National's road here wasn't without bumps


THE NATIONAL, a thoroughbred sports newspaper having trouble living up to its bloodlines, debuts today in Baltimore and Washington.

Baltimore native Frank Deford, former Sports Illustrated writer and The National's editor-in-chief, will deliver a handsome tabloid loaded with box scores, statistics, sports news nuggets, and columns by some of the best sportswriters in the country.

The questions are: Who wants The National? Does anyone need The National?

"The National has some wonderful box scores and fine columnists," said Bill Dwyre, sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. "But they promised great beat writers, great quantity and great quality. We haven't seen that. I thought The National would knock me off my chair. I expected them to reinvent the sports page. Instead, they reinvented the hockey box score."

Deford, of course, disagrees with Dwyre.

"We are a national newspaper. The Sun, The Evening Sun, The Washington Post can't give you what we give," he said in a telephone interview. "The National is to sports what The Wall Street Journal is to business. You can have a terrific business section in your city's newspaper but you can't have a full, specialized, national business section. It's the same with sports."

The National routinely offers intricate and telling box scores and reliable sports gossip. The long articles -- like recent profiles of Chicago Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and Miami Heat center Rony Seikaly -- are very well done.

But is The National's chemistry enough to attract readers five days a week at the cost of 50 cents an issue?

The combined market of Baltimore and Washington is the 10th for The National since the sports newspaper was introduced, at a reported cost of $25 million, in January in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

The National is backed by Emilio Azcarraga, a wealthy media mogul from Mexico who specializes in Spanish-language television programming. His staff has said he is willing to spend $100 million on his American sports newspaper and wait five years to turn a profit.

With offers of hefty salaries and national exposure, Deford lured columnists like Dave Kindred, Mike Lupica and Scott Ostler away from newspapers in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles to The National. He hired solid sports reporters like Peter Pascarelli, Al Morganti and Peter Richmond for his 125-person editorial staff.

L In spite of all the talent, The National hasn't caught fire.

And, what may be worse, The National arrived in newspaper boxes and on newsstands in a year when the bottom seemed to fall out of the advertising and newspaper markets.

Without an official audit, it is difficult to know how many copies are sold in each city. Dwyre says The National has had no impact on his sports pages in Los Angeles.

James Warren, a media reporter for the Chicago Tribune who calls himself a fan of The National, says the sports newspaper has had no impact in Chicago either.

"You don't hear people talking about it," Warren said. "Most sports editors don't even read it. It's not required reading even for people whose business is sports. The quality of sports pages in Chicago or Baltimore is not woeful. They do a good job. Maybe The National has picked the wrong markets. They shouldn't be in big cities with big-city sports pages."

Deford counters the doomsayers. He says The National's current circulation of "about 225,000" is on target for the first year. Although the tabloid appears to have only about four pages of ads a week, he says ad sales also are about what was projected.

"This is not a good time to go into any new business," he said. "We weren't any smarter than anyone else about 1990. But we had modest projections for our first year. This may sound like a rationalization but I would rather have a bad economic climate in our first year than hit a bad year after we've hit our stride."

However, four top executives of The National, including president and publisher Peter O. Price, were either fired or reassigned last month. Azcarraga sent Jaime Davila from Mexican television to run The National's day-to-day operations.

The National has dropped its Sunday edition and laid off some staff members.

"We've had some growing pains. That was to be expected," Deford said. "We couldn't sell papers on Sunday because distribution was so difficult. The changes have strengthened the staff and they are not earth-shattering."

The National also has abandoned the plan to cover local sports heavily in its chosen markets.

"Why should we give you a local product when we can't be as good as the local newspaper?" Deford said.

"We give the reader a national newspaper. Three or four times a week, we have magazine-length articles. No daily newspaper does that. We have three or four of the finest columnists in the country. We have 19 bureaus, more than any newspaper in the country. We give everyone who reads the newspaper something special each day -- whether that's the hockey fan looking at our box scores or someone who likes feisty tabloid columnists."

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