The Rise & Fall of The National Sports Daily

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When mental_floss asked me to write about my experience with The National Sports Daily—one of the biggest swings (and subsequently one of the biggest misses) in the history of American sports journalism—I took an inventory from my days there as the Chicago Bureau Chief and later as the Detroit columnist:

"¢ I have a book signed by former Sports Illustrated writer and current NPR commentator Frank Deford, who was The National's editor and publisher (and the pied piper calling many away from comfortable newspaper jobs to join the country's first—and last—all-sports daily newspaper).

Inside the cover of his best-of collection, The World's Tallest Midget: "It was wonderful having you on this great adventure."

"¢ Copies of the January 31, 1990, debut from all three markets (New York, Chicago and Los Angeles).

"¢ A framed copy of our final edition, June 13, 1991, with the headline, "We Had A Ball; The Fat Lady Sings Our Song."

"¢ A National Sports Daily newspaper box. If the statute of limitations has expired, I'd like to say a friend with a cargo van and bolt cutters decided the night we went out of business that the newspaper boxes on various streets in Chicago should be part of our severance package.

(If the statute of limitations hasn't expired, then I bought the box at a sports memorabilia show.)

"¢ A story to tell about a $52,000 eagle.

"¢ Two stories to tell about a $3,000 trip on the company dime for a National writer to comfort a family cat in mourning.

"¢ The thought that maybe when your company's street address is "666," you're going to face serious challenges.

"¢ The urge to do it all over again.

But, as we approach the 20th anniversary of The National's launch, I'll start with the cat stories.

The Cat Story: The Tabloid Version

In the spirit of The National's motto, "Fair Play and Fun and Games for All," I'll tell it the way I first heard it and then give equal time to its protagonist, John Feinstein, the prolific author perhaps best known for writing the bestseller, Season on the Brink.

Feinstein was covering the French Open for The National in 1991. The story that circulated just after we folded was that Feinstein had flown home from the tournament with approval from Deford after one of the family cats died, then returned to Europe on the company.

The story went that Feinstein came home not because of the death of the cat per se, but because his other cat was having trouble dealing with her sister's demise.

In one recent retelling blurred by time, Feinstein hadn't flown first class. No, he'd flown the Concorde.

I've known Feinstein for years. We covered the inaugural Goodwill Games in 1986 in Moscow. He's smart. A Duke guy. Gifted. Fearless. Tireless. The money paid to the top people at The National (not me) was unseen in the newspaper business. Feinstein was one of those "gets" as a hire.

But even then, the Concorde?

The Cat Story: John Feinstein's Rebuttal

"There was no Concorde involved in The French Open story," Feinstein wrote me when I contacted him last week. "I had three cats and one of them had been sick. I'd had the cat since college. She was 16 at the time. Her sister—who had come from the same litter—was actually quite healthy.

"When my wife called and told me she had died I called Frank and asked if he minded if I fly home between The French and Wimbledon because it would actually cost LESS than if I stayed over during the two weeks (between). He said fine.

"Then when the paper folded just before I was supposed to go back to Wimbledon, the New York Post's Page Six ran an item saying that my flight home put the company over the line and out of business. The notion was kind of funny."

The high salaries, the expensive Fifth Avenue offices, the stories of National editors taking car services to and from work...well, the cat story, though not quite true, fell right in line with those and grew in legend when The National proved to have only one life (and a short one at that).

The World's Richest Latin-American

national-sports-daily-1990The National made its debut on January 31, 1990. It folded in June 1991 after losing approximately $100 million of Mexican media mogul Emilio Azcarraga Milmo's money.

Azcarraga, who died in 1997, owned 300 TV stations, 17 radio stations, numerous magazines and newspapers, three record companies, two soccer teams and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City.

Given The National's losses, an extra trans-Atlantic flight sinking the corporate ship is like blaming the Hurricane Katrina disaster on the last drop of rain.

My friend and co-worker at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dave Kindred—a Red Smith Award-winning columnist and one of the main reasons I took the National plunge—addressed the notion on Sportsjournalists.com that overspending on "talent" and expenses led to the paper's death.

