Sports Illustrated is a popular weekly American sports magazine owned by media giant Time Warner. It has over 3 million subscribers and is read by 23 million adults each week, including over 18 million men, 19% of the adult males in the country. It was the first magazine with circulation over one million to win the National Magazine Award for General Excellence twice.
Two other magazines named Sports Illustrated were actually started in the 1930s and 1940s, but they both quickly failed. In fact, there was no large-base, general sports magazine with a national following when TIME patriarch Henry Luce began considering whether his company should attempt to fill the gap. At the time, many believed sports was beneath the attention of serious journalism and didn't think sports news could fill a weekly magazine, especially during the winter. A number of advisers to Luce, including Life Magazine's Ernest Havemann, tried to kill the idea, but Luce, who was not a sports fan, decided the time was right. (MacCambridge, 1997, pp. 17-25).
After unsuccessfully offering $200,000 to buy the name Sport for the new magazine, they acquired the rights to the name Sports Illustrated instead for just $10,000. The goal of the new magazine was to be "not A sports magazine, but THE sports magazine." Launched on August 16, 1954, it was not profitable and not particularly well run at first, but Luce's timing could not have been better. The popularity of spectator sports in the United States was about to explode, and that popularity came to be driven largely by three things:
- economic prosperity
- television, and
- Sports Illustrated.
The early issues of the magazine seemed caught between two opposing views of its audience. Much of the subject matter was directed at upper class activities (yachting, polo, and even safaris), but upscale would-be advertisers were unconvinced that sports fans were a significant part of their market. (MacCambridge, 1997, pp. 6, 27, 42).
From the start, however, SI did introduce a number of innovations that are generally taken for granted today:
- Liberal use of color photos - though the six-week lead time initially meant they were unable to depict timely subject matter
- Scouting reports - including a World Series Preview and New Year's Day bowl game roundup that enhanced the viewing of games on television
- In-depth sports reporting from writers like Robert Creamer, Tex Maule and Dan Jenkins.
In 1956, Luce asked Time, Inc. senior European Correspondent André Laguerre to come to New York and help define the magazine's character. Many of the staff had serious doubts that the English-born Frenchman could possibly know anything about American sports, but Laguerre won them over, and during his term as Managing Editor (1960 - 1974), SI became a model for other middle-class American magazines. Its writers developed their own characteristic style by daring to tell people what was important. Many would say that the magazine legitimized sports -- and being a sports fan -- for a huge segment of the American population. The steady creation of landmark stories (e.g., "The Black Athlete - A Shameful Story" by Jack Olsen and "Paper Lion" by George Plimpton) showed that sports fans could be readers, and a generation of sportswriters patterned their own writing after what they read in SI. (MacCambridge, 1997, pp. 5-8, 160).
The magazine's photographers also made their mark with innovations like putting cameras in the goal at a hockey game and behind a glass backboard at a basketball game. In 1965, offset printing began to allow the color pages of the magazine to be printed overnight, not only producing crisper and brighter images, but also finally enabling the editors to merge the best color with the latest news. By 1967, the magazine was printing 200 pages of "fast color" a year; in 1983, SI became the first American full-color newsweekly. An intense rivalry developed between photographers, particularly Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer, to get a decisive cover shot that would be on newsstands and in mailboxes only a few days later. (MacCambridge, 1997, pp. 108-111, 139-141, 149-151, 236).
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, during Gil Rogin's term as Managing Editor, the feature stories of Frank Deford became the magazine's anchor. "Bonus pieces" on Pete Rozelle, Bear Bryant, Howard Cosell and others became some of the most quoted sources about these figures, and Deford established a reputation as one of the best writers of the time. (MacCambridge, 1997, pp. 236-238).
