Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

Illustration by Miko Maciaszek

“Tebowmania is officially over,” a Patriots fan yells to his friend during the second quarter. The Patriots are up by 14 and getting stronger. He’s loud enough for a group of Tebow fans at a nearby table to hear. “It’s like the Patriots are drenched in Tebow blood,” he bellows. “Like a gazelle.” Pigskin poetry.

At Shoeless Joe’s Sports Grill in downtown Toronto, the Denver Broncos–New England Patriots National Football League playoff game is on multiple screens throughout the bar. It’s mid-January and freezing, but fans have braved the weather to watch the game. The crowd is mostly male, mostly in their mid-20s and 30s, and mostly drunk.

With no more miracles from above, perennial good-boy quarterback Tim Tebow of the Broncos is being destroyed by beloved pretty-boy Tom Brady. It’s no longer a matter of which quarterback you like the best, but which you hate the least. Patriots and Broncos fans sit feet away from each other, passive-aggressively chanting their quarterback’s name.

Football is like church. The busty waitress cannot distract you, nor can the broad-shouldered bartender. The emails and texts on your cellphone are not important. You’re busy. You’ve been waiting for this all season, and you will never forgive yourself if you miss it. When it’s live, football is the most important thing in the world. This is the cult of the sports fan, the obsession that comes with being devoted to a team that you’re not actually a part of. They win; you win. And they’d better win because it’s the only thing you care about this weekend.

This is the market Sportsnet has been targeting for years with its sports television and radio programming. And last fall, it added another prong to its brand: a biweekly sports magazine of the same name. Sportsnet magazine launched on October 17, 2011, becoming the only publication to cover sports exclusively in the Canadian market.

Sportsnet is published by its parent company, Rogers Communications, which owns dozens of magazines, including Maclean’sChatelaine, and Hello! Canada. The company announced last August that Steve Maich, former editor of the Rogers-owned Canadian Business, would lead the team as Sportsnet‘s editor-in-chief and publisher.

There are at least 10 Canadian magazines aimed at women. There are magazines about alcoholand magazines about pets. There’s even a magazine dedicated to cowboys. But Sportsnet is the only general sports magazine in the country; it sits on newsstands with American sports publications such as ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated, but Maich insists they’re not in competition. “People are going to draw comparisons and ask, ‘Is it going to be like SI for Canadians?’ or ‘Will it be the Maclean’s of sports?'” Maich told Sportsnet.ca. “I keep saying, ‘Neither.'”

From a business point of view, Maich might be right about Sports Illustrated. The venerable institution has published sports news and features for nearly six decades, but it wasn’t incubated from the type of corporate structure that coddles SportsnetESPN the Magazine, however, was created 14 years ago by the media conglomerate ESPN. Similarly, Sportsnet has rich parents who seem willing to foot the bill to raise what surely is an unprofitable (so far) print baby, so long as it benefits the brand in the long run. Rogers sits where ESPN was years ago, playing the long game, hoping ball possession in TV, radio, digital, and magazines is the key to building a successful Canadian sports media brand.

 

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Sportsnet is a typical sports network, and its website, Sportsnet.ca, is a hectic, click-happy portal with shaving-gear ads and clever headlines. “Phaneuf the Faker?” asks the headline on Michael Grange’s column, and “Still Stinging at 70” says Stephen Brunt’s—two writers who appear in nearly every issue of Sportsnet magazine. The network is playful and aggressive, similar to its television personalities. (This is, after all, the same company that employs hotheaded radio host Bob McCown.)

The magazine’s features editor, Gare Joyce, is anemic by comparison. In person, he is quiet but physically restless, ripping the sleeve from his tea into small pieces and dashing out the door to feed the parking meter during his lunch break. Before joining Sportsnet last summer as an editor and writer, Joyce was a freelance writer for ESPN the Magazine and ESPN.com. When he heard Rogers was launching a sports magazine, he reached his former editor at Saturday Night, Dianna Symonds, Sportsnet’s current editor-at-large, to find out whom to contact. “I went to [Maich] and I thought we were going to talk about freelance assignments,” Joyce says. He was actually interviewing for a staff position. After the July meeting, he was hired as features editor.

