ESPN: The Magazine kicks sand in SI: The Swimsuit Issue's face

ESPN's glammy print startup courts young sports fans who don't want their fathers' breasts.

By James Poniewozik

Published March 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Blah blah blah exploitative. Blah blah blah phallocentric. Far be it from me to defend Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue (Winter 1998), but it's hard to take a swing at the voluptuous, heaving piñatas of this ever-popular target without feeling that you're playing a carefully scripted role -- namely, that of the exasperated romantic-comedy starlet stammering, "Oh, you ... you infuriating man!" -- cueing the audience, with every cute little stamp of your high heels, that you'll be melting into the rogue's arms and lifting your shapely ankle by the picture's end. After all, what the issue brings yearly, besides boffo sales at an inflated $5.95 price tag, is a reliable public reminder that SI still exists.

You might think, then, that the midst of SI's annual journey to the bank would be precisely the wrong time to launch a competitor. But the publishers of the biweekly ESPN: The Magazine (that's really the subtitle) have used the timing to offer the first criticism of the swimsuit issue that may actually hurt. Infantile? Sexist? These jibes roll right off SI's SPF 15-coated back. (Anyway, the persons really degraded in the 1998 rendition -- an equator-themed tour of the Third World -- are not the high-paid Western professionals in their thongs but the Maasai tribesmen, Indonesian tambourine players and Ecuadorian guinea-pig chefs who serve as the Pier 1 background tchotchkes.)

No, what SI's annual breastfest is, ESPN snipes, is lame. Its promotions on ESPN: The Network joked about producing an all-nude issue -- "but tastefully done" -- and editor John Papanek opens his first column, "We are not all nude, or even close." ESPN, aggressively seeking young sports fans, has turned SI's cash cow into a liability, a stringy comb-over, a Vitalis-drenched symbol of retro decrepitude. Thus Papanek's declaration -- no doubt aimed more at quotation in industry assessments like this one than at readers who have already spent enough time with the magazine to get around to the editor's column -- that "this is not your father's magazine."

So what's your magazine, junior? It's frightfully close to its near-anagram Spin, for one thing, with a large trim size, wry photo spreads and modish design riffs and fonts that could have come off a Blur album cover. (It's a great format for the gorgeous Nike and Nautica ads, by the way -- and the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Board bought nine full pages.)

But more important, your magazine is a TV show. This long-promoted launch is just another step toward the multimedia Ragnarok impending between ESPN and Time Warner's SI, manifest in the launch of the CNNSI network in 1996 and escalating through their well-publicized bidding wars for writers. And the magazine quite literally looks like the cable channel on glossy paper, not only cross-referencing ESPN's programming but also picking up the channel's visuals, from the orange-and-brown color scheme of its NCAA tournament graphics to its use of the ubiquitous wide sans-serif headline type that everyone will be using on their late-'90s-party invitations five years from now.

But the tie-ins run deeper. ESPN touts its "forward-looking" philosophy: It will look, Papanek says, "to the next two weeks and beyond -- not behind to last week's events, the results and highlights of which we expect you will have already got from SportsCenter." And that's fine and good, but there are more than editorial benefits to that. There's a greater percentage in prompting reader-viewers to flip to ESPN next week than in asking them to reset the dials on the wayback machine.

The influence of broadcast journalism comes through too in ESPN's promise that the magazine will not be so, well, magaziney. "No press-box pontificating, no wistful reminiscences," Papanek hammers; in Newsweek (March 16), Richard Turner writes that its founders intend it to "'celebrate' sports and be a fan."

Now the implication that SI takes more of a crusty sportswriter's attitude than a fan's is exaggerated to begin with -- but why should that be a damaging attack at all? Pontification -- or criticism, if you will -- is the offshoot, not the opposite, of fandom. Sports journalism hardly lacks for see-no-evil boosters. The last thing it needs is another outlet that thinks its job is to prove to the fans it loves this game (any game) as much as they do and avoids rocking the boat with too much bad-mouthing, sarcasm or, God forbid, investigation.

