When the first issue of Sports Illustrated hit newsstands in August of 1954 (for 25 cents), readers were treated to a dramatic nighttime image of the Milwaukee Braves’ Eddie Mathews taking a big cut against the visiting New York Giants in front of a packed stadium.
As it turned out, neither Mathews (who would go on to the Hall of Fame) nor the Braves were even mentioned in the inaugural edition. Walter Bingham, who served as an editor with the famed publication for over thirty years, was once asked why they picked the photo.
“I imagine it was chosen because there was a good crowd,” he wrote. “‘You see, everyone loves sports.’”
Of course, not everybody loved sports back then, but a lot of people did – and still do today. Yet, Sports Illustrated is all but dead, announcing last week plans to “lay off a significant number, possibly all” of its staff.
The once weekly sports magazine has been dying a slow death, transitioning to biweekly in 2018 and then monthly in 2020.
Many of us have great memories of coming home from school on Thursdays to find the publication rolled up in our mailbox or making a beeline for a copy at the doctor’s office. Before ESPN and color newspapers, some of the images seemed almost magical. I especially enjoyed the “Faces in the Crowd” feature which highlighted rising amateurs, some of whom like Carl Lewis and Tigers Woods grew up to grace the magazine cover – multiple times.
The magazine also claimed a legendary list of sportswriters: Robert Creamer, Frank Deford, Rick Reilly and Leigh Montville. But other notables also wrote for the publication over the years, including President John F. Kennedy, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, John Updike and James Michener,
So, in an age where stadiums and arenas are modern-day cathedrals, why has a once iconic brand that enjoyed a weekly circulation of over 3 million subscribers collapsed?
To borrow from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Let me count the ways.”
Some social conservatives are attributing its demise to “Go woke, go broke” – and pointing to Sports Illustrated‘s recent “trans” cover model. Others are pointing to its decision to infuse politics and various manifestations of liberalism into sports stories. Other commentators cite the magazine’s decision to feature “plus size” models in its swimsuit edition.
Speaking of the swimsuit edition, plenty of social conservatives have rightly decried and derided its increasingly pornographic nature, with many expressing their frustration by cancelling their subscription. Even if it ever were “modest” (something that is debatable) many parents were quick to pluck it from the mail before Junior arrived home.
Financial realities and pressures also came home to roost at Sports Illustrated. The magazine was sold by Time in 2018 for $110 million. Its current owner has since missed payments, triggering the most recent round of layoffs.
Might Sports Illustrated have survived if it hadn’t lost its way in the muck and mire of political correctness and sexual confusion? The magazine thrived with little competition, and especially in a non-digital era when print was king and patience for sports coverage was required before 24/7 news became the norm.
The writer of Ecclesiastes eloquently noted, “For everything there is a season,” and that everything includes print sports magazines. But there’s something to be said for graceful exits, like Ted Williams’ homering in his final game and at-bat at Fenway Park or Peyton Manning capping his career by leading the Denver Broncos to victory in the 2015 Super Bowl.
Instead, Sports Illustrated appears to be going out like a washed up, scandal-ridden athlete who played or stayed too long or never really grew up to fully appreciate how fortunate they once were to be loved and admired by so many.