Paul Allen’s Fantasy Publishing

As you may have heard, The Sporting News is officially for sale. In case you’ve never seen it — and I never have on newsstands, at least not in New York — it’s the doyenne of America’s sports magazines, having begun life in 1886 as the chronicler of baseball box score minutiae. Fast-forward to 2000, when the accidental Microsoft zillionaire Paul Allen bought the St. Louis-based magazine for $100 million as part of a slightly misguided effort to build an Internet play around the title. That didn’t work, so now it’s on the block, and industry wags are insisting Allen will take a bath on his investment, recouping maybe 40 cents on the dollar for a multimedia fiefdom that now includes talk radio stations, a sprawling Website, and the flagship, whose circulation of 715,000 is a little more than a third of ESPN The Magazine’s and a little less than a fifth of Sports Illustrated’s. Oh, and it’s never been profitable under Allen, either.

But there’s more to the magazine than the snapshot above, something that the usual suspects (industry analysts) are missing. The Sporting News was famous for its obssessive statistical detail, a trait shared by one of the most rabid breeds of sports fans: fantasy sports nuts. I don’t read The Sporting News, but I do pay $20 a year for up-to-the-minute intel on the health and performance of individual athletes in baseball and football, and last night I found myself at Barnes & Noble paying $7.99 for its Fantasy Baseball preview. While I don’t spend additional hundreds of dollars to actually compete in the magazine’s online fantasy leagues (there’s Yahoo! for that), but The Sporting News has already succeeded in separating me from more money than any of my regular magazine subscriptions. And I’m not alone — according to the circulation figures released yesterday, the magazine sold more than 120,000 copies each of its Fantasy Football, College Football, NFL Draft and other newsstand-only, high cover price special issues. Clearly, there’s a market of stats nuts to be catered to, as proven by the fact that only half of the company’s $60 million in revenues is actually derived from the magazine at this point.

“He could get $35 million to $40 million, tops, if someone was willing to bet they could make a big Internet play with it and make the fantasy league outlet on the Internet or something,” one banker told the New York Post’s Keith Kelly. I’d bet on the “something.”