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School spirit pays off big-time for Landmark pubs.

Imagine a newspaper group with 1.5 million rabid readers, an 80% subscription renewal rate, and advertisers occasionally begging to get into one or more of its publications.

For the collegiate sports division of privately held Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. (LCNI), that's no fantasy. The Shelbyville, Ky.-based unit of Landmark Communications Inc. has been on a quiet acquisition spree the last 18 months, buying six fan magazines devoted exclusively to covering football and basketball at schools with national championship pedigrees.

Landmark is the only newspaper publisher in this subscriber-rich genre, said Dave Stirt, chief operating officer of the sports publication unit. -They added a lot of properties very rapidly, Stirt said, -so right now they're trying to catch their breath and see what they have on their hands here.

Landmark got into the sports-pub game in 1997 with The Cats' Pause, a fan magazine geared to University of Kentucky alumni and fans. At $47.50 for 35 issues, the publication is delivered by mail, half inside and half outside Kentucky. Circulation has grown from 17,000 to 20,000, said LCNI President Larry Coffey. It helps that Kentucky has no professional sports teams, -so the University of Kentucky is the program for Kentucky residents, he said.

Landmark hired Stirt after he sold his University of Florida fan magazine, Gator Bait. -Landmark brought me aboard to help them with expansion, so that they could purchase more of these publications, Stirt said. Following a business plan that Stirt said he had squirreled away in his desk for some time, other magazines were acquired in rapid-fire succession in 1998 and 1999.

The newsprint tabloids are Gator Talk, also focusing on University of Florida athletics; Inside Indiana, University of Indiana; Voice of the Hawkeyes, University of Iowa; Carolina Blue, University of North Carolina; and The Osceola, Florida State University. The latest acquisition was made in April 1999. Called Huskers Illustrated, covering the University of Nebraska, it is the only publication printed in magazine format and on coated stock.

Declining to give details on acquisition costs and profitability, Stirt said Landmark has -met expectations and projections for the first year. Noted Coffey: -We really try to focus on championship programs. The better the program, the better the publication will do. If your team is winning, people like to read about that.

Which draws advertisers with all types of merchandise, from posters to apparel to watches. The University of Tennessee, for example, had a -championship afghan to honor last year's national football champion, -and advertisers are coming to you, begging, fighting you so that they can sell their products in these publications, said Coffey, who noted Iowa is the only school covered that has not garnered a national championship in football or basketball.

LCNI's business plan focuses on football and basketball programs and vertical integration for production and marketing. Several magazines are printed at LCNI plants. All of the magazines have - strong working relationships with the university athletic departments, Stirt added. For example, Gator Bait has a deal with the Florida booster club, supplying 9,200 subscriptions as part of the season-ticket-holder package.

The editorial/advertising ratio is about 85%-15%, with each issue at either 32 or 36 pages. Key advertisers are marketers seeking to reach high-end male demographics. Subscribers' median income stands at $65,000 annually, officials said. LCNI's media kit proclaims 1.5 million readers around the nation, factoring in a pass-along rate, according to readership surveys, of 3.2 to 3.8.

Among advertisers are licensees of collegiate products, ESPN, the Danbury Mint (with wares including replicas of stadiums and arenas), travel agencies selling road-game packages, and the U.S. Army, Stirt said. An undisclosed amount of revenue also is generated from the group's ability to sell its own commemoratives and team memorabilia, especially when one of the seven schools gets a national championship. That was the case in 1996, when Florida won the football title, -my biggest year ever, Stirt said. -We did $750,000. Commemorative yearbooks are an integral part of the business plan. For example, between 30,000 and 40,000 yearbooks will be sold for perennial basketball power Kentucky. Cover price: $10.95.

LCNI publishes four daily, four triweekly, nine semiweekly, and 28 weekly community newspapers; 39 shoppers and free newspapers; and 11 special-interest publications. Paid circulation is 366,266. It is a division of Landmark Communications Inc., publisher of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, The Roanoke (Va.) Times, and the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record.

Cunningham is a free-lance writer based in New York.
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Comment:School spirit pays off big-time for Landmark pubs.
Author:Cunningham, Dwight
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 18, 1999
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