By Ken Stone
Thirty years after its North County founding, Competitor Magazine is folding as a monthly print publication. Its last issue will be November/December, but the website will remain.
Jessica “Jessie” Sebor, who had been vice president of media for recently sold Competitor Group Inc., said she was laid off Thursday in a conference call.
“I can confirm that that’s true, but I’d rather not … comment,” she said Saturday from Portland, Oregon, in a phone interview. “I don’t know the inner workings of the decision to shut down Competitor.”Felix Magowan, whose Pocket Outdoor Media bought several magazines from the new owner of Competitor Group Inc., said the free-distribution Competitor Running (its new name) “hasn’t been viable for some time” and “lost its soul” when founder Bob Babbitt left in 2014.
Speaking from Boulder, Colorado, where his company is based and he lives, the 54-year-old Magowan said the magazine served mainly as a “house organ” for the Rock ‘n’ Roll event series.
“If you divorce it from that, it doesn’t really work,” he said. “It’s a marketing vehicle for an event, and if it’s no longer associated with that event, it can’t really survive.”
He said it couldn’t cover its printing and distribution costs, “so it was kind of a no-brainer decision. If a print magazine doesn’t have paid circulation revenue source, it’s very hard to make money in this day and age.”
Florida-based World Triathlon Corp., which bought San Diego-based Competitor Group Inc. in June, is “absorbing all the costs on [the magazine], so you can conclude what you will on that,” Magowan said, referring to the shutdown. “Perhaps we’re producing the last issue, so maybe it’s our decision. It’s more of a collective decision.”
Magowan keeps alive the Competitor website, which he says “brings in a surprising amount of revenue. It’s a quite healthy website.”
“We would bill them quarterly,” Monti said via email Saturday.
After sending the Sorrento Valley publication an invoice recently, the magazine’s managing editor, Kevin Gemmell, responded to Jane Monti: “Sorry to say as of yesterday the Competitor staff was dismissed.”
Gemmell also shared a message from Competitor Running editor-in-chief Nicki Miller,* who said: “I’m sad to report that we found out yesterday the media division of the business has been sold and the Competitor staff is not continuing with the new ownership.”
On Thursday, former senior editor Mario Fraioli tweeted: “Sad to learn that @RunCompetitor mag/.com is getting squashed…. It was a good run alongside some great people.”
Another well-connected running source told Times of San Diego on Saturday: “Competitor mag dead, web site alive. The triathlon pubs and Women’s Running will continue publishing.”
And a fourth industry source said he heard that CGI President Josh Furlow, in a hurriedly announced staff conference call, announced the sale of Women’s Running, Triathlete and VeloNews to Pocket Ventures and Magowan and the closing of Competitor effective immediately.
A spokesperson for Florida-based World Triathlon Corp. told Times of San Diego: “Competitor was sold to Pocket Outdoor Media, so … questions would need to be directed to them.”
Magowan said WTC, also known as Ironman, made the decision to lay off the employees.
The firings occurred Thursday afternoon ahead of what one source called “the biggest weekend in CGI / Ironman history” — Rock ’n’ Roll races in Brooklyn, Denver, St. Louis and Lisbon and the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, “with an already shrunken staff spread to the point of breaking.”
Ironman, which owns and runs 40 full-distance Ironman events and 104 half Ironmans, bought San Diego-based Competitor Group Inc. in June. CGI ran the multinational Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon and Half-Mararthon series, which began in San Diego.
Babbitt co-founded Competitor Magazine in North County with Lois Schwartz, telling a 30th anniversary story: “For $200 a month, we got 200 square feet under a guy’s bike racks in a shed in Del Mar. We didn’t pay ourselves for a year and a half, just lived on our savings and slept on people’s floors.”
“But we loved what we were doing. We loved the athletes we were meeting. We loved telling the stories,” said Babbitt, who held a June party to celebrate the milestone. “The elite athletes are great, but it’s really the stories of perseverance and overcoming that are the hallmark of what Competitor is really about.”
Babbitt, who left CGI in 2014, also recalled what made it a success:
When you want to grow something, it’s got to be person to person. I prided myself on handing out magazines at the races.
Our philosophy first and foremost was that for us to be successful, events have to be successful. And if they’re filling up, then the retailers would be busy—and everyone in the sport wins.
So it was our job to convince race directors to put on events all year long, and we would be there promoting. Our race-ad prices were a third of our regular advertising prices, because Lois and I didn’t look at those as ads.
The October issue of Competitor Magazine has San Diego’s Meb Keflezighi on the cover, with the title: “King of the Road: America’s greatest marathoner says goodbye.”
In July 2014, the same year he won the Boston Marathon, Keflezighi was named a vice president of running at CGI. He hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
One Times source said news of the shutdown and firings were not public, “so the staff was to keep it to themselves.”
The source concluded: “Really?! I heard people were fired who were actually working at the various events! Including some who were at Kona in the middle of a press conference there. Why not wait until Monday? What a distraction!! What a demoralizing action prior to a major weekend!”
According to the magazine’s website, the combined November/December issue — which Magowan says is done — will feature a holiday gift guide, “Winter Training & Adventure Guide” and 2017 Runners of the Year.
(Magowan said the issue will go to press next week.)
On Friday, Bicycle Retailer reported that The World Triathlon Corp. had sold VeloNews, along with Triathlete and other media titles, to Pocket Outdoor Media, the company founded by Magowan.
Included in the sale were Triathlete and Women’s Running, with both staffs staying in San Diego, and all affiliated websites. Competitor Magazine wasn’t mentioned.
“These are great, well-respected brands that are best read within their sport,” Magowan told Bicycle Retailer. “Despite the well-known challenges in print today, our team is thrilled to have the chance to rebuild these iconic titles as well as their sister digital operations. We have ambitious growth plans, and want to restore these brands to their historical industry leadership positions as quickly as possible.”
Reflecting on the end of a era, Magowan told Times of San Diego that Competitor Magazine lost its soul when Babbitt was no longer associated with it.
“It became corporate,” he said. “Bob is a saint. He’s a brilliant magazine editor. … And when he left the magazine … it lost its soul. Bob was Competitor Magazine. … He understood how to make the magazine connect with its audience because the magazine was him. There was no re-creating Bob Babbitt.”
Former CGI vice president Sebor, who previously was editor in chief of Women’s Running, was asked about her prospects.
“Not sure at this point,” she said. “I’ll take some time to figure that out.”
*Correction: The original story incorrectly attributed this comment to CGI President Josh Furlow.
Updated at 10:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 2017
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