USA's eight pages five days a week are more than any other newspaper sports section can offer. "As a sports editor you drool over their space," says Joe Gilmartin of The Phoenix Gazette.
?The agate section is a daily almanac of sports around the country. Dave Smith of the Dallas Morning News was the first sports editor to run endless columns of stats, but
whetted the public appetite for even more.
?With the exception of the sports section's daily "Cover Story," the
articles are either short, shorter or shortest. There's a guideline at
that no lead paragraph should contain more than 25 words. And the importance of a particular item is not necessarily related to its length.
Sports almost never ventures an opinion, and thus the section has little personality. Furthermore, any comments that are made by, say, Rudy Martzke in his industry-influential TV column (page 48) or Tom Weir in his general column should be limited to events of the last 24 hours or next 24.
Since its inception,
has picked up 4.7 million readers, rising to first place among the nation's daily newspapers, 700,000 ahead of The Wall Street
Journal. USA ranks second in the more important category of paid circulation, behind the Journal. Clearly, some of those millions of
readers are sports junkies. "I love it, but maybe I'm weird. Maybe I like to read the telephone book," says Kathy Slattery, sports information director at Dartmouth.
Could the paper survive without sports? Never. Though some of its readers buy
solely for sports, it's clear that the sports section serves as a kind of hors d'oeuvre for the other sections. Says Henry Freeman,
USA's managing editor for sports, "It's an immediate hook to get people into the paper. It is to the paper what the sun is to Miami."
The flagship paper of the Gannett chain, which is based in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac from Washington, may have plenty of readers, but as yet it has no profits. According to a story that appeared in
U.S. News & World Report earlier this year,
is losing $285,000 a day, a remarkable amount of money for a five-day-a-week paper. And USA isn't expected to turn the corner until late next year at the earliest, barring any serious downturn in the economy. The twin problems are that
carries relatively few ads—newspaper advertising is largely targeted at local consumers—and at 50� a pop it is the ultimate hand-me-down paper. Airlines and hotels buy
by the truckload to give away. Half of America then sits around hotel lobbies or airport lounges reading Rudy Martzke TV tidbits for free.
The chummy aim of
USA's sports page is to be your paper—a kind of daily
without any crusading spirit or literary pretension.
definitely does not want to be the kind of paper that will punch the high-and-mighty in the nose. And the paper has a rule against stories quoting unnamed sources. That policy has cost the newspaper a few scoops (
Sports certainly hasn't made a habit of breaking major news stories, although it does reveal interesting stats like players' and coaches' salaries), but it has scored points among athletes and Pollyanna readers.
Steelers placekicker Gary Anderson, for one, likes the even, predictable tenor of
stories. "They don't assess blame or create goats, which we as athletes certainly like." Says Bill Little, the University of Texas's sports information director, "They don't get into a lot of muck like many local journalists who are always trying to find out what's bad."
Sports has filled a void by concentrating strictly on reporting the bare facts. A lot of sports sections have gotten away from those basics in the last 20 years, running long sociological stories at the expense of stats, game summaries and other essentials. Too many sportswriters wanted to be Hemingway and didn't report what the score was until the middle of the sixth paragraph. Meat-and-potatoes fans felt shortchanged, and when
was launched, they flocked to it.