Were it not for Sports Illustrated, I would not be writing this story. I never would have written Friday Night Lights. I never would have learned the difference between sportswriting, a mindless layering of cliché upon cliché, and writing about sports.
The magazine, which began in 1954 under the formerly omnipotent Time Inc. and which I started to read as a pre-pubescent in the 1960s, changed my life. Without it, I never would have put together words for a living; instead, I probably would have gone into the family municipal-bond business on Wall Street with my father, mother, grandmother, and uncle, where the screaming during board meetings could be heard in Jersey City.
Now come reports that Sports Illustrated is barely breathing. I know that these are hard times for magazines, but I took the news with great sadness: a literary institution—because it was a literary institution—beaten down into a thin strand of what it once was.
At its peak, Sports Illustrated had a circulation of three million. Over the years the number of readers has dwindled to less than half that and the formerly weekly magazine now comes out monthly. When the company was sold, roughly four years ago, I knew it was in trouble. It had become a media bouncing ball, and I had little confidence in the new owners. They have succeeded in putting a stake through the magazine’s fluttering heart. But they are only one of the villains.
The other culprit is us, once thirsty readers who no longer read and have succumbed to the endless spew of the Internet, where anything over 50 words is considered too long and a waste of time. Sports Illustrated was about elegance. It could be impossibly poignant and impossibly funny. In other words, all the qualities we don’t care about anymore, being just too busy taking selfies and poking fingers into the smartphone.
“For sports fans of a certain age, the memory of running to the mailbox to see what was on the cover of the latest weekly issue of Sports Illustrated is indelible,” The New York Times wrote earlier this week. “It was the most powerful real estate in sports journalism.”
The other culprit is us, once thirsty readers who no longer read.
I can still remember the names of those writers who had such a profound impact on me when I was growing up—Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, E. M. Swift, Kenny Moore, Ron Fimrite, Bill Nack. It was one of the greatest assemblages of regular writers of any magazine in the country, maybe the world.
Nobody could write a better profile than Frank Deford, his beautiful and eloquent eye burrowing into his subjects with meticulous observation and without snark. Deford was also pure class, a welcome antidote in his bespoke suits and the first writer of sports I ever saw who didn’t look like he was competing with pigeons for crumbs.
Dan Jenkins saw football for what it was back then, a crazy quilt of the bizarre and the wonderful. A story Jenkins wrote in 1968, when I was 13, about the recruitment of a high-school quarterback from Cooper High in Abilene, Texas, called “The Pursuit of a Big Blue Chipper,” was my initial inspiration for writing Friday Night Lights.
The subject of the piece, Jack Mildren, who went on to become the first great wishbone quarterback at the University of Oklahoma and later lieutenant governor of the state, was receiving obscenely lavish attention from college recruiters all over the country. He was so clearly the god of the town yet only a few years older than I was. I kept wondering how it was possible for a kid in high school, high school, to be getting so much attention. The story lingered in my mind for 20 years before I went off to do Friday Night Lights, in 1988.
I really didn’t care about track, but Kenny Moore, a former Olympic marathoner, wrote about it in a style different from anyone else’s. As Sports Illustrated executive editor Peter Carry put it, “He wasn’t a writer of devices. He was a guy with a real literary bent and a real sense of language.”
It was the same with Bill Nack writing about horse racing, his encyclopedic knowledge such that he was among the first to recognize the genius of Secretariat when the Thoroughbred was still a two-year-old and had not yet won the Triple Crown, spending 40 consecutive days with the horse, much of it in his stall, doing research for a book.
Same with E. M. Swift specializing in hockey and the Olympics. Same with Ron Fimrite, my favorite byline in all of journalism, on baseball and the Super Bowl. Same over the years with Gary Smith and Sally Jenkins and Rick Reilly and L. Jon Wertheim, not to mention the two greatest sports photographers in history, Walter Iooss and Neil Leifer.
As Wertheim put it, the magazine led the way in identifying sports as an essential fabric of our society—and not just the toy department—that the games we watch say so much “about people and the human condition.” Wertheim, who has been at the magazine for 28 years, describes it as a “place of real dignity, good people doing good and honorable work.” So much so that an immortal such as Deford would take young writers aside and tell them the best restaurant to go to in Paris.
Sports Illustrated was sold by Meredith Corporation to Authentic Brands Group (A.B.G.) in 2019, an indication that the magazine was becoming an unwanted orphan with no hope of permanent adoption, only a dizzyingly complex financial structure that so often stinks of desperation and squeezing out the last nickel.
It could be impossibly poignant and impossibly funny.
One of A.B.G.’s largest stockholders was BlackRock, which meant that financiers were now involved whose respect for the written word seemed all but nonexistent. A.B.G. then sold the publishing rights to a company that became known as Arena Group, a deal that required Arena to pay $15 million every year for 10 years. Front Office Sports reported that at a town-hall meeting with Sports Illustrated staffers, interim C.E.O. Manoj Bhargava said that the “amount of useless stuff you guys do is staggering.” Not a particularly good way of boosting morale.
It also did not help when the Web site Futurism reported that the magazine was publishing stories by fake authors generated by artificial intelligence. (After Sports Illustrated removed the content from its Web site, an Arena Group spokesperson blamed the incident on an “external, third-party company.”)
The magazine’s editors specializing in individual sports were all let go, and in what may well be the final slash, Arena Group defaulted on a quarterly $3.75 million payment to A.B.G., which allowed the company to revoke the publishing license. It is now possible that all 100 employees will be laid off. Arena insists that Sports Illustrated will continue “to thrive as it has for the past 70 years,” which may be hard to do if there are no employees and sounds like insincere crap.
While the future of the magazine is in jeopardy, the brand plays on. Sports Illustrated “The Party” is taking place the day before the Super Bowl at the XS Nightclub in the Wynn Las Vegas, featuring the Chainsmokers and Kygo. Anyone who goes should be ashamed of themselves. In deference to the employees who may no longer have a job, boycott.
USA Today’s Mike Freeman wrote that Sports Illustrated was “more than a sports journalism gold standard. It was the gold standard for how to be good at anything you did. SI was IBM. It was Apple. It was a rocket ship. It was a poem. It was a good political leader. It was human and warm and bold.”
I was one of the lucky beneficiaries.