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THE NATIONAL SAYS `NO MAS' IN THE WAKE OF HUGE LOSSES

The National took its last turn at bat today.

The nation's only daily sports newspaper folded after 17 months of heavy losses and lagging circulation.The final edition today carried the banner headline "WE HAD A BALL" with "The fat lady sings for us" underneath.

"We were just losing too much money," Frank Deford, editor and publisher, said moments after breaking the news to the staff Wednesday.

Deford had left Sports Illustrated to help create a national sports paper similar to those popular in Europe and South America.

The National had signed some all-star free agents to its staff, assembling a lineup that included former editors and writers from such papers as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

Critics, though, had warned from the start that casual sports fans already get the sports information they want from local newspapers and would recoil from the volume of information The National intended to provide every day.

The paper was also hurt by the recession, the slow ad market and competition for ads from other media such as ESPN's baseball coverage starting last summer and the Baseball Weekly paper started by USA Today in April.

Deford said the newspaper lost about $100 million since it was launched Jan. 30, 1990. Initial hopes were that it could reach paid circulation of about 400,000 by 1991, but Deford said circulation was under 200,000.

"If we were losing money and could see a turnaround that would be one thing," he said. "But we were staring into the face of months and possibly years of no improvement."

Its owners, National American Sports Communications LP, a partnership controlled by Mexican media baron Emilio Azcarraga, said in a statement that "eroding business prospects for the publishing industry as a whole" had raised the risks of the venture.

In addition, it said prospects for Spanish-language television in the United States appeared more promising. Azcarraga owns a Mexican TV network.

The closing shocked the staff, which included about 160 editorial staffers and 100 business employees.

"I think this was a dream for a lot of us. We all wanted it to make it," columnist Jay Mariotti said.