"The 'wastefulness' was a symptom, not a cause. The year after we closed, Forbes did a cover story on 'The World's Richest Latin-American.' It was still our guy, Emilio Azcarraga. So money was never the issue, except in this sense: There was NO business plan at the start.

"Azcarraga's partners in Univision were screaming to stop this mad American project. So El Tigre did. Then he bought out his partners. And took the company public, doubling its value to $3.4 billion. The National was very, very good to Emilio Azcarraga. Make of that what you will."

Kindred joined as a national columnist, along with Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News and Scott Ostler, formerly of the Los Angeles Times. Kindred was also an associate editor, helping plan the editorial product. He was invited along with others to Azcarraga's yacht to meet the man behind the venture.

"On Emilio's yacht, which we were allowed to board only after removing our shoes, I asked Azcarraga why he thought the thing would succeed," Kindred told me last week. "He said, with a dramatic flourish, 'Because I am too old to fail'....so I violated one of my rules of life, which was, 'Never make a life-changing decision while drinking champagne on a billionaire's yacht.'"

He jokes because...well, because he would do it all over again.

Azcarraga was famous in Mexico for calling people into his office for reprimands and directing them to sit on a high wooden chair that left their feet dangling in an attempt to create—to quote from his obituary—a "sense of infantile helplessness."

He was domineering in a different way when it came to launching The National. Some tried to tell him to hold off, do more research, more planning. To him, it sounded like nothing more than American hesitancy.

It was often pointed out that everything Azcarraga did was on a grand scale. The National was no exception. Like the sculpture in the lobby of the Manhattan office.

national-logo
It was an eagle, a replica of the one on the masthead of The National.

Cost: $52,000.

"It had about a 10-foot wing span, and sat in the reception area," said Vince Doria, the former Boston Globe sports editor and now ESPN's Senior VP of news who was Executive Editor of The National and my immediate boss when I worked in Chicago. Vince, too, is a Red Smith Award winner.

"Of course, this wasn't a business with a lot of walk-in traffic. And since most people came up to the offices in elevators on 5th Avenue, instead of the reception area, I'm not sure how many people actually SAW the eagle. Still, it was a fine piece of work."

Azcarraga didn't blink at that cost, or the payroll either. Deford. Kindred. Doria. Lupica. The late Van McKenzie, my editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. All commanded top dollar and guaranteed contracts.

Deford once addressed the lavish spending overall by saying, "Anybody who bitches that we spent too much money here and there missed the point. The point was that we were going to go first class. It was almost more important to show that a sports paper could be first class than a regular paper. Because sports is usually looked down upon as déclassé."

Inside the Paper

The National bought top talent all right. Its editorial content, too, was unparalleled under one masthead. Terrific reading and unquestioned fun, the National was a mini-newspaper—complete with editorial page, gossip columnist, cartoonist, crossword puzzle, columnists, game coverage, humor (Norman Chad) and investigative reporting.

It took the mundane baseball box score and expanded it until it told not just the story of the game, but the story of the player's season. A Main Event featuring the best sports magazine-style writers in the country anchored the six-days-a-week publication.

Many of us joined The National not only because it had never been tried before, but we guessed it would never be done again—not with that kind of talent and financial backing.

Kindred: "I did it because it was an adventure in journalism that I didn't want to miss. While USA Today was miniaturizing the news, The National's ambition was to go big. I saw no downside, whatever happened.

"It's worth noting, by the way, that what The National did in print in 1991, ESPN.com does online today. Same stuff. We were ahead of the curve by a decade, and without a television partner to help pay the bills."

From a business standpoint, though, The National was flawed in a hundred different ways, starting with the concept.

Azcarraga and former New York Post publisher Peter Price believed that since many countries in South America and Europe had a national sports daily, one could work in the U.S., too. Since Price and Deford were classmates at Princeton, and worked on the school paper as publisher and editor respectively, Deford was the first call Price made after meeting with Azcarraga.

Deford helped bring the best in the business—writers like Kindred—even though some held great skepticism about the business model.

What wasn't allowed for—along with planning and market research—was that every big city in the country had its own teams and were sports fiefdoms unto themselves. To compete, The National would hire a local staff in every market, beginning with Chicago, L.A. and New York.

