It could also do a better job of writing about people. Readers rarely come to know sports personalities as real people in
USA's pages. Rather, players tend to be accumulators of stats or earners of big salaries or recent additions to the disabled list. And because the section is always geared to its 48-hour window on current events, the athletes seldom seem to talk about their lives away from the playing field.
On balance, though, these are minor blemishes, especially when one considers the staggering amount of information Freeman and his 72-member staff supply its readers day after day. "We take a classified advertising approach to the news," Freeman says. "Most people aren't going to read us from start to finish. You're not going to read the classifieds from start to finish, but if you're looking for a house in a certain neighborhood, you're going to read that part."
would not have been possible 10 years ago, before the age of communications satellites and portable word processors. The newspaper is printed primarily on Gannett presses around the country, and its staff is connected to a number of high-tech computer data bases, including the Elias Sports Bureau, a New York stat factory.
has staffers or stringers at every major sporting event in the country. Material for the popular state-by-state "Across the USA" column and other round-ups is filed by staffers in the field as well as some 300 stringers, supplemented by the Gannett News Service, the resources of Gannett's 92 daily newspapers and the dogged working of telephones.
Freeman, 39, openly pirated some of the sports section's features. He stole the back-of-the-section calendar boxes, in which upcoming events are listed, from Miami Herald executive sports editor Paul Anger. "How They Scored" in baseball was used by local papers. But the expanded baseball standings—showing each team's batting average, ERA and record over the last 10 games—is believed to be Freeman's idea.
Once, after an umpire left a game for the birth of his child, Freeman had the sex and name of the baby included in the box score. He added the category "caught stealing" to the box scores ("Where else can you get that kind of stuff?" says Tommy Lasorda) and even put in the names of players who struck out. Says Texas Rangers general manager Tom Grieve, "I'm glad they didn't have that when I was playing: 'Struck out—Grieve, 3.' "
USA also scores with the off-the-wall facts it runs in special boxes called "The So-and-So File." Who cares what kind of pasta Joe Shlabotnik likes? But somehow, the odder the item the greater the reader response. It also caters to gamblers with extensive odds quotations and dubious advertisements that unabashedly guarantee "free winners" in what is euphemistically referred to as the paper's "Professional Sports Service Guide."
Those Harvard smarty-pants subtitled its version of
USA's "Sportsline" column "A Glossing Over of the Top Sports News of the Day." The soft-news "Sportstalk" column in the Lampoon was called "Watered-down Sports for Wimps." And the TV column carried the tag line "A Look at the Tiny Sweaty People Inside Your TV."
Yes, there's some truth to all of it. But more to the point is what Beano Cook, the ESPN football curmudgeon, says about America's fast-food newspaper: "If I'm stranded on some South Sea island, give me
, Stefanie Powers and reruns of Hawaii Five-O, and nobody would ever find me."