A free newspaper for Chicago sports fans is being launched this week by two publishers who may not know how much they don't know. Igor Golubchik says that Chicago Sports Weekly, despite its title, will not limit itself to Chicago sports, and in two or three years he and Vlad Veren intend to extend the brand to other cities. "If you drop the word Chicago it becomes Sports Weekly," he said, "and that's what it is. But now it's just in Chicago."
How would Sports Weekly distinguish itself from Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine? I asked him.
"Well, they're monthlies," Golubchik said.
Sports Illustrated is a weekly, I told him. ESPN is a biweekly.
"Really," he said. "I had no idea."
The competition isn't the only thing the publishers of Chicago Sports Weekly aren't necessarily on top of. This will be their first foray into English-language publishing. Veren, from Russia, and Golubchik, from Ukraine, are the president and vice president of Reklama Media Company in Chicago. The company's flagship is Reklama, a Russian-language weekly launched here in 1992. A Detroit edition was added in 1994, a Miami edition in 2003, and a Polish-language edition for Chicago in 2006. The name roughly means "advertisement" in Russian and Polish, and advertising is what Reklama is stuffed to the gills with.
Reklama also publishes Vzglyad, a Russian-language weekly in Milwaukee; Chicago Review, a Russian-language weekly oriented to business, the arts, and entertainment; and Bomond, a free Russian-language monthly with a French-derived name (loosely meaning "the good life") that Golubchik describes as a "luxury, upscale, glossy magazine" along the lines of Chicago Social. It's available nationally wherever affluent Russians congregate. "It really goes fast," Golubchik told me. "No matter how fast we increase the circulation it's never enough. They fly out." The cover promises "Modern Russian Luxury."
At least Veren and Golubchik speak English. They started up the Polish Reklama without knowing Polish. "The sports arena is new for us," Golubchik admitted. "However, we are providing more of a business backing rather than a sports strategy. We're pretty aggressive on our level, which is still a small-company level, but nevertheless we know how to make a successful product from the ground up." Golubchik promises a "very sophisticated and advanced 2.0 Web site which will attract a lot of people and will be basically as popular online as the newspaper will become off-line."
Until recently editor Chris Sprow, 27, and associate editor Mario Scalise, 25, were editing Chicago Sports Review, a monthly paper launched in 2003 by Tom Alexander, a University of Chicago graduate who ran an online sports betting site and wanted to create something nobler. "Our goal," as Alexander put it, "is to produce longer, inspired pieces that take the daily sports news and run with it." He hired Sprow to get that done. Scalise came on as an intern and stayed.
Operating on a shoestring, Sprow and Scalise consistently filled their pages with elegant reporting and essays. "We're the only people who somehow get nice things said to us by e-mail from both Rick Telander and Jay Mariotti," Sprow said. "I don't know if we're doing something right or we're just pansies who won't ruffle any feathers." He seemed pretty sure they've been doing something right.
The problem with the Review was there was never any money. Sprow and Alexander started looking around for someone who'd invest some serious capital and guarantee the paper's future. Late last year, Sprow approached Reklama Media.
When I first heard about these conversations, Veren and Golubchik and Alexander and Sprow were all working together and the Review was shifting from monthly to weekly publication because that was what Reklama wanted. But then something happened. "It completely broke down--the agreement," says Sprow. Apparently Alexander merely wanted Veren and Golubchik to invest in the Review, while they thought their money would be a lot safer if they controlled it. "There are people that can do things and people who cannot do things," Golubchik says. "We prefer to work with people who can do things, whether it's business or otherwise."
When the dust settled Alexander and his Review were out of the picture and Reklama had hired Sprow and Scalise to create a new paper highly reminiscent of the old one. "It's really a chance to do it right, and it'll be on me," says Sprow, rather grimly. "If our editorial sucks we'll be out of a job, and I'll deserve it."
Alexander, who now lives and works in Washington, D.C., wouldn't talk to me about his encounter with Reklama. But he said the Review will continue "in all of its forms"--that is, as a print product as well as a Web site. How does he plan to do this without investors? Alexander didn't say, but he told me he has "some interesting ideas about how it's going to move forward" and a new editor "in place."
"It's a weird age of sport," says Sprow. "I remember talking to [longtime Chicago baseball writer] Jerry Holtzman for an interview I was doing for a story where he was telling me there were so many things he was proud that he didn't divulge." Holtzman was remembering an era when in the eyes of sportswriters what a ballplayer did off the field was no one's business but his own. Today, everything's out there. Questions of taste and ethics apart, the profusion of sports coverage drives editors batty because a new idea's so hard to come by. "If you can even have one ounce of uniqueness every few issues," says Sprow, "you're doing something right, because the volume is so obnoxious. There's a certain drudgery to knowing everything's being written about and still looking for something different. Sometimes a story really well written--that's enough. Sometimes a story really well reported--that's enough."
Chicago Sports Weekly debuts at 40 pages--more than Sprow ever had to fill at the Review--in a press run of 10,000 copies. The first few issues will appear biweekly and then the paper will settle into a weekly schedule. Golubchik said Reklama's goals are to print 25,000 to 35,000 copies and 100 pages an issue, which means Sprow will need to come up with a lot more copy, and quick.
The big question, Sprow says, "is how much do I want to dumb down. 'Dumb' is a bad word, but how much of what I consider filler do I want to have." When he says filler, he's thinking of the first several pages of Sports Illustrated and Elliott Harris's cheesecake-driven column in the Sun-Times, stuff that he admits "people find extremely popular." He concedes grudgingly that "short-form stuff" for short attention spans is "something I'm getting more used to being open to."
But that's not where his heart is. He e-mailed me once, when he was still at the Review, "I almost demand of our writers that they have and can write about other things than sports. I think sports culture is far too saturated with great sports minds, and not enough with great minds in general. This is why I go to great lengths to find writers who are not writing about sports and give them sports topics." Stacks of the first issue ever of Chicago Sports Weekly are now appearing in Chicago's bars and sporting venues, the creation of an editor who subscribes to the school of thought that led Sports Illustrated, in its earliest days, to assign William Faulkner to cover the Kentucky Derby.
More Sports, Not Weekly
More than half a century ago Jacques Barzun wrote that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." The idea that the road to the nation's soul runs through its locker rooms has gotten a sympathetic hearing in Chicago, and not only because of Chris Sprow. Another local publication that holds to the notion is Sport Literate, launched in 1996 to provide "honest reflections on life's leisurely diversions." When this quarterly's essayists settle into it, the way a grazing steer settles into the alfalfa, Sprow's writers sound like Elliott Harrises by comparison.
But "quarterly" is too generous a term for Sport Literate, whose publication has become more and more occasional as the years have advanced. I was happy to get an e-mail the other day from editor William Meiners (he's kept a day job as a writer in the engineering school at Purdue), letting me know that "after a two-year hiatus, Sport Literate will hit the streets again this year (probably in the fall) with 'Another Issue of the Big Shoulders.' I guess we're trying to reestablish ourselves with hometown readers and writers. In fact, we're still in need of essayists."
If you're interested in aiding and abetting literature, legal in Illinois and most other states, you'll find guidelines at the magazine's Web site, sportliterate.org, where Meiners has had more success than he did on paper in sustaining a pulse.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by A. Jackson.