I hired someone for every Chicago beat: The Cubs, White Sox, Blackhawks, Bulls, Big Ten, and a horse racing writer who doubled as a media critic. We had spacious offices for editorial and advertising right in The Loop overlooking Michigan Ave.

I might have given some serious thought to how we were possibly going to pay that many salaries in every market and remain financially viable, all the while competing against city institutions such as The Chicago Tribune, if I didn't become distracted by more immediate issues.

Commercial Break

Here's a ten-minute promotional film The National put together to attract advertisers.

Logistical Nightmares

The technology was a disaster. We didn't have a computer hookup to New York, meaning the writers in Chicago were filing stories on a nightly basis from Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park that bypassed me entirely. I was the editor and I couldn't read the work produced by the bureau's writers.

Doria: "Given the satellite technology of the time, there was no way we were going to create as many local pages as needed, and get them out in timely fashion to the various sites. Ultimately, we couldn't get last night's news into today's paper."

It didn't matter that we had some of the best writers in the country, or that the presentation was smart and fresh. Or that the people who were buying it invested far more time reading the paper (a selling point to advertisers, obviously) than the readers of other newspapers did.

The technology and distribution were ruinous. Dow Jones was the distributor. It was a prestigious partnership for The National, but in practice it didn't come close to working. Truckers accustomed to delivering the Wall Street Journal didn't have to wait until 1 a.m. for the stock market to close. Many were not willing to wait for the late night west-coast baseball game to end.

The lesson: You can be the best-written sports newspaper ever produced. But if the late baseball score doesn't make the paper, the phone of the bureau chief isn't going to stop ringing with complaints.

Worse, Chicago readers plunking two quarters in the newspaper box on Wednesday were too often pulling out Tuesday's paper.

Suddenly, the plan to publish in the 15 biggest markets in a year's time fizzled. We were offering "the immediacy of a tabloid with the permanence of a magazine." Nice words. But what we ended up delivering was a product, good as it was, that cost 50 cents more than most newspapers and one that might contain the news of two days ago.

At its max, our circulation was 250,000. The goal was 1 million. When the price jumped a quarter, circulation dropped to 200,000.

Price left after a year. The staff members we hired in the bureaus were asked to relocate as correspondents around the country. I moved to Detroit to write a column. Transmission issues continued.

When it stormed in Detroit, for instance, we couldn't produce a paper. I never found out exactly why.

One of the most disheartening nights of all, Michael Jordan and the Bulls had finally dispatched the Pistons in the NBA playoffs after a few seasons of banging their heads against the wall. The Pistons left the court without any show of sportsmanship, as if their comeuppance had never happened.

I wrote a column that never appeared. Why?

Thunderstorms.

When the end came, the advertising sales reps in our Detroit offices told me we were only selling 2,000 papers.

I didn't know that, though, the day I called New York and told one of the editors my column idea for the next day.

"Should have it to you by 4 this afternoon," I said.

"You don't have to write for tomorrow," he said.

"Why's that?"

"Because tomorrow is our last edition."

Final Thoughts

last-national-sports-dailyWhat went wrong?

What didn't go wrong?

Kindred: "Fatal flaws were many. For reasons that still baffle me, it was done in such an all-fired hurry that there was no real business plan, no real distribution system, no tested computer system, no trial-run papers...

"They literally didn't know if the computers could produce the paper until, on the first night, they actually did. USA Today was in those planning stages for two years before it published a single paper for public consumption. From the moment of conception until death, The National lasted less time than that."

When asked why he came aboard, Feinstein says, "My motivation in going to The National was simple: Deford. I asked him for one thing: that he be my editor. I knew I had no chance to be him but wanted to get as close as I could."

Says Doria, "Bottom line, it was not a well thought-out plan. But it sure was fun, and we sure did spend some money."

Like the headline of our last issue said, we had a ball until the fat lady sang our song.

Little did some of us know, she started clearing her throat the first day we published.

A final word from Kindred on The National experience: "And yes, the '666' (address) always bothered me."

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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December 2, 2009 - 5:50pm
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