After the death of Henry Luce in 1967, the creative freedom that the staff had enjoyed seemed to diminish. By the 1980s and 1990s, the magazine had become more profitable than ever, but many also believed it had become more predictable. Mark Mulvoy was the first top editor whose background contained nothing but sports; he had grown up as one of the magazine's readers, but he had no interest in fiction, movies, hobbies or history. Mulvoy's top writer Rick Reilly had also been raised on SI and followed in the footsteps of many of the great writers that he grew up admiring, but many felt that the magazine as a whole came to reflect Mulvoy's complete lack of sophistication. Critics said that it rarely broke (or even featured) stories on the major controversies in sports (drugs, violence, commercialism) any more, and that it focused on major sports and celebrities to the exclusion of other topics. The proliferation of "commemorative issues" and crass subscription incentives seemed to some like an exchange of journalistic integrity for commercial opportunism. More importantly, perhaps, many feel that 24-hour-a-day cable sports television networks and sports news web sites have forever diminished the role a weekly publication can play in today's world, and that it is unlikely any magazine will ever again achieve the level of prominence that SI once had. (MacCambridge, 1997, pp. 8-9, 268-273, 354-358, 394-398, 402-405).
Sportsman of the Year
Since its inception, Sports Illustrated has annually presented the "Sportsman of the Year" award.
The Cover Jinx
When Major League Baseball player Eddie Mathews, pictured on the cover of Volume 1, Issue 1, suffered a hand injury a week later that forced him to miss seven games, the "Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx" -- a.k.a. "The Dreaded SI Cover Jinx" -- was born, as some noted that bad things seemed to happen to people soon after they appeared on the magazine's cover. Other notable cover coincidences include:
- January 31, 1955 - The week that an issue featuring her was on the stands, skier Jill Kinmont struck a tree during a practice run and was paralyzed from the neck down.
- November 18, 1957 -- The University of Oklahoma had won 47 consecutive games, which remains the longest winning streak in the history of college football. The cover carried the headline "Why Oklahoma is unbeatable." In their very next game, Oklahoma lost to the University of Notre Dame, which was in the middle of a down period. Notre Dame had also been the last team to defeat Oklahoma before the streak began, in 1953.
- May 26, 1958 - SI's 1958 Indianapolis 500 preview issue featured Pat O'Connor, who was killed in a 15-car pileup during the first lap of the race.
- February 13, 1961 - Laurence Owen was billed as "America's Most Exciting Girl Skater." Two days after the cover date, Owen and the rest of the United States figure skating team perished in a plane crash.
- December 14, 1970 - The University of Texas, 10-0 and enjoying a 30-game winning streak, fumbled nine times in its next game, a 24-11 loss to Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
- September 4, 1989 - Not his picture, but Major League Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti's words about Pete Rose appeared on the cover the week Giamatti died of a heart attack.
- June 5, 1995 - Three days after his appearance, San Francisco Giants third baseman Matt Williams, the National League leader in home runs, batting average and RBIs, fouled a pitch off his right foot, breaking it, and forcing him to miss 2 1/2 months.
- March 6, 2005 - The University of Illinois men's basketball team was 29-0 the day of their appearance, losing their final regular season game to Ohio State University.
- Marty Burns
- Frank Deford
- Peter King
- Arash Markazi
- Rick Reilly
- Phil Taylor
- Gary Van Sickle
- Tom Verducci
- Paul Zimmerman
- Ed Hinton (1995-2000)
- Steve Rushin
- Josh Elliott
Sports Illustrated has helped launched a number of related publishing ventures, including:
- Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine (circulation 950,000)
- Launched in January 1989
- Won the "Distinguished Achievement for Excellence in Educational Publishing" award 11 times
- Won the "Parents' Choice Magazine Award" 7 times
- Sports Illustrated Almanac annuals
- Introduced in 1991
- Yearly compilation of sports news and statistics in book form
- SI.com sports news web site
- Sports Illustrated Women magazine (highest circulation 400,000)
- Sports Illustrated on Campus magazine
- Michael MacCambridge, 1997, The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, Hyperion Press ISBN 0786862165