Media Circus

Following GQ's lead, Details and Esquire are hoping that beefed-up sports coverage will put them in the end zone.

Published October 6, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"I really think sports is the rock 'n' roll of the '90s," says Michael Caruso, the new editor of Details. And Caruso isn't the only one. The deluge of press coverage attending the new sports magazines for women suggests that the new audience for sports journalism consists mainly of long-limbed, strawberry-blond girls. In fact it's men -- or at least men's magazines -- who have rediscovered sports.

As Art Cooper has done at GQ, both Caruso at Details and David Granger at Esquire are looking to make sports coverage as important to their editorial visions as it is to most men's lives. "Sports is this really cool, exciting thing," Caruso says. "It's the place where a lot of what's really interesting is taking place. It makes complete sense to me to integrate this into [Details]."

Caruso's interest in sports stems not only from his own personal appetites -- he left Vanity Fair to start a national sports magazine that would have been a competitor to Sports Illustrated -- but also from his need to reinvent Details. James Truman's recent pronouncement that "Downtown is dead" signaled the end of Details' focus on downtown club kids and those who wanted to be just like them. And Caruso, clearly, intends to skew the magazine to appeal to older, more mainstream readers. It's never said in so many words, but Caruso's Details will undoubtedly be a straighter magazine than it was under former editor Joe Dolce. (Check out the young lingerie-clad TV actresses who decorate the October cover for corroborating evidence.)

Just as telling, though, is the October feature on Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Kordell Stewart, "The Athlete Formerly Known as Slash." Stewart embodies Caruso's vision of sports in the revamped Details: He's young, edgy and urban, and he's mainstream, masculine and far removed from clubland. Caruso's betting that figures like Stewart will keep him, and Details, ahead of the curve. "There's been this explosion in sports," Caruso says. "It's a whole culture. It's fashion, it's crime, it's big business. There's all this excitement about sports, and right now, you get more of that in Nike billboards and Reebok commercials than you do in magazines."

Caruso isn't the only one looking to capitalize on that buzz. The arresting photo of Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre and Tennessee godling Peyton Manning on the cover of the Sept. Esquire seemed to signal that magazine's re-entry into the sports arena. New editor David Granger, who jumped from GQ to Esquire, has a long-standing interest in sports journalism, and all indications are that he plans to continue developing that interest at Esquire. His first issue included an excerpt from Favre's new book, a welcome piece on Vince Lombardi, and a Charles Pierce cover story titled, "Does Football Still Matter?"

Before Granger's arrival, Esquire readers would have to have answered "No" to that question. Under Ed Kosner, the magazine's sports coverage was confined to Mike Lupica's columns -- which tended to read like extended versions of his Daily News pieces -- and the occasional one-shot, including David Foster Wallace's memorable 1996 essay on tennis player Patrick Joyce. In his inimitable, footnote-dropping manner, Wallace pointed the way toward a kind of sports writing that was both informative -- you learned more about pro tennis from that piece than from ten John Feinstein columns -- and stylistically dazzling. In the context of Esquire as a whole, the piece seemed a miraculous anomaly.

Esquire fancies itself far more of a literary magazine than GQ or even Vanity Fair; this may have contributed to the short shrift given sports writing. "There was almost a sense that sports were beneath [Esquire]" says Art Cooper, GQ's editor-in-chief and Granger's former boss. "This is what Granger has to deal with ... we'll have to see what they do over there."

GQ, of course, has always put athletes on its cover, so Cooper speaks from a position of some authority. In fact, the changes afoot at Details and Esquire are hard to imagine apart from GQ's successful attempt to prove that sports can be fashionable. "It's always been a staple here," says Cooper. "Some of our bestselling covers were sports figures. Dan Marino, Andre Agassi, these were some of our most popular issues. So I don't think sports are suddenly hot. Sports have always been popular with men."

While Cooper has always known that sports sells, he cautions that it's dangerous to believe that putting an athlete on the cover of a men's magazine guarantees big sales. Baseball, he insists, has yet to come back -- GQ's Ken Griffey issue sold very poorly, as did its Barry Bonds issue. Even with the eminently popular football and basketball, you have to pick the right athlete. And don't even think about hockey.

Meanwhile, it's not clear there's an untapped market of sports fans who have been waiting for an excuse to start reading Esquire or Details. The best thing about the expanded sports coverage in men's magazines may not be its impact on circulation, but the fact that it will align these magazines more closely with the interests of their readers.

It will be interesting to see whether stepping up sports coverage has any impact on the kind of writing these magazines produce. Big sports figures are, if anything, even more difficult about access than movie stars, which means that profiles of them tend not to be as in-depth as you might like. It's probably no coincidence that the two most interesting sports pieces of 1996 -- Wallace's essay on Joyce and Tom Junod's absolutely brilliant GQ piece "Tom Osborne is God" -- were not celebrity profiles so much as off-center looks at the peculiar obsessiveness that sports breeds. Still, the hope has to be that Esquire's and Details' rediscovery of sports will change these magazines in important ways. And then someday locker-room chatter will consist of, "Did you hear who's going to be on the cover of Details next month? Damn!"

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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