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The Sporting News plans baseball de-emphasis

By Clark Bell
December, 1981

CHICAGO--The St. Louis-based Sporting News, known for decades as the "Bible of Baseball," is developing into a more diverse publication featuring coverage of such sports as tennis, boxing and football.

For instance, 1982 plans call for baseball to receive about 30 percent of the annual editorial space, down from 50 percent in 1978.

Architect of the expansion plan is Richard Waters, the former No. 2 man at Reader's Digest who last March was hired as TSN's president and chief executive officer.

"We want to give Sports Illustrated a run for their money as America's sports weekly," he said.

Waters, who had been out of publishing for three years, came to St. Louis full of fire. He immediately announced his goal of building the tabloid's circulation to one million by its 100th anniversary in 1986. That's quite a challenge since TSN carries a rate base of 425,000, although the circulation guarantee will jump to 500,000 in March.

"One million is an appropriate target," Waters said. "We're running radio and television subscription solicitation commercials and our editorial product has shown steady improvement. We're not as flashy as Sports Illustrated, but our nuts-and-bolts sports coverage is the best."

In addition to its broader-based coverage, TSN recently hired veteran Chicago sports writer Dave Nightingale as its first national correspondent. Two other investigative writers will be added to the TSN stable, Waters said.

"We intend to take stronger stands on issues like ticket prices, player contracts and violence in sports," Waters said. "We'll represent the fans' point of view."

The changes actually began in 1977 when Times Mirror Co. purchased TSN from the Spink family for $18 million. In fact, Waters is the first non-Spink to run TSN, although C.C. Johnson Spink remains in the mostly ceremonial position of chairman of the board. He's due to retire in January.

The Spink family is an integral part of baseball's colorful history and TSN is a slice of American pie. Its editorial crusades probably saved one baseball league (the American) and doomed another (the Federal). When the publication floundered during World War I, Taylor Spink convinced American League officials to buy and distribute 150,000 TSN copies to our sports-starved troops. Last year, the U.S. hostages in Iran learned of the Shah's death after one prisoner read a matter-of-fact reference in an TSN story.

As Inside Sports said in a profile of TSN: "for over 95 years, baseball fans have pored over the prose, studied the statistics and memorized the minutiae. It's the 'Gospel according to St. Spink.' "

But rich history does not fill the coffers of corporations such as Times Mirror. As televised sports coverage increased, the number of baseball statistics junkies began to decline. TSN's circulation had fallen to 275,000 at the time of the Times Mirror acquisition.

Enter Waters, 55, who earned quite a reputation as a dollars-and-sense man at Reader's Digest. He left RD as executive vice president and chief financial officer when he was bypassed for the top job.

His feelings bruised, Waters split for a three-year stint as associate dean of the Havard Business School. His non-teaching position focused on fund-raising and convincing corporations to share information for the school's famous case-study program.

"I even led a faculty group tour to China," he said. "It was the school's first research on a socialist economy and we returned with case-study information from four manufacturing plants."

In January, a headhunter approached Waters about the TSN job. He accepted, even though Midwest living never appealed to the Massachusetts native.

"I was swayed by my respect for Times Mirror and Johnson Spink," he said. "And I've come to grow fond of St. Louis."

From an advertising standpoint, Waters says that by covering sports such as auto racing, "we have the potential of adding new advertising categories." Next year, TSN will launch an advertising insert program, and by 1983 regional buys may be available. Waters also intends to upgrade the paper stock and may trim the paper's vertical size by an inch.

"TSN's biggest battle is fighting its image as a blue-collar publication.

"We have solid demographics," he said. "Nearly 96 percent of our readership is male, the median age is 33, 62 percent graduated or attended college and the median household income ($29,000) is higher than Sports Illustrated."

This year's ad sales were running ahead of 1980, until the baseball strike slowed momentum. Through mid-September, ad revenues were up 10 percent to $2.5 million, though ad pages were down 49 to 392.

By the centennial anniversary, however, Waters is confident TSN will compete with magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Playboy for liquor, cigarette, toiletry and sporting goods advertising.

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