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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sport Express Races to Head of Media Pack

In Russia, sitting around the table with a bottle of liquor is a traditional prelude to action. Coups have been plotted, romances started and business ideas charted in the company of friends and generous amounts of alcohol.


So it was in May 1991, when three veteran writers of Sovietski Sport vented their spleen over what they perceived as a dictatorial managing editor and skewed reporting. Between sips of cognac, the journalists plotted a revolt.


A month later, 12 top editors and writers handed in their resignations en masse to Sovietski Sport, the then-daily sports newspaper of the Soviet Union. That same week, with a financial boost from France's sports daily, L'Equipe, Sport Express was registered as a daily sports paper.


Says Sport Express managing editor Vladimir Kuchmi, one of the co-conspirators, "We dreamed for a long time of making a newspaper that the people had been waiting for -- informative, up-to-date, with last-minute information and exclusive interviews."


In just over four years, Sport Express has become the sports paper of record in Russia. The newspaper's popularity is attributable to no-nonsense reporting, international coverage and a wealth of statistics for the sports-minded reader.


This is despite the fact that Sport Express is one of the costliest dailies in town. A six-month subscription costs over half a million rubles (more than $100), over twice the cost of such popular news dailies as MK or Pravda.


Circulation has climbed from an initial run of 20,000 to about 850,000 at the end of 1995, making Sport Express the fastest growing newspaper in Russia. At a time when few Russian newspapers are self-sufficient, Sport Express is growing -- both in subscriber base and advertising revenues. Regular advertisers include Gillette, Philip Morris, Castrol Oil and major Russian companies, some of whom reportedly pay up to $24,000 for a full-page advertisement.


In Sport Express' sleek, new offices on Ulitsa Krasina in central Moscow, an air of accomplishment permeates the work place. In corner offices, color televisions beckon with nonstop Eurosport programming. For employees, there is a bar, cafeteria, travel agency and on-call medical personnel on the premises.


The holdovers from Soviet days are most evident in the editorial room where beat writers, disheveled like unmade beds, tap out stories on manual typewriters, breaking every few minutes to lean back and take drags on ash-long cigarettes dangling from their lips. But the editorial product is decidedly un-Soviet. Gone is the propaganda-laden prose of Sovietski Sport. No more "us vs. them" verbiage, nor articles on morning calisthenics or the problems of children's sports schools. Instead, a stable of writers across the former Soviet Union offers straight-up coverage of local and international sporting events and interviews with sports personalities.


The interviews are conducted in an atmosphere of congeniality, as if reporter and athlete were sitting at the kitchen table sipping tea. But the level of familiarity seems to discourage hardball questions. In eschewing the droning, over-politicized style of Sovietski Sport, Sport Express may have been scared "too straight." The paper can read like a public relations pamphlet for professional athletes. To the Western reader raised on "Monday morning quarterbacking," Sport Express lacks a voice. There are no columnists, scant postgame analysis and little investigative reporting. The paper retains a reluctance to walk on toes or disturb the powers that be, whether head coaches, sports organizations or the government.


Last fall, when Russia's most celebrated basketball player, Sergei Bazarevich, was cut from the national team, the newspaper avoided the touchy subject of a personality clash, printing only a short interview with the national team coach. Says Lev Tigai, a basketball beat writer at the paper, "Our goal is to give information -- who said what. If we start to uncover this [story], Bazarevich will never play again on the national team. If we had tough competition, we might have to reconsider this approach."


But the competition is deathly ill. Crippled by a cash shortage, Sovietski Sport comes out just two times a week. From a high of 5 million in the late 1980s, circulation is down to 243,000, and the paper is renting out space to foreign companies to generate revenue.


Not that all is rosy with Sport Express. Actually, from a financial point of view, there is much that is unclear. Like many successful businesses in Russia today, there is a subterranean level of smoke and mirrors that would make even the best Cold War spy nod his head in admiration. Payoffs, the mafia, muggings -- Sport Express is not immune. And this is making its French partner L'Equipe nervous. A majority shareholder since 1991 when it purchased 51 percent of Sport Express stock for several hundred thousand dollars, L'Equipe has yet to receive any payback in profit-sharing or dividends.


"They say they have no money, but they sell 800,000 newspapers a day. Where is the money?" said Jean Francois Renault, editor in chief of L'Equipe. "They say there is a mafia [to pay off] for buying paper, for printing, for distribution. It's a problem in the new Russia."


One of those mafias has already hit the paper. Renault said that, upon their return to Moscow after negotiations with L'Equipe in 1992, Kuchmi and Sport Express general director Ivan Rubin were mugged at Sheremetyevo Airport and robbed of $250,000 -- part of L'Equipe's equity payment -- that they were carrying in a briefcase. No arrests were ever made.


But L'Equipe says it is sticking with the program, counting on future profits. Editors at the Russian paper expect daily sales to break the 1 million mark around the time of the Atlanta Olympics this summer. It seems that Sport Express has found its niche.


"People will always be interested in sports," says Sport Express correspondent Elena Vaitsekhovskaya. "And now, maybe even more so because they are so tired of politics."