The magazine has already acquired some big names in Canadian sports journalism. Rogers brought Brunt, a Globe and Mail sports columnist, onboard, and he eventually won the premium back-of-book location. The front section includes one-page pieces by Sportsnet radio personalities such as McCown, Greg Brady and Jim Lang from Sportsnet The FAN 590, and Scott Feschuk from Maclean’s.

So far, reception has been positive, but the excitement might be for its very existence. “It’s one of the best attempts at a general interest sports magazine the country has seen in a long time, from pretty professional operators,” says Doug Bennet, publisher of Masthead magazine. “They have a lot of resources at their disposal.”

Toronto Star sports columnist Cathal Kelly agrees. He says the editorial aspirations have been high so far. Sportsnet is obviously spending money, sending writers to travel for days or weeks to cover a story. “I was impressed with the way they leveraged their radio guys,” he says. “For a start, this is tremendous.”

Ad sales have been strong as well. “The first thing I looked for was the ads,” Kelly says. “Lots of ads. Somebody’s interested.” Although it has yet to release figures, Bennet estimates the magazine has met its initial target circulation of 100,000. (Until February, Rogers offered free trial issues and a discounted subscription rate. In March, the newsstand price bumped up $2 to $6.95.) He also believes no penny has been spared. “The launch costs are in the single-digit millions,” he estimates, adding that editors such as Maich and Joyce would likely cost between $150,000 and $200,000 each. “The biggest costs are going to be staffing and print production, including mailing.”

On the design side, to the untrained eye, Sportsnet looks like the average sports magazine. If you don’t care about sports, its cover is a mess of masculine colours, screaming headlines, and faces of well-known players. If you do care, the cover showcases almost every major sport and uses every buzzword or flashy image to pull you in, touting a ranking of the best and worst CFL franchises or splashing an action shot of Sidney Crosby across the page. The first few issues banked on hockey. Canadians have an obsession with the game, which the magazine capitalized on for its initial three covers—Crosby, the Winnipeg Jets, and Don Cherry. Editors have since shifted to showcasing football, basketball, and surfing.

Summer2012_GareJoyce

The front section is dedicated to a photo gallery of two-page spreads that encapsulate the past two weeks in sports, along with a graphic-heavy section called Pregame, prepping readers for the coming fortnight, and The Show, which details “the past two weeks in sports. In a blender.”

The back pages are similar to any sports magazine’s hectic, ADD-influenced graphs and charts, with sections called The Life and Road Trip. The magazine veers toward SI’s design concept here, as no issue is complete without a few pictures of a beautiful woman and some celebrity juice. (In March, Sportsnet went all the way by running a “30 Most Beautiful Athletes on the Planet” cover, featuring 30 sexed-up athletes with 19 bare navels. It was like Sports Illustratedswimsuit issue, string bikinis and all.) Brunt gets the final word on the last page.

In classic magazine fashion, Sportsnet‘s well is dedicated to long-form features. Each issue has a section called The Big Read, featuring longer stories. For some veterans, it’s a welcome change. “Sports journalism in this country is in the poorest shape that I have ever seen,” saysRoy MacGregor, sports writer for the Globe. He would know—he’s been a sports journalist for more than 30 years. “To me, sports writing has been a complete victory of minutia, virtually insignificant matter reported and recorded.” Adding Joyce was part of Rogers’s plan to nurture the long-form feature. MacGregor says it was a smart move. “Gare is a great writer,” he says. “He shines at the long, difficult piece.”

The long narrative looks attractive again since the game story is dead: you only need to do a quick Twitter search to see what happened during a game you missed—no more waiting around for the morning paper. “Sports is largely based on sentimentalism and heroic narcissism,” MacGregor says. “It lends itself wonderfully to storytelling.”

