In the latest issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Scaachi Koul takes a look at Sportsnet magazine, its corporate branding, and why parent company Rogers is willing to lose millions on its newest baby.

By Scaachi Koul for The Ryerson Review of Journalism

Before I started my feature on Sportsnet magazine, I knew nothing about sports. I knew that there were sometimes balls or pucks involved, and often some running or skating or punching and that if you go to a crowded bar during the playoffs, you will not get a seat.

Sportsnet didn't want to talk. Rogers didn't want to talk. Writers from competing magazines were similarly unwilling to hypothesize on the future of the magazine. I emailed my editor, explaining that I was being stonewalled, and that months into my research, I didn't think it was a story I could pull off.

His answer was as succinct and accurate as an answer can get: "Seems bleak, doesn't it?"

A few Sportsnet masthead members did eventually talk, and I got to learn about sports writing first-hand from some of the most prolific sports columnists and reporters in the industry.

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But I'm still waiting for someone to explain football to me. — S.K.

 

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"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 aboutalcohol and magazines about pets. There's even a magazine dedicated to cowboys. ButSportsnet 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.

To read the rest of this feature, head over to The Review's website, where it can be found in full.