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Prep Sports Weekly expanding for sophomore year

LAUREL — In sports, it’s called the “zone.” When in the zone, every pass is a completion, every swing of the bat connects for a hit.

In 2001, Kim Wheat and her husband, Tony, were in the zone. The couple took their freshman publication — Prep Sports Weekly or PSW, dedicated to area high school sports — onto the field and enjoyed immediate success. And their star performer is bulking up for its sophomore year, expanding its coverage and adding new members to the team.

“We did our homework, but the publication has exceeded our expectations,” Kim said. “The response has been tremendous.”

While PSW is a newcomer, Kim, 31, is no rookie to sports journalism. A transplanted native of Cleveland, Ohio, who participated in basketball and track in school, she eventually made her way to Mississippi and has spent her entire career writing sports. Some of her past employers include the University of Southern Mississippi, The Times Picayune, the Laurel Leader-Call and the Mississippi Press Association (MPA). Her work has been honored by the MPA, and in 2001 she was a Mississippi Business Journal Top 40 Under 40 recipient, given to up-and-coming business people under the age of 40.

Kim and Tony were married about four years ago, and Kim brought with her the germ of an idea of starting a locally-generated publication devoted exclusively to area high school athletics. Kim and Tony, an accountant in the trucking industry and president of Wheat Publishing Inc., spent the next few years mulling over the concept.

“Bless his heart. I think he thought ‘Well, we’ve been married three years, I better let her do what she wants’,” Kim said with a laugh. “My goal in starting Prep Sports Weekly was to give exposure to student-athletes that may not be covered by the local dailies. My hope is to help them land scholarships.

“We’re still going to cover the star athlete that every college is looking at. But we also want the stories of the other student-athletes — the kid who records music in his off time or one that has overcome a handicap or adversity.”

In August 2001, PSW hit the streets for the first time. A 24-page tabloid, the publication offered extensive coverage of 14 high schools and Jones Junior College along with youth sports throughout Jones, Jasper, Smith and Wayne counties. Originally envisioned as a football-only publication, the Wheats quickly added all sports divided between a 16-week football season and a 16-week baseball season.

“I had first planned on a slick glossy magazine, something like Sports Illustrated,” Kim said. “In the end, we decided to keep it simple and publish a tabloid with color on the front and down the middle only. I don’t think a glossy magazine would have done any better than the tabloid.”

Probably not, because the couple was amazed by the reception. High school offices reported a stampede of kids to their offices when the papers arrived. (Wheat Publishing distributes its run of 5,000 papers directly to the high schools it covers, and they are also available at 56 locations around the coverage area.) Features such as Player of the Week and Scholar-Athlete of the Week along with full-length stories, game previews, nostalgia, statistics, sports medicine and training tips, and the inclusion of such peripherals as marching bands, cheerleaders and dance teams, created a buzz around school. But the surprise was not the kids’ readership.

“We started getting phone calls and e-mails not from the kids, but from mothers, fathers and grandparents,” Kim said. “We didn’t expect that. Now, our strongest supporters are insurance agencies and other businesses that want to get in front of the athletes’ parents. What you have to remember is that in small towns like Mize, Taylorsville or Heidelberg, the high school football game on Friday night brings everybody out. It’s huge in these small towns. And folks love to see their kids in the paper.”

The interest generated by the publication was not confined to the four-county area. Inquiries poured in from surrounding areas. Thus, the 2002 Laurel edition, when it comes out Aug. 29, will include Covington County high school athletics. And a second paper will be produced for the Hattiesburg area, encompassing the counties of Forrest, Lamar and Marion.

And Wheat Publishing will be adding a wholly-new venture — Pine Belt Outdoors, featuring outdoors writer Brian Livingston, who also contributes to PSW. Pine Belt Outdoors, a monthly, will be stuffed in PSW during the 32-week season, and stand alone the other months.

Kim said the key to PSW’s success has been getting to know the kids and the communities. An outsider would have a much more difficult task of building relationships. While Kim said that is a challenge, she has not given up the idea of taking the paper to other markets far away from Laurel.

“I would love to franchise Prep Sports Weekly,” Kim said.

“We could develop the software for the templates – sell the formula. And we could give them bulk rate on printing. We’ll see.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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