This may be true, but general interest magazines know it doesn’t sell. Sports stories rarely make it onto a cover, and only sometimes are given space inside a magazine. In its past 50 issues, Maclean’s has run 36 sports features. For a general interest magazine, that’s a lot, and certainly more than most Canadian magazines would even consider publishing. Still, many of these stories focused on hockey or served as a season preview for the Toronto Blue Jays, a Rogers property. There hasn’t been a single source for long-form sports content in Canada for decades. As for newspapers, as budgets shrink, the sports section is often the first to get cut. “There’s never going to be a newspaper that runs 5,000-word pieces,” says Kelly. “Maybe that’s what Sportsnet can do.”

Long features give a magazine prestige, but its greatest challenge is staying current, andSportsnet has failed at this at least once. The November 28, 2011, issue was a departure from the three previous books, highlighting the NBA instead of the NHL on the cover. The only trouble was that the magazine came out the same month that the Penn State sex scandal broke. Thanks to an inconvenient publication cycle, there wasn’t a single mention of the Jerry Sandusky contretemps in its 98 pages. It addressed the controversy two weeks later in the December 12, 2011, issue, although the cover story made it appear slightly tone deaf: “The 28 Greatest Bad Guys in Sports . . . and Why We Love Them.”

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The vision is to be the magazine for Canadian sports fans,” Maich told Sportsnet.ca. “Sounds obvious, except there is no magazine for Canadian sports fans.” Sportsnet magazine is the only general sports periodical for and by Canadians on newsstands today, but it isn’t the first. Before working for ESPN, Joyce was a writer and associate editor for the long-defunct Canadian sports magazine MVP, which launched in December 1984. It lasted only a few years. “I wouldn’t say that it was small pockets, more like holes in the pockets,” Joyce says. “It was a real aim for quality, but the outfit that owned it was a small company trying to do something on a national scale.”

MVP was published by International Sports Properties, which also published programs for Canadian Football League and Toronto Football League ticket holders. Because of this, it already had a list of 80,000 to 90,000 names and addresses, and a circulation of 100,000 to 110,000 nationally. It had quality, too—legendary Canadian sports writer Earl McRae wrote for the magazine. MVP editor-in-chief Paul Williams recalls when McRae went to Seattle to interview then-Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Bill Caudill. “Earl gets the guy to pitch to him. So he stands in the batter’s box—and recognize that this guy is throwing 100-miles-per-hour fastballs six inches from his head—Earl stood there and watched these balls go by him to get a sense of the power and the speed of this guy,” says Williams. “For him to even consider that, that was really novel.”

Good writing wasn’t enough to sustain the magazine. “We needed to get up to roughly 300,000 to 400,000 readers, to keep the attention of advertisers,” says Williams. When the magazine realized it was running out of money, it sought investers and courted major publishers, but there was no interest. “We were going to have to put a couple of million dollars into it,” Williams says. “The money just didn’t exist.”

Unlike MVPSportsnet magazine has a corporate support structure to help finance the project. As a network, Sportsnet is just a TV station. But when TV is combined with Rogers’ 590 The Fan, a website, a baseball team, two sports arenas, and a print product? That’s an empire.

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In 1994, ESPN wanted to attach a magazine to its cable network. It went up against Sports Illustrated, which had been launched four decades before. “It was being created as a viable alternative to the existing leader,” says Shelley Youngblut, a Canadian journalist hired as a features editor for the new brand extension, which launched in 1998 with the name ESPN the MagazineSI had all the clout and accolades in North American sports publishing, but it didn’t have ESPN’s extensive television and radio holdings. “The idea was, ‘What is SI not doing that we can do?'”

What SI wasn’t doing was being cross-promoted and cross-branded with television and radio divisions. “It’s very different than it was when they started. You didn’t have SI television, you didn’t have the internet, you didn’t have radio,” Youngblut says. “It was just the one medium.”

