In August 1994, on the occasion of the magazine’s 40th anniversary, Sports Illustrated ran a 22,000-word story called “How We Got Here.” Steve Rushin’s sprawling, multipart essay on integration, the rise of television, and the encroachment of corporate interests was the kind of story that the magazine had built its name on—playfully written long-form journalism that pinned down where sports had been and where they were going. Thirteen years later, you would never find such a piece in Sports Illustrated. What was once the sports world’s agenda setter has become passive and uncritical. Since the magazine’s editors no longer seem to care about such things, it’s time for a loyal reader to ask: How’d we get here?
Let’s begin with SI’s hiring, two weeks ago, of Dan Patrick. The former ESPN host is no man of letters. Take it from his ex-colleague Keith Olbermann, who once called Patrick’s softball-filled jock-talk column “a bi-weekly toe dip in the shallow end of the journalistic pool.” But Sports Illustrated didn’t hire Dan Patrick the writer. It hired Dan Patrick the sports-themed corporation. His magazine column, Web site, and radio show “represent engaging platforms to both sports fans and the advertisers looking to connect with them,” according to SI’s press release. When longtime columnist Rick Reilly departed for ESPN days later, SI’s biggest personnel move in years became, in effect, a swap of TV personalities. Who needs a journalist when you can get a celebrity multimedia empire?
SI’s focus on brand extension is a reaction to the competitiveness of the media environment.Before ESPN the Magazine launched almost 10 years ago, SI had never faced a sustained challenge from the print world. Rather than having faith in its product—curious, well-written literary journalism and vigorous reportage—Sports Illustrated has taken to imitating its younger rival. The result: a magazine that’s as hip as a 55-year-old with his hat turned backward. In 2004, the mag unveiled “SI Players,” a front-of-the-book section filled with lifestyle pieces that could’ve been lifted from a dumpster behind the ESPN offices. The section bursts with reports on Martin St. Louis’ glute exercises (“jump straight up and drive hips forward”) and Jose Vidro’s favorite off-day activity (“washing my cars”). In pandering to the sort of people who (allegedly) care about Dane Cook’s thoughts on George Steinbrenner, Sports Illustrated is allowing market research to masquerade as editorial judgment. Perhaps it’s effective from a business standpoint—the mag has maintained its huge circulation lead over ESPN the Magazine, and a recent industry survey showed an increase of 14 percent in readers between ages 18 and 24 the last two years—but it’s making the magazine an inferior product.
An avid sports fan can now read Sports Illustrated without learning anything new. In 1997’s The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge’s history of SI, Bill Colson (the top editor from 1996 to 2002) admits that the magazine’s increasing focus on the major sports helped “contribut[e] to the narrowing of interest of the American sports fan.” Sports Illustrated had always, for better or worse, featured stories on chess, bullfighting, darts, and sailing. Even if you didn’t read all those stories on chess and sailing, SI’s implicit message still got through—that sports isn’t just the stuff you see on TV, that a great story is a great story no matter whether it’s about playing quarterback or handling snakes.
The magazine no longer has this sort of peripheral vision. Coverage of soccer, hockey, and track is restricted to short, perfunctory superstar profiles. The magazine’s last 16 covers have featured baseball, football, football, baseball, football, football, football, football, football, football, baseball, baseball, baseball, football, basketball, and baseball. Last year, rather than choosing the best athlete alive, Roger Federer, as the mag’s Sportsman of the Year, SI Editor Terry McDonell anointed highly marketable domestic basketball demistar Dwyane Wade. The implicit message: Sports is everything you already know about and nothing that gets low ratings.
