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ESPN: The Magazine Puts a Print Spin on Sponsored Content

Sidebars to feature advertiser's logo

Branded content has gotten plenty of attention as it's taken off online where the division between editorial and advertising real estate can be fuzzier (see: Forbes, The Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Gawker), but publishers have shied away from using similar strategies in print. Now, ESPN: The Magazine is taking a page from electronic media by letting an advertiser incorporate its logo into editorial content.

Starting with the magazine's 15th anniversary issue this week, ESPN will run an editorial sidebar bearing the words “Cold Hard Facts presented by Coors Light” at the top. The ESPN edit team will have full control over the sidebars; MillerCoors won’t have final approval or get to preview the content ahead of time, according to editor in chief Chad Millman. The partnership is set to run in select issues through the end of 2013.

Millman said he saw the partnership as a way to catch up to other media platforms that are "moving at a faster pace. Sometimes as a magazine, you feel like you’re playing with one hand tied behind your back because we’re committed to legacy rules that, from a personal perspective, I just don’t think are relevant anymore." 

While integrating a brand's logo in editorial may raise the hackles of purists, such a partnership isn't unprecedented for the sports media giant. A decade ago, ESPN partnered with MillerCoors to create sponsored SportsCenter segments called “Coors Cold Hard Facts,” in which an ESPN anchor asks a sports analyst a “six-pack” of questions. The franchise has since expanded to include “Cold Hard Facts” content on ESPN's Web and mobile platforms. “We think that the notion that a sports fan is able to discern SportsCenter content from advertiser content on-air or a homepage takeover on ESPN.com but isn’t able to do so in the magazine is just illogical,” said Eric Johnson, ESPN’s evp of multimedia sales.

Millman pointed out that the Coors partnership is a more transparent alternative to the practices by other magazines of, say, running content that’s specifically aligned with an advertiser’s needs but not labeling it as sponsored. “There’s plenty of ways in which magazines are playing hide-and-seek with readers,” he said.

As for the rest of the commemorative anniversary issue, Mag 15, as it's been dubbed, will contain a number of anniversary-related features.

There will be the requisite “Best Of” lists (the issue’s “Power of 15” sidebars count down the top 15 “Most Stylish Athletes,” “Best Interviews,” “Dumbest Things We’ve Said” and more from the magazine’s history) as well as a “2028” series about what to expect 15 years from now. “The Stars Are Aligned” takes a look at eight up-and-coming athletes, while “The Future Is Now” predicts some of the biggest advancements in sports, from injury prevention to robot referees.

“What we wanted to do with this issue was find a way to look back at what’s happened in the 15 years we’ve been around but not be entirely reflective,” said Millman. “The DNA of the magazine has always been about what’s next in sports.”

Other highlights of the issue include “Kobe Bryant: The Movie,” for which ESPN recruited screenwriters like John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Doug Ellin (Entourage) and Jackie and Jeff Schaffer (The League) to write scenes from the basketball player’s life, and “Didn’t See That Coming” about some of the most unpredictable game-changing moments in sports.

The issue will arrive in subscribers’ mailboxes beginning May 1 and hit newsstands May 3.

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