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ESPN The Magazine’s hopeful rebirth

Not sure how many people pay attention to this stuff, but Chad Millman was recently named the new editor of ESPN The Magazine.

To this, I say Bravo.

I’ve known Chad casually ever since we both worked at SI, and he’s the right sort of guy to hold the position. A. He’s an actual journalist who understands how to write; B. He’s respected in the profession; C. He gets how things work; D. He’s not a bully.

That said, this isn’t a gig for the soft. As most people in the business (and most people who follow sports) will tell you, ESPN The Magazine, well, bites. Like, it’s awful. There’s the old Chris Rock line, when he said of *N’SYNC, “Ten million albums sold, and I don’t know one person who bought a copy.” Same thing goes for ESPN The Magazine, which always reports big circulation numbers—yet which seems to go widely unread.

This has always been a puzzling thing, because they’ve boasted some amazing writers/reporters over the years, from Tom Friend to Tim Keown to David Fleming to Jeff Bradley. On and on. But, for some reason, the powers that be always choose to sabotage the editorial talents of their scribes by lathering the thing in sludge. Maybe, two days away from my 39th birthday, I’m no longer the target audience—but how does anyone get through an issue? The layout looks like one big, explosive advertisement for neon sports drinks. The quality stories (and, truly, there’s some brilliant stuff in there), sadly, share space with words of (non-) wisdom from Stu Scott, Chris Berman and the like (at least they used to). Worst of all, over the past few years the magazine has turned toward themes. Stupid, inane, boring themes.

According to the recent press release trumpeting Chad’s promotion, this was by design:

Gary Belsky, the magazine’s editor-in-chief for the past four years, will remain with the magazine as editor-at-large through January 2012, and will assist Millman during the transition period.

“Gary has been a tremendous steward for the magazine,” said Hoenig. “He has expertly managed the magazine’s transformation to single-topic, deep-dive editorial for each issue, and has successfully challenged the staff to continually raise the level of journalistic excellence not only in the feature well, but in every section of the book, as evidenced by our three National Magazine Award nominations in the past two years.

“As we prepare for our move to Bristol, Gary’s preference was to remain primarily in New York, which we understand and appreciate. We’re fortunate to have a wonderfully talented successor already on our roster with Chad Millman, whose unique editorial vision and unparalleled knowledge of the sporting landscape we’re confident will give us a new energy and continue to make the magazine a must-read for sports fans. We appreciate their desire to work together in making this transition as seamless as possible.”

I don’t know Gary Belsky. In fact, before last week I don’t think I’d ever heard of Gary Belsky. But if he was responsible for the single-topic focus, well, uh, eh, glub. From both sales and editorial standpoints, the idea makes no sense. You’re basically telling readers—here’s what this issue is about, and if you’re not interested in it, don’t buy the magazine. Period.

Back when ESPN The Magazine first began, Sports Illustrated’s folks were nervous. I remember the meetings vividly. How should we respond? What impact will it have? Hell, for a brief period SI even considered releasing a mag aimed toward younger readers—not children, but teens and guys in their early 20s. The belief was that ESPN The Mag would be coming after SI with a vengeance. In hindsight, it’s pretty laughable. Truth be told, the magazine never really emerged from the gate. It exists, in the same way the 700 Club exists. People know it’s out there, on TV. But does anyone, save for the diehards, care? No.

That said, I’m happy for Chad. He’s got big skills. And, if people follow his lead, I’m willing to bet the magazine can still be great.

Even in Bristol.