The Demise of Sports Illustrated

Late last week, employees of Sports Illustrated released a statement revealing that the new owners of SI were going to fire a decent percentage of the publication’s staff, replacing them with “a network of…freelancers and bloggers”. On Deadspin, Laura Wagner and others explained the situation by examining the thoughts of Bill Sornsin of TheMaven, the group who have taken over SI:

 

“The executives now in charge of Sports Illustrated don’t see any problem with gutting and reinventing a revered publication because they don’t believe anyone is actually a fan of the magazine. Here’s what TheMaven COO Bill Sornsin said in the hour-long presentation on the company’s plan:

 

“‘Sports Illustrated is known for its iconic brand, award-winning journalists, amazing longform stories, great videos, and apparently there’s something to do with swimsuits that I don’t fully understand. […] What’s new, though, is the recognition…that nobody is actually a fan of ESPN or Sports Illustrated. They’re a fan of the New York Giants, or the Iowa Hawkeyes or what have you. They’re a fan of their team. And therefore it’s, you know, their interest is intense and it’s not actually possible, as ESPN has discovered and adjusted to recently, its not actually possible to cover the Iowa Hawkeyes in depth unless you’ve got an entrepreneur on the ground in Iowa City covering it intensely. Same is true for the Arizona Cardinals, the Washington Huskies, you name it. What fans want is way deeper than what any national site will ever provide with a centralized staff.'”

 

The idea that nobody is a fan of Sports Illustrated is both extraordinary and heart-wrenching. The outpouring of grief online in response to this week’s news unsurprisingly proved that Sornsin was wrong, though it’s likely that perhaps his statement is not as far removed from the truth as such fans wish it was.

 

Sports Illustrated has slowly but surely become a place unlike that which it used to be. It has now laid off a number of staff in four of the past five years, and late in 2017 it announced that it would publish fortnightly rather than weekly. Many of the magazine’s most esteemed writers of the 90s and 00s have gone, with only a few names – Jon Wertheim, Chris Ballard, S.L.Price, Tom Verducci – remaining. And then this week, as Bryan Curtis of The Ringer pointed out, “#SaveSI started trending on Twitter. Think about that. Magazines now resemble beloved but little-watched network shows from the aughts, with hashtag campaigns that yell at corporate oligarchs.”

 

Magazines as niche relics that hark back to simpler times is an incredibly apt description. Hand out printed copies of the world’s more literary magazines to Year 11 and 12 students in 2019 and their eyes open wide with wonder at the layouts, the images, and the thoughtfulness of the words. After flicking through and reading, many talk as if The New Yorker, Time, and Sports Illustrated are the most incredible pop culture discoveries they have made in years. Not that they have an especially broad range to then go and explore – only weeks prior to Sports Illustrated’s announcement, ESPN The Magazine became the latest sports mag to publish its last edition.

 

Instead of providing tailored content like that promised by its new owners, Sports Illustrated has always been a magazine that readers have digested regardless of the subjects being covered in that week’s edition. The best writing, of course, is often about topics that you didn’t know that you wanted to read about until you find yourself reading about them. To pluck but one example, in 2003 the incomparable Gary Smith wrote a cover story with the tagline: “Carried away by love – for risk and each other – two of the world’s best freedivers went to the limits of their sport. Only one came back.” Everyone who read this incredible piece – many of whom were fans of either the magazine or of Smith rather than of freediving – found themselves learning about life, the universe and everything through the story of two extreme sport athletes previously unknown to them. Readers came across this tale purely because it was in the magazine, not because they had tailored their preferences on a website just so they could read about a more narrow range of material regarding their favourite teams.

 

It is still possible to stumble across interesting content in other ways, of course. The two quotes above from Deadspin and The Ringer show that the web can still allow people to become fans of media brands and happily engage with whatever stories their favourite sites publish. However the change at Sports Illustrated feels particularly affecting as the magazine used to be as anti-tailored as could be. Upon Gary Smith’s retirement, SI writer Lee Jenkins reminisced on both how incredible Smith’s writing was, and also on how the magazine responded to its most talented and popular writers: “I was told to prepare a feature for the magazine on the Phillies. ‘It will run,’ my editor said, ‘unless Gary’s muse speaks to him.’” The magazine’s editors knew that their readers would appreciate whatever stories SI’s writers would deliver.

 

Throughout the past 65 years, fans of Sports Illustrated have been fans of storytelling and storytellers. Fans of sport, sport’s theatre, and sport’s narratives. Fans of more than just a team or an individual athlete.

 

The world has changed, of course, and the slow changes to Sports Illustrated reflect the likelihood that the magazine’s fans have decreased in number over the past couple of decades. In some ways, the delay between a sporting event and the arrival of SI on the newsstand or in the mailbox to tell the story of that event really does make the magazine a relic of a pre-24-hour-Internet-news-cycle era. But the magazine is a chronicle of sporting history in a way that no website appears to be able to replicate. This year, it didn’t matter how long it was between Tiger Woods winning the Masters and Sports Illustrated’s insta-iconic cover commemorating the event. Indeed, the cover acted as a contrasting companion to the magazine’s 1996 coverage of the Masters, where the historic cover image saw Greg Norman’s head down, his hands on his knees, and the headline reading ‘Agony at Augusta’. The Internet doesn’t yet serve as such a presentable, historic chronicle of the past in quite the same way that print publications still do.

 

And yet, apparently, its new owners believe that absolutely no-one is a fan of Sports Illustrated.

 

Vale, SI. And thank you.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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About Edward P. Olsen

EPO is equally passionate about sport and sports writing. While others toil away at the local indoor sports centre re-living their futile childhood dreams of being one of the best of all time, he types away at home re-living his futile childhood dream of being one of the world’s great columnists.

Comments

  1. Yes, it is very sad, Edward.
    But unfortunately a sign of the times: the constantly revolving news cycle, the desire for news NOW! and then moving on.

  2. Yep the world as I knew and loved it has largely died, and protests are no substitute for subscribers. The internet enables us to atomise our interests. I have progressively curated my own daily news feed on golf, roots music and progressive politics via Twitter. Far better insights and deeper dives than I ever got from broadsheets and magazines. The sad thing is the loss of a broad language. I used to scan headlines about rugby league, cricket, local politics and popular culture that don’t even enter my field of vision any more. There is no middle ground any more. Only me and mine. Social media reinforces what I already knew. That the rest of you are idiots and not worth my precious time. Except when our Venn diagrams intersect. Narcissism is the new black.

  3. John Butler says

    If you want to reliably screw something up, put a bean counter in charge of it.

    They can count, but they rarely have much understanding of value.

  4. “People love a funeral and in the digital age they don’t even have to dress for it”. Always easier to blame skinflint proprietors than miserly readers grown accustomed to quality cheap digital information. http://whatsheonaboutnow.blogspot.com/2012/06/what-closing-magazine-tells-you-about.html

  5. John Butler says

    PB, readers have a choice, and, as you say, increasing options for free content. But you can’t expect them to put any value on your publication when you don’t yourself.

    This is a problem that goes beyond publishing. It reflects an ideology that puts individual interests ahead of societal ones.

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