Despite magazine industry downturn, NFL, college football and fantasy football previews are thriving

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

Preseason football magazines lined the entire bottom row of a shelf at a local bookstore, more than 20 preview publications stacked four to five magazines deep. All aspects of the football landscape were covered: college to pro to fantasy to handicapping. A wide range of cover subjects were used to give many of the magazines regional appeal, with Washington Redskins quarterback Donovan McNabb gracing the front of NFL previews and Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams and quarterback Tyrod Taylor featured on the front of college previews in the Washington region.

Even with such intense competition -- both from rival magazines and from online sources that give away the same information for free -- and declining economic prospects for the magazine industry, these football previews continue to proliferate for a simple reason:

"The addiction and the commitment of the audience who cannot get enough," said Samir Husni, the director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism. "It's exactly like gambling. Once you get addicted to it, you want more and more and more. The same thing is happening with those magazines."

Magazines in general posted gains in both total pages and advertising revenue during the second quarter of 2010 -- the first time in nine quarters that has happened -- but more than three dozen titles folded in 2008 and 2009. According to the Publishers Information Bureau, an organization that monitors publications' advertising revenue, magazines lost 58,340 pages of advertising in 2009.

Fantasy Football Index saw its circulation drop nearly 9 percent last season and nearly 24 percent from 2007, according to BPA Worldwide, a third-party auditor that keeps track of circulation figures. Lindy's national college football preview experienced more than a 20 percent drop in circulation from 2008 to 2009, although circulation of its NFL preview increased nearly 10 percent during the same period, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which also tracks magazine data.

The Sporting News yearbooks remain profitable, publisher Mike Kallay said, with "fairly constant" circulation during the past three years. College football analyst Phil Steele said his preview magazine's circulation has increased 100,000 in a few years. Last season, Marc Lawrence's handicapping magazine had its largest sell-through rate (the number of magazines sold compared with the number distributed to retailers) in 24 years of printing, although that was in part because fewer copies were printed.

Lindy Davis, the publisher of Lindy's, said the financial success of preseason magazines could be attributed to their high sales price and the fact that they're printed only once a year. The magazines are more expensive than weekly or monthly magazines, usually more than $5 and, in some cases, nearing $10.

"A lot of magazines have been giving their product away for years to get the ad dollars," Davis said. "Twelve issues for twelve bucks, and we're charging eight bucks for one. So we're charging top dollar, that's one thing. And there's just an incredible passion for sports in America. Good economy, bad economy, it doesn't affect it. And sports can sometimes be a refuge in bad times."

The interest is such that some publishers print specific magazines for different regions, such as conference previews for college football. Although the NFL preview is the Lindy's best seller, Davis said the Southeastern Conference football preview performs the best per capita.

Representatives from multiple preseason magazines said part of their success is their lasting appeal, that fans keep the magazines for core information throughout the season. Steele gears his publication toward the avid fan -- and even media members -- trending away from the glossy photos and graphics and packing as much information as possible onto a page, with details such as a three-deep depth chart and players' backgrounds.

With the magazines going on sale early in June, deadlines for the content are set for early spring. "The bane of our existence," Kallay said of the deadlines. Steele waits until spring football concludes before finishing his college publication, which helps in accumulating content but hurts in reaching newsstands before competitors.

In some cases, information becomes outdated by the season opener. If a college player is suspended or injured, or an NFL team makes a late signing or a surprising cut, predictions and projections become useless. And with much of the same information available at no cost on the Internet, preseason magazines could potentially suffer. The publishers' responses were similar: The total accumulation of information in one package offsets that disadvantage and allows readers to have an easy-to-find overview of all the teams.

The most competition exists with fantasy football. Because of boutique publishers, major industry names such as Sporting News, Athlon and Lindy's face heavy competition. Steele, who also has begun to cover the NFL, recently sent his assistants to a bookstore to appraise the competition, and they returned with a stack of nearly 15 fantasy football magazines. Kallay said the Sporting News fantasy football preview has been more popular than the college football yearbook.

"It really is incredible how many magazines are out there," Davis said of fantasy previews. "I don't know how any of us make money because there's so many."

One of the reasons the market remains saturated is that magazine representatives independently admitted that some consumers purchase more than one magazine. The time of year helps, too, because readers take vacations and need material for the beach or the airplane during a slow period on the sports calendar.

But most of the magazine publishers are also trying to maintain competitive Web sites and digital options, understanding the economic challenges and technological advancements. Yet Kallay said the sports annuals have been part of the publishing landscape for 70 years, and they've now become a "rite of late spring or early summer" despite more information options than ever before.

"It has nothing to do with the platform," Husni said. "It's more of the addiction that people want this thing in their hand. They're getting ready for the season."

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