Danziger doesn't rule out the possibility of putting an occasional celebrity athlete on the cover, but thus far only unknown or little-known athletes have been featured each month. "They are athletic women who hopefully are going to inspire the reader to think, 'I'm like her; she's active, I want to be active.' That's a good connection," he says.
She adds that SI has skillfully articulated the traditional sports beat - coverage of the Big Four (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey) - for 50 years. To catch the current wave, though, her magazine envisions a different paradigm, especially for Cond Nast Sports for Women's core readership of 20- and 30-year-olds.
"We're coming in and saying sports for women is a completely different territory with a lot of personal connection. It's not about viewing, it's about doing. ... There is a different generational attitude that comes with this sporting life, and that's what our magazine is trying to address."
To appeal to the multisports woman, the magazine views the "sports beat" as composed of four quadrants: traditional ball sports; untraditional, self-expressive sports without numerical outcomes, such as skateboarding and surfing; fitness sports like running and cycling; and outdoor sports, such as camping and hiking.