Chapter One

By Dan Friedell

Capstone Thesis

14 June, 2005

By now, there’s no mystery as to why The National Sports Daily folded. In fact, Peter Price, who published the New York Post before moving on to The National, famously told Emilio Azacarraga, the Mexican billionaire who financed the venture, why it would never make it, almost a year before the first employee was hired. Azacarraga pushed on despite his warnings, which makes one think, 15 years later, that the paper may have been destined to fail. If you agree with that thinking, you might agree that it was folly to start the presses late that night on Jan. 30, 1990. But if you agree with that thinking, you probably don’t care that in 16 months, the newspaper took American sports journalism to a different level. One sports editor at a major American newspaper said he often looks back on his personal archive of The National for ideas on how to cover sports today. While the business backbone of the newspaper may have failed, it’s impossible to suggest that, as the athletes say, the editorial staff “left anything out on the field.”

CSI: 5th Avenue

The 14 years since America’s first and only modern all-sports daily newspaper closed its doors have allowed for a thorough post-mortem and dulled some of the pain of the failure, but under the surface, everyone involved in the venture still is passionate about their work and still feels the pain of The National’s loss. The emotion came through in the way Frank Deford, the paper’s editor, spoke about telling his staff that Azcarraga was pulling the plug.

“I can remember standing up on a desk in the newsroom, and telling people that we had folded, and I never had to do anything like that before,” Deford said. “Then having to face newspapers and television…it’s not easy to say: ‘we failed.’ I remember sitting out back reading the Sunday (New York) Times two or three days later – and the editorial page had a tribute to us that just about made me cry.”

The feeling came through in way Tim Guidera, then a statistics editor at The National, and now a columnist at the Savannah (Ga.) Morning News, so tenderly wrote about the newspaper a few years ago. He started his column by writing:

She would have been 12 now. And there still isn’t a day that somebody somewhere doesn’t wonder what she would have been like today, whether she would have fulfilled the beauty we all saw in her if we hadn’t lost her 10 years ago.

If that sounds sad, it is, although not as sad as another kind of story that might start that way. Here the “we” is only sports fans, not family. The “she” is only an entity — not a someone, but still a something you can love.”

I was 15 in 1991 when I picked up my first copy of The National to check on the status of the players on my first rotisserie baseball team, and a few weeks later, the paper went out of business. So it didn’t make a big impact on me, but like a 1991 curveball from Bruce Hurst, the dynamic story did lure just about everyone who covered sports or the media into taking a swing at explaining why the newspaper folded. The Associated Press said it was a combination of a too-high cover price (when faced with a growing deficit, the cover price was raised a quarter to 75-cents in early 1991) and a fragile distribution network; the Wall Street Journal proposed that the paper’s failing, ironically, was that it only covered sports, alienating a huge number of potential readers; Media Week wrote that illiteracy was on the rise in 1990, which doomed a too-erudite publication, and the Washington Journalism Review (now known as the American Journalism Review) noted that a post-Reagan (and what we now know to be a pre-Internet boom) lull in advertising spending prevented the paper from treading water long enough to work out its kinks. The sad thing about it, for fans of good journalism (and not just sports journalism), is that all of those theories, except maybe for the Wall Street Journal’s jab, were on target. So why did the newspaper even open the doors of its pricey office on Fifth Ave. and 52nd St. in New York? Because Azcarraga wanted to give an American all-sports daily newspaper a shot. Coming on the heels of the USA Today’s expensive launch, (most say the Gannett endeavor lost $500 million in its first eight years) both Price and Deford warned Azcarraga that the paper might lose upwards of $100-million before it started to reverse the trend. They also pleaded with Azcarraga for more time to refine an industry-first paperless production system and a quirky delivery network, but as Price said, Azcarraga wanted the paper up and running “yesterday.” Risking ten percent of your net worth might seem reckless to a person with $40,000 in savings, but it didn’t seem so daunting to a man with a history of success who had built his $1-billion plus wealth by taking chances with money. With the backing of one of the richest Mexicans, The National was a newspaper that was taking on some of America’s most storied journalism institutions on their turf, and doing it by flashing big money in an industry that’s notoriously fearful of spending. Whether The National was going to succeed or fail, it was clear that it would do it brilliantly, and that attracted a lot of attention.

“Anybody who bitches that we spent too much money here and there missed the point,” Deford said. “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.”

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