To get a sense of what now populates SI’s pages, please take a minute to read Michael Farber’s recent profile of Seattle Mariners closer J.J. Putz. The story begins: “The first bars of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck came at precisely 9:54 p.m. PDT, Putz Domination Time.” In the next few pages—about three minutes of reading; please set your watches to Putz Domination Time—we learn the speed of our hero’s fastball (“When Seattle’s resident sandman tosses his magic dust in a hitter’s eyes, it’s usually at 96 mph”), the pronunciation of his last name (“puts as in ‘puts up numbers so spectacular that they border on the implausible’ “), and his prank of choice (“Putz generally eschews cutting up teammates’ clothing … having made the shaving-cream pie his signature bit”). We’re never told, however, why we should give a damn about J.J. Putz. The piece, like the great majority of SI’s profiles and game stories, is bereft of ideas—it never explains how it feels to close a baseball game or why Putz’s magic dust is any different than Mariano’s magic dust. The old SI used sports as a window onto life and culture beyond the playing field or, failing that, as a vehicle for great writing. The new SI uses sports as a window onto itself or, failing that, as a vehicle for cringe-inducing anecdotes.
The magazine’s longer essays are better written than the profiles, but they’re just as formulaic. All of SI’s recent “bonus pieces”—the lengthy, literary takeouts that run in the back half of the magazine—have focused on tragic circumstances: Jack McCallum on the death of young athletes in Vietnam and Iraq, S.L. Price on Mike Coolbaugh (the first-base coach who was struck and killed by a batted ball in July), Alexander Wolff on sports in New Orleans two years after Katrina, Gary Smith on the deprivations suffered by Miami coach Randy Shannon and Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain on the road to athletic success. Many of these pieces, particularly Price’s essay, are skillfully crafted and emotionally powerful. Still, it’s hard to shake the notion that, for SI, these weighty stories are a kind of penance, the magazine’s telegraphing that, despite the buffoonery that lards the rest of its pages, it still has a serious mission.
But sports stories need not be sad or redemptive to be works of art. It’s possible to write a long, well-written essay that doesn’t take itself too seriously—just take a look at an old Dan Jenkins spitball, Frank Deford’s probing psychological pieces, or Rick Reilly’s jokey features. Or, better yet, read Michael Lewis’ new story on NFL place-kickers. It’s the consummate SI bonus piece, written with an inquisitive eye and packed with detail, except it was published in thenew issue of the New York Times sports magazine, Play.
Sports Illustrated has plenty of competitors besides ESPN and the New York Times. The increase in sports television coverage, and partly the popularity of SI itself, created a huge demand for comprehensive, sophisticated sports journalism. Traditional beat reporters, Web writers, enterprising bloggers, brainy statisticians, and YouTube videographers are now producing plenty of smart, funny, indiscreet, insidery material every day. Sports Illustrated used to distinguish itself by writing better, and securing better access to its subjects, than anyone who wrote faster. Now, with a few exceptions—Ian Thomsen’s recent story on the Celtics’ maneuverings to corral Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Tom Verducci on how the Red Sox saved Jonathan Papelbon’s shoulder—the magazine’s reported pieces don’t offer original details. They just come out three days later than everybody else’s. By the time SI documented Appalachian State’s win over Michigan (cover line: “All-Time Upset”), every TV show, newspaper, and blog had moved on to Michigan’s next opponent.
A return to the days when SI had a sports-media monopoly isn’t possible, so the magazine must find a new way to succeed. One way to become relevant again would be to publish tough opinion pieces. Sports Illustrated is no longer the sports world’s weekly must-read, but it’s still an influential voice. At least it would be, if it ever tried to exert any kind of influence over the games it covers. SI rarely picks fights or filibusters for change. (This was the case even when Steve Rushin and Rick Reilly were still around: Rushin long ago succumbed to the puns dancing in his head, while Reilly has abandoned sports journalism to write the copy for Successories posters.) As it stands, the magazine has but one true opinion piece each week, a toothless essay on the front page of the Players section that hems and haws over questions—”Should a U.S. World Cup player suffer for criticizing her coach?”—that it rarely bothers to answer. What happened to the SI that, 12 years ago, editorialized on its cover that the University of Miami should drop its football program, to the publication that, in 1968, published a wildly ambitious five-part series on the trials of the black athlete?
