Before LeBron James became an National Basketball Assn. phenomenon and started gracing the covers of Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, before he was dubbed "King James" by Time, he appeared as a lanky teenager on the cover of SchoolSports magazine in the summer of 2002. The headline: "Air Apparent: Believe the Hype, LeBron James is Basketball's Next Great Star." The story billed James as the next Michael Jordan and gave an early peek into a high school senior on his way to inking a $90 million deal with Nike (NKE).
If you've never heard of SchoolSports, it's probably because you're not in high school and don't have a teenage child. The magazine is considered one of the industry's most notable -- and unlikely -- success stories in recent years. It's read by 650,000 kids with a passion for sports in some 4,000 high schools nationwide.
As the attention of the professional sports world has increasingly shifted to school playgrounds in search of the next big star, SchoolSports has succeeded with its knack for spotting and featuring talented high school athletes before they hit the pro ranks.
HUNGRY FOR COVERAGE. LeBron wasn't SchoolSports' only discovery. Past cover subjects include Allyson Felix before she won her silver medal in the 200-meter sprint at the 2004 Athens Olympics; Amare Stoudemire, Sebastian Telfair, and Dwight Howard, all recent NBA draft picks; and Delmon Young, the No.1 selection in the 2003 Major League Baseball draft.
Of course, SchoolSports wasn't always this big. Convinced he had identified an audience hungry for coverage and underserved by any mainstream publication, then 27-year-old Jon Segal launched a scrappy, tabloid-style monthly in Boston during the 1997 school year. Printed on newsprint, with only the cover in color, the magazine struck a chord with local readers, and Segal persuaded friends and family to invest (see BW Online, 5/31/05, "Catching Newsstand Fever").
He had discovered the niche while covering high school sports for regional newspapers in the Northeast such as The Cambridge Chronicle, The Medford Citizen, and The New Haven Register. He wrote stories about high school athletes and rivalries, occasionally profiling a hometown hero who overcame disabilities to rise in a sport.
UNDERSERVED NICHE. The audience consisted primarily of students and parents, who loved the coverage, but the newspapers didn't have enough column inches for all the stories he wanted to write. "People would come to me in droves and ask me to write more, but sports pages of newspapers only have so much space," Segal says. "I knew in my gut that the coverage was a lot less than what people craved."
And identifying a need, experts say, is fundamental. "If you want to start a magazine and survive, find a niche that no one is serving," says Samir Husni, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi and a magazine-industry watcher.
By creating a magazine widely read by high school seniors, Segal stumbled upon his second selling point: His audience was one of the most-elusive, highly sought demographics, the kind advertisers dream of. Research shows that teens have more spending power today than ever before. Yet they're harder and harder to reach.
NO TIME FOR TV? "Kids today fill their days with numerous activities, from sports to video games to Net surfing. The days when teenagers watch three hours of TV a night are dwindling," says Brian Povinelli, vice-president for integrated marketing at Reebok (RBK).
For most U.S. magazines, even those with paid subscriptions, advertising is the key to survival and success. For SchoolSports, which is free, getting advertising dollars was that much more imperative (see BW Online, 5/31/05, "Will Women Think Pink?"). The publication's ability to deliver young male readers has lured advertisers in droves, including Nike, Reebok, Gillette (G), and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation.
"Kids love to read about their peers, and SchoolSports fits in perfectly with our marketing strategy of fusing sports and lifestyle," says Reebok's Povinelli, who has placed several ads in the magazine.
THINK LOCALLY. A key attraction for the young readers is that the magazine devotes its covers to local sports. After succeeding in Boston, the publication expanded to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in 2000. The same year, it changed to a glossy format and went national, with the addition of seven more markets.
Today, SchoolSports has 15 editions, all featuring separate high school athletes ranging from Boston and New York to Los Angeles and Seattle. "high school sport is a local phenomenon, and we emphasize local stories along with our national pieces," Segal says. SchoolSports' cover and lead stories are always local, but it also features a national section.
Adam LaDuca, a senior at Allentown Central Catholic School in Pennsylvania, started writing for the Philadelphia edition in September, 2004, after being a loyal reader for two years. One of his recent stories was about Courtney Molinaro, a high school senior basketball player who has notched more than 1,000 points in her career while helping her school win three straight state championships.
BYPASSING COLLEGE. "The magazine gives me the opportunity to feature exceptional athletes who don't make headlines in local newspapers," says LaDuca, one of the magazine's hundreds of high school freelancers.
The number of high school athletes who opt to bypass college has increased over the years. Before 1995 only three players in NBA history had come straight from high school. Since then there have been close to 40, and the league is considering an age minimum. However, sports like baseball have long fielded young talent from high schools.
SchoolSports has a unique distribution model. Rather than sending the issues to newsstands via big national distributors –- a process that often spells trouble for independents –- Segal decided early on to distribute them directly to high schools. So common industry concerns over how and where the magazine is displayed were eliminated.
BREAKING EVEN. At Central Catholic, LaDuca says, issues are snatched up within two days. Despite its continued success, SchoolSports has no plans to compete with the likes of Sports Illustrated on newsstands.
But bootstrapping and keeping costs down in the early stages ultimately helped the publication hit it out of the park. While it's not a model that can be emulated by all magazines, starting regional is a lot cheaper than going for an immediate national rollout.
Segal begain with only $15,000 for the first issue, which was distributed in schools around Boston. After selling an ad to footwear and apparel giant Timberland (TBL), he managed to persuade small local retailers to fork over money for displays and raked in enough to break even on the first issue. It helped that Segal didn't pay himself a salary, lived with his parents, and used free office space from his uncle.
EXPANSION PLANS. Still, as Philip Drumheller, who runs print outfit Lane Press, points out: "Besides the passion, timing has to be right for a magazine to be successful." Drumheller knows a thing or two about startup publications. His Burlington (Vt.) printing facilities spew out more than 300 regional and college titles a year.
It took Jon Segal just under two years before he turned a slight profit, which helped him hire a couple of recent college graduates, one as an editor and one for ad sales. Once the magazine had crossed the two-year mark, and it became clear that advertisers saw an opportunity in its audience, Segal went outside and got funding from investors. He also hired veterans from the publishing, marketing, and advertising industries.
Segal plans to add 10 editions starting in January, 2006, for a total of 25. SchoolSports now has 17 full-time staffers, split between the editorial and business, along with hundreds of freelancers -- mostly high school students writing about their local teams.
And with more editions come more covers to identify -- well, the next LeBron James. Talent scouts everywhere, are you paying attention?