Time Inc. co-founder Henry Luce launched SI in 1954. At the time, he was advised against a weekly magazine devoted to sports. The venture was considered misguided and expensive, and sports news was thought to be trivial and not plentiful enough to warrant such frequency. By the time ESPN the Magazine launched, digital media had created new worlds of coverage for sports fans to consume.

SI has maintained its top position in relation to ESPN. It has decades of publishing experience, in spite of a rocky start, and is still considered the authority. Yet ESPN’s strength lies in quantity. If it cannot be best, it can be absolutely everywhere. The network has split into myriad niches, including ESPN U.K. for British audiences, ESPN Films for original movies, andESPN Classic (Canada) for Canadians. There’s an entire channel on ESPN dedicated to college sports. Including college softball. And lacrosse. “Talk about a multichannel approach,” saysAndris Pone of Andris and Associates Brand Naming. “Think of that movie Dodgeball, where they make fun, saying they’re broadcasting the dodgeball championships on ESPN Eighty-Ocho.”

ESPN is owned by Disney and has shares in TSN, which is operated by Bell Media. “ESPN generates a stupid amount of money,” says Youngblut. “It’s a special TV channel that everyone wants on their cable system, and so all of the cable operators have to pay ESPN a subscription fee.” Its magazine budget is of little consequence to the bottom line. Any money it makes in publishing is icing.

And perhaps some of that icing has gone into creating a sports-writing website that is held at arm’s length from the ESPN brand—a website that seems to make little money, has few advertisements on its main page, yet features some of the most famous writers in the U.S., including David Eggers and Chuck Klosterman. While other websites work their main page clicks and get advertisers to pay top dollar for a banner ad (or two, or five), Grantland is a simple website with an elegant design—a navigation bar, six top articles, pop culture bits, and maybe one or two ads per page. Tucked at the end of the bar and at the bottom of the page, in small script, is a link to parent company ESPN.com. There is no emphasis on multimedia—its videos and images are free YouTube content or feeds from sources such as Getty Images. There is no crawl that parades sports stats, just 2,000- to 3,000-word stories on how the Miami Heat are doing this season or how Michael Jordan is a terrible dresser.

The site, which launched in June 2011 and is edited by Bill SimmonsThe New York Timesbestselling author of 2009’s The Book of Basketball, is the antithesis of ESPN. “The most powerful journalist in sports right now is Simmons,” Youngblut says. “When one of the biggest brands in the world creates an entire off-brand site for their most popular guy, you know something has shifted.”

Writers at Grantland recognize how rare their autonomy is. “It’s like a boutique hotel,” says sportswriter Chris Jones, “as opposed to the big multiplex casino.” Jones lives in Port Hope, Ontario, and has also written for Esquire and, most recently, ESPN the Magazine. “It caters to a pretty specific audience, almost like an online magazine, the way the stories are deeper, more in-depth. Grantland is like the conscience. In Canada we sometimes forget that ESPN, first and foremost, is a TV network.”

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Sportsnet is not set up to be a boutique hotel; it’s more like Trump Tower. But it isn’t the only sports magazine in Canada. The Hockey News, published by Transcontinental, is a niche magazine dedicated to all things hockey and has been around for years. (Just 65 of them, but who’s counting?) Editor-in-chief Jason Kay admits he had initial concerns, but says they were allayed when he saw the product. “Sportsnet is more for the casual sports fan,” he says. The Hockey News covers one game well, while Sportsnet is set up to cover every sport, short of Little League games. Joyce doesn’t disagree. “We’re doing freestyle,” he says. “They’re doing backstroke.”

How well Sportsnet can fare against The Hockey News during the National Hockey League season is open to debate, but regardless of the incursion into its territory, Transcontinental Media publisher Caroline Andrews welcomes any new entry into the sports magazine market. “One of the challenges for a long time was being alone,” she says. “A lot of advertisers are talking about it, which gives attention to the category.”