Sports Illustrated could also beef up its investigative reporting. Currently, there’s little to be found in the magazine, perhaps on account of a disastrous 2003 story that alleged Alabama football coach Mike Price had “aggressive sex” with two women in a hotel room. (Price sued for $20 million; the case settled out of court.) Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim of SI.com have broken several stories on HGH, and SI did at least run an excerpt from Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams’ BALCO exposé Game of Shadows. Still, come up with a list of juicy topics in sports today—homosexuality, online gambling, gene doping—and you’ll have a roster of stories that SI has yet to put its stamp on.
With the print magazine ill-positioned to break news, it’s now essential for Sports Illustrated to build up SI.com as a repository for developing stories and opinion. But the Web has simply become the next place for SI to get its ass kicked by ESPN. For a decade now, ESPN.com has pursued a scorched-earth policy, hiring loads of writers (including from SI) and running so much content that a sports fan need never leave its bosom.
SI’s recent Web plays—a plan to simulcast Dan Patrick’s radio show, acquiring sports news and blog aggregator FanNation.com, investing in high-school sports site Takkle—seem misguided, an effort to branch out before SI.com has grown a trunk. Sports Illustrated’s Web site lacks faith in the institution’s core product: words. SI.com has writers worth checking in on—Peter “Coffeenerdness” King and the curmudgeonly Dr. Z pepper their football insights with highly readable lunacy, Jon Heyman breaks news on the baseball beat, and Stewart Mandel (college football) and Luke Winn (college hoops) have built versatile, interactive departments that merit weekly visits—but it needs more of them. And rather than pounce on the one built-in advantage it has over ESPN—a half-century’s worth of magazine pieces—SI seems determined to keep its archives shut. A magazine with a rich literary history comes off on the Web as tacky and desperate, a hub for cheerleader slide shows and swimsuit videos. ESPN has a franchise player in the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. SI.com has the embarrassing, beauty-and-the-beast video series “She Says, Z Says.”
Despite all of itsmissteps, SI can still save itself. There is no shortage of sports journalism these days, but there’s still a niche for a literate weekly sports magazine that doesn’t talk down to its audience. There are millions of SI loyalists, like me, who want the magazine to succeed. In order to do that, Sports Illustrated must have a less rigid idea of what a sports magazine (and sports Web site) can be. It’s fine to run the occasional story about what a great season Peyton Manning is having. But what about occasionally taking one of sports’ many villains and knuckleheads to task? With its game stories and athlete profiles now indistinguishable from the competition, SI should distinguish itself by assigning more exploratory pieces on teams and players that haven’t been getting relentless publicity. The one redeeming feature of SI’s Players section is the small news stories that fill up space in between the athlete interviews: a coach accused of pushing Special Olympics athletes too hard, a $16-million horse that turned out to be a dud. These underdeveloped nuggets—and not the inner life of J.J. Putz—should be what SI is mining for feature material.
It’s not enough for SI to rethink its editorial mission. It also needs to take the shackles off its writers or hire some new ones whom it trusts to pursue more daring stories. Damon Hack and Lee Jenkins, both new hires from the New York Times, have started off with smart, slightly askew pieces—Hack on how the increasing complexity of NFL offenses is to blame for the league’s quarterback shortage and Jenkins on the league’s underpaid, expendable practice-squad players. There’s promise here, but the magazineneeds to keep pushing. The most lively, critical, unconstrained writing to appear in Sports Illustrated recently came in last week’s NBA preview, wherein anonymous scouts weighed in on the league’s top players. Their self-assured commentary—Antoine Walker “travels on almost every single play”—points up the bland, uncritical cheerleading on every other page. Editors take note: It’s not a good sign when your magazine improves 1,000 percent when the copy is written by scouts.