Sports Afield Reloads as New Publisher Takes a Shot
By CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA
Publishing magnate Robert Petersen is counting on an old hunting buddy to keep Sports Afield Magazine alive.
The 115-year-old hunting and fishing title is expected to return to newsstands in December, six months after the North Hollywood-based magazine suspended publication and laid off its staff. The resurrection comes thanks to a licensing deal Petersen worked out with Ludo Wurfbain, a fellow hunting enthusiast and owner of Safari Press Inc., a Huntington Beach publisher of hunting and sports firearms books.
Wurfbain’s Field Sports Publications Inc. is licensing only the publishing rights to the magazine. Petersen will retain control of the publication’s related properties, including cable television show “Sports Afield: On Assignment” and the syndicated radio program “Sports Afield Almanac.” Financial terms of the deal, which was announced last week, were not disclosed.
Despite tough times in the magazine industry and Petersen’s failed attempt to turn Sports Afield around, Wurfbain believes he can wait out the downturn.
“A down market is an opportunity to buy, if you take a long-term view,” he said. “We wanted to structure the money such that we could sit out what is surely the most severe advertising recession in 100 years.”
Sports Afield, launched in 1887 as the “Journal for Gentlemen,” is one of the nation’s oldest magazines. Under the ownership of Hearst Corp., the publication was turned into a general interest outdoors magazine in the 1990s, a strategy that proved unsuccessful. Circulation fell below 500,000, far less than what competitors Field & Stream and Outdoor Life were drawing.
Petersen, founder of Guns & Ammo and Motor Trend, sold a majority interest in his magazine holdings to British publisher Emap PLC in 1996 and the balance two years later. He bought Sports Afield in late 1999, marking his return to publishing. Emap sold Petersen Publishing, renamed Emap USA, to Primedia Inc. last year.
Petersen moved Sports Afield to North Hollywood from New York and returned the magazine to its fishing and hunting roots, relaunching it with Ken Elliott, former vice president of the outdoor division of Petersen Publishing, at the helm. While the number of ad pages went up and circulation rose slightly, Sports Afield was hit hard by the recession and decline in ad spending.
“We were in this relaunch mode when the advertising industry fell apart,” Elliot said. “After the events of 9/11, advertising became very difficult.”
Publication temporarily ceased in June and everyone was laid off but Elliot, who stayed on to assist in the transition to a new publisher. While other media are showing some signs of recovery, magazine ad spending is expected to remain flat through the end of the year.
Under Petersen, Sports Afield was kept relatively small to attract the “rods, reels, guns and bullets” advertisers who want to reach outdoors enthusiasts but can’t afford the high rates of larger circulation magazines, Elliot said.
“If you get too big, you price yourself out of that market,” he said. “To be a special interest magazine, the advertising has to mirror the editorial.”
Wurfbain plans to take a similar tack. He said he won’t be offering bargain-basement subscriptions simply to keep circulation high. “We’re not going to be too interested in trying to sell you a three-year subscription for $2.99,” he said.
Circulation may drop down to 200,000 and ad rates could follow with roughly a 50 percent decrease, Wurfbain said. But he’s confident the magazine will draw in enough smaller advertisers to make up for the loss of national ones.
No major editorial changes are planned, although Wurfbain, who comes from a family of hunters, wants to see more “adventure” stories, “like going on a hiking trip in Alaska and maybe getting into trouble with a bear.”
He has brought on Diana Rupp, a former editor of Wildfowl and Wing & Shot, as editor in chief. The magazine will publish 10 issues a year.
“We realize that this is a hard time to run a magazine but we see this as a real opportunity,” Wurfbain said.
Publisher of close to 200 books on hunting and sports firearms, Wurfbain said he had been looking to get into magazine publishing when Petersen began talking about Sports Afield.
Asked if he expects, at least initially, to lose money on the magazine, Wurfbain said: “If it would do otherwise, I would probably fall out of my chair.”