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Sportsnet already has landed big-name advertisers. In the launch issue, a double-page spread for Jeep inside the front cover cost around $37,000, according to the magazine’s rate card. There are also one-page ads for BMW and Ford, which would be around $16,000 each, plus a banner ad whose price tag is $9,000. It’s clear that advertisers, especially car advertisers, are interested. The back cover has featured Dodge Ram, BMW, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and Ford.Still, the rates listed on the media kit are rarely the ones companies pay when they purchase ads, particularly when there are multiple platforms in play. “The rate card is just the opening of negotiation,” says Michael Neale, managing partner, investments, at the media buying agencyMediaCom. “Media agencies have a certain percentage to spend from our clients on TV, a certain percentage to spend online, and a certain percentage to spend on newspaper and magazine. That’s a media plan.” Neale says it’s likely that Rogers isn’t looking to the magazine to make money, but is hoping it benefits the overall brand. The ads, however much they actually cost, are highly targeted to the Sportsnet viewer and magazine reader. “You can see how a lot of male-oriented products appear to be in [the magazine],” says Neale. “Big trucks, razors. There isn’t a cereal ad.” Unlike purchasing an ad in a magazine and only a magazine, Sportsnet can sell ads in packages, meaning clients spend more money for more ads, but save money in the end. “We’re not talking about the 10 grand I’m putting in this magazine; we’re talking about the hundreds of thousands we’re putting in Rogers to leverage the lowest possible price.” Dodge Ram may have already bought two outside back covers, but it might have also purchased ads online, on the radio, and on TV.

Sportsnet isn’t just snaring advertisers. It has lured away Hockey News employees. A writer, a copyeditor, and even an art director, who had been with The Hockey News for 10 years, all left to work for Sportsnet. Despite these inroads, Kay is unsure whether Sportsnet magazine will succeed. “I don’t know that we’ll ever get back to a place where you’re going to have magazines filled with 5,000- or 6,000-word stories,” he says. “Sportsnet‘s trying it, bless them. They’re doing a good job, but it seems like a very ambitious project.” Rogers may be the only Canadian media company capable of sustaining such a large-scale venture.

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Gone are the days of SI‘s debut, when a publisher dedicated solely to magazines launches a new title. Now, it’s all cross-promotion, brand extension, and vertical expansion. Similar to ESPN’s play, Rogers launched a magazine to accompany its network, which is still number two to the average sports viewer. “I think of Sportsnet television as bush league,” says Pone. “The sets look like community television. It doesn’t hold a candle to TSN.”

If Sportsnet’s competitor TSN is still considered the gold standard for broadcast sports journalism in Canada, it is difficult to imagine how this fazes Rogers executives. The company can now sell multiplatform access, from instant scores to games to obnoxious sports hosts to long-form journalism. “They have that pipeline that exists into people’s homes,” says the Star‘s Kelly. “So if they say to people, ‘Give us a buck a month and we’ll send you the magazine,’ and 50,000 people take them up on that, they just have to sell the ads.” Rogers has invented a new way to scoop up fat revenues from those expensive, glossy, full-page magazine ads, while you can send McCown your question and have him scream at you in print.

Sportsnet gives readers the best of both worlds, with the pre-game and post-game content wrapped up in a designed package, with long-form stories that give context and depth to events that the reader may have only heard in passing. It’s what MVP succeeded at for a few years with a small masthead of mostly part-time employees. Quality is fine, but without capital from a multimedia giant such as Rogers, the magazine will fail. “The way Sportsnet is doing it,” Williams says, “is perhaps the only way it can be done.”

Sports magazines don’t have a great track record in Canada, yet there’s never been such a luxurious cradle. Rogers may be the first publishing outfit with enough money, experience, and skill to pull off a successful sports magazine in the Canadian market. “Sportsnet‘s in so much of a better position than MVP in terms of integration with the network. We can draw on their resources; they can advance our profile through promotion,” Joyce says. “It’ll be around in 10 years—I’m confident it’ll take me to retirement.” If it doesn’t, Joyce isn’t concerned: “I’ll go do something else.”

Photograph of Gare Joyce by Robert Stamenov. Photograph of Steve Maich by Jess Baumung.