Fortunately, ESPN, spin notwithstanding, does not seem to be that magazine. It is fresh, succinct and fun in all the right ways, particularly in the front-of-book "Jump" section. But it's also thick with well-written -- if occasionally purple -- features and profiles. The strongest is Tom Friend's "The Mismatch," about boxer Tommy Morrison, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1996 and has refused all conventional treatments and medications. It's a complicated portrait of a man from an abusive background, his jumble of stubborn and apocalyptic beliefs and his decision to gamble not only his life but his wife's.

It's also, though, a case study of the advantages and pitfalls of the TV-print marriage. By this past weekend the story was on ESPN network as a feature narrated by Friend himself. Condensed by necessity, the TV profile (with photo stills from the mag) was naturally sketchier, but its script was balanced; however, compared with the print piece, the production of the broadcast clip made Morrison's self-treatment decision seem practically inspired. "He decided not to trust the doctors," went the voice-over as inspirational music swelled. "He decided to trust himself." The piece closed noting, as a fairly strong-looking Morrison walked away from the camera, that the year the doctors gave him to live was almost over. (No doubt concerned over implicitly endorsing self-doctoring for a killer virus, the network tacked on a disclaimer: "The Morrisons stress anyone ... should educate themselves about HIV before making the same decisions that they did.")

There's no point declaring a winner between ESPN and SI on the basis of one thick, long-planned, well-funded launch issue -- nor is it clear there needs to be one, ever -- but SI has justification to worry: The first ESPN is a far better read than the same week's rather slight March Madness SI (March 16). Still, for all ESPN's done to accentuate its difference, it's a nuanced one. Just like SI, it focuses heavily on the major team sports; and after the year of Venus Williams, women's sports magazines, Tara and Michelle and the WNBA, there are no features on women athletes except an overview of the women's NCAA Tournament and yet another column on UConn scoring champ Nykesha Sales. Cheap shot? Maybe, if every page of the issue weren't obviously calculated to scream, "You are holding the future of sports, boyyyy!"

ESPN's back page is titled "0:01" -- "a last-second shot at the buzzer" -- as compared with SI's "Point After," and that about captures the shading of hipness ESPN seeks: to be basketball to SI's football, not ahead of the moment, just close enough behind to use the moment as a wind break. This is not your father's magazine, but it's not your kid brother's -- or sister's -- either.

Repurpose This Graphic! It's a fine line between Nostradamus and Nostradumbass, as several of our more excitable media outlets discovered over Asteroid 1997 XF11's not quite 24 hours of infamy. Thursday morning CNN Interactive was blaring the headline: "Collision Course: Bracing for an Asteroid Impact." By Friday we were reading, "Kiss Your Asteroid Goodbye" on the cover of the New York Post. But the memento mori moment wasn't too brief for the CNN site to immediately cook up a nifty graphic, no doubt intended as the heraldry for a score-and-a-half years of exercised call-in shows and nightly countdowns. We can never mend the broken dreams of the network-news-theme composers whose "Symphonies for Vertebrate Species Die-Off" lie half-scribbled beside their synthesizers -- we will never read that Roger Rosenblatt essay on how our nemesis in the sky reminds us that we are all brothers at heart -- but we don't have to let this computer-enhanced rock go to waste! A few possible uses:

  • Cover art for a comeback concept album by Rush
  • Emblem for a really, really dystopic 2028 Summer Olympiad
  • Campaign poster for the first presidential candidate of the Heaven's Gate Party

Send your suggestions to Save the Rock '98.

Information Wants to Score a Book Deal: "In this heady age of rapid technological change, we all struggle to maintain our bearings." No, you're not reading a display ad for the New York Times' new Thursday Circuits section -- this bit of Brave New Worldery sprung from the keyboards of a dozen of the heppest commentators in new media. It kicks off the founding document of Technorealism, a statement of principles on the social meaning of technology that seeks "to expand the fertile middle ground between techno-utopianism and neo-Luddism." Said fertilizer is being earnestly spread at Feed, where several TechnorealistsTM -- who include editors and contributors to Feed, Wired and the late Word -- are debating the role of government in cyberspace and whether "information wants to be free" or "information wants to be protected." Long-overdue, level-headed, intellectual effort to wrest tech dialogue from hyperventilating extremists? Bald-faced attempt by professional phrase-coiners to form a cyberpundit cartel for the new millennium? Who says it can't be both? Judge for yourself -- but for the love of God, hang on to those bearings.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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