Mag Review: Play

If you’re reading Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, odds are that you’re not a sports addict. A sports addict, after all, would have no use for a quarterly magazine that covers a subject matter that changes by the week, if not the day. Play, which has earned billing as an “everyman” sports magazine, is not interested in reflections on the New York Yankee’s early April slump or previewing the upcoming NBA playoffs. The sports addict will already have all that information readily available from their weekly subscriptions to Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News. The sports addict is probably also less inclined to indulge an elegant photo essay on the battered and bruised bodies of NFL defensive linemen or the daunting feats of women climbers. It will never be as funny as ESPN: The Magazine, but Play tries its hardest to be witty with a dash of Chuck Klosterman, whose sports musings, most recently on eccentric basketball star Gilbert Arenas, are infinitely more bearable than his meditations on music and pop culture.

No, if you are reading Play, you like sports, but are a casual fan at best. You appreciated the wall-to-wall preview of the soccer World Cup, despite having never watched a single game since four years prior. You also call it soccer.

But above all else, you are a NYT reader. Play, through its first five issues, is familiar, with a sleek, clean design that fits comfortably in the Sunday Times family of magazines. That is — besides looking smart and sophisticated — it has a strong emphasis on the lifestyle of sports. Instead of treating the games we watch on television every weekend as solely events to behold from afar, much of Play treats elite athleticism as a lofty goal attainable by the reader, much like the luxury items in Times Syle or journeys to exotic locales in Times Travel. You too can some day hit the glorious links of Shanghai as featured in last year’s debut issue.

The At Play section regularly features stories about physical health, from drug supplements to ways to improve your vision, and highlights high-end facilities where you can hone your game of choice– all affordable on your upper, upper-middle-class Manhattan income, of course.

For every insightful profile of Philadelphia Phillees slugger Ryan Howard or Barcelona striker Ronaldinho, there are articles that tackle the story of the amateur athlete, or those on the bubble of professional stardom. And this is where Play is in peak form, by balancing the two very different worlds of sport and professional sport. Any sports magazine, Play included, can take an in-depth look at NCAA March Madness. Not every magazine can, or wants, to take an in-depth look at, say, Yotam Halperin, a college-aged hopeful hailing from Tel Aviv.

Roger Federer anchors the August 2006 cover. But the more interesting story is this quarter’s cover story, “How to Grow a Super Athlete,” a look at the Spartak Tennis Club in Moscow, where Russians as young as five years old are training to be the next Maria Sharapova. What’s better than a look at Billy Wagner’s fastball? An eye-opening story into the world of mini Billy Wagners; 12-year-old boys who, by the time they finish high school, will be throwing 90 mph fastballs.

Where Play may falter at times is when it swings too much into the realm of casual sport. The “My Tribe” back of book item, where authors are given a chance to relate funny everyday sport anecdotes, is a bit of a painful reminder that you, Play reader, are in your early to mid-30s. You possibly coach your kids soccer team, as Hampton Sides writes about in one issue. Or you are a hockey widower like Daniel Coyle. Which is to say that you might be married and, heaven forbid, have differences of opinion over sports. Hopefully, you are not getting any big ideas about your nine-year-old’s MLB prospects after reading Play.

Given the lead time needed to put out a quarterly as well-crafted as Play, there is no leeway to latch on to sports news as it happens. Each issue’s big package story — be it the Super Bowl, World Cup or March Madness — focuses on marquee events that can be planned well ahead of time. A weekly, or biweekly, has the luxury of running in-depth profiles of The Next Big Thing. If football prospect Amobi Okoye bombs, well, ESPN can kiss and make up with the reader in the next issue. It would just be embarrassing for Play to have a rookie flameout on its cover, staring out at readers from the coffee table for the next four months.

It may seem that I’ve glossed over the words in Play, but what’s there to say? It’s the New York Times. Feature articles are smartly written and hold up to the paper’s lofty standards. If anything truly awful can be said of Play, it is that its strength is its weakness. On one hand, you are reading a magazine by an organization that can really do no wrong (recent plagiarism aside). On the other, it feels like the NYT putting out a sports magazine. The meat of its features would not feel out of place as general human interest stories found in the regular Sunday Times Magazine. Why does Barry Bearak’s piece on a former Chicago Cubs prospect warrant inclusion in the Sunday Times and not in Play?

Where Play truly sets itself apart from its brothers and sisters is in the design department. There are beautiful graphics throughout the magazine that take full advantage of the sporting world’s penchant for statistics, numbers and set plays to tell stories that, for obvious reasons, are often better illustrated than written about. There is also no magazine, not including swimsuit editions, that has made athletes look so breathtaking and larger than life.

As a magazine and journalism junkie, Play makes me drool. As a sports nut, I’ll stick to ESPN for my sports analysis.

(On a sidenote, as an avid hockey fan, Play also seems to cater to its New England readership’s un-American love of hockey. How else to explain a front of book piece anchored by a full-page poster shot of Montreal Canadiens defenceman Sheldon Souray? Or the breakdown of a miracle goal in an Edmonton Oilers-Phoenix Coyotes regular season game. What reader, not already a rabid puck fan, stopped to read what Oilers coach Craig MacTavish or journeyman center Marty Reasoner had to say? How many people actually care who Marty Reasoner is?)