'Nobody is saying that we're going to unseat anybody," says ESPN's John Walsh, executive editor, major-domo, and driving force behind the eagerly anticipated national sports magazine that is hitting newsstands as we speak, cleverly named ESPN magazine. "We're just asking to have a seat at the table."
Okey-dokey, John, but we Sports Sceners are a tad bit suspicious. After all, when a company known for its competitive zeal and with inexhaustibly deep pockets (Disney owns 80 percent of ESPN, Hearst the other 20 percent) coyly says it just wants to be on the team, not the star of the team, well, we didn't just ride into town on the back of a potato truck.
What ESPN magazine is, really, is the most serious assault ever on the supreme rule of Sports Illustrated. Many have tried to get in the ring with SI; all have been knocked out in early rounds.
Could this be the one that floors the champ? Already the thought of a big-time challenger has the folks at SI getting in their best fighting trim in decades.
Walsh, who took over control of ESPN's "SportsCenter" broadcast and turned it from essentially a mundane scores show into a classy television event day after day after day, is a borderline genius. A number of his pals at ESPN are not without starry skills, either, including the magazine's editor, former SI boss John Papanek. It's an impressive lineup of talent and an impressive concept.
The corporate line is a kind of aw-shucks approach, a public charade that it's not going to compete with SI, just be out there with it. The truth, of course, is there were thorough discussions within the ESPN hierarchy on whether to start off as a weekly and take on SI forthwith, or to start biweekly or monthly.
The prudent choice, biweekly, was made. The head-to-head confrontation will come later.
While Walsh insists there will be long, 3,000 word pieces - by writers including Curry Kirkpatrick and Rick Telander, previously two of the best at SI - he admits there will be "a lot of bite-size chunks, segments, sequences."
However, the key difference from SI is ESPN magazine's focus on the 18- to 34-year-old male, a substantially younger audience than SI targets.
Basically, ESPN is looking for readers in the 20s. To this end, Walsh says every issue will feature Xtreme games - the main squeeze of a lot of Generation Xers these days. Whether Xtreme games turn out to be a lifelong love affair or a minor but torrid flirtation awaits further developments.
On the one hand, the approach is masterly. That's because ESPN is not launching a frontal assault on SI but rather a rear-guard action. Then, by the time ESPN has built up its forces and honed its skills, it will be ready for a pitched battle.
On the other hand, the approach is risky because who is to say guys in their 20s read. Walsh says ESPN studies prove they do, at least the daily-newspaper sports pages, but admits: "How many of those people are ready to make the leap to committing themselves, their time, and their wallets [$25.95 a year] to reading a magazine? Our hope is we can stretch them." To this end, Walsh & Co. better bring plenty of sturdy bungee cords.
At core, what ESPN is betting on is that the ESPN brand name will carry the day. There's a good chance it will. From a wobbly and ill-formed concept of a 24-hour-a-day television sports network in the 1970s, ESPN has become a brilliant, well-run, innovative, and creative giant. It's arguably the most influential entity in sports.
Whereupon Walsh says, "If we deserve a seat at the table, we have to be able to talk about the meal that's on the table."
Nobody doubts ESPN magazine's capacity to do that. The question is simply whether twentysomethings will even be of a mind to sit down and conduct a taste test. If at least 700,000 of them are not dining out on the new magazine by next January, ESPN will have few options other than moving directly - and soon - into SI's backyard, and that could be bloody.
"We expect to be in the middle of the fray," says Walsh. "We're passionate about sports."
Does this sound to you like somebody who just wants to squeeze in an extra chair at the table and listen passively to the conversation?
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is email@example.com