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“Who Can Explain the Athletic Heart?”

The past and perilous future of Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated

I had a moment of clarity last month, a dawning realization that, in retrospect, probably should have been obvious for years. Yet I still found it difficult to say the words out loud: Sports Illustrated—a cultural touchstone, the quintessential middle-class American magazine of the postwar era, the publication that has defined and chronicled much of what is important about sports for more than 60 years—seems to be dying.

It’s hard to explain to younger sports fans how completely SI once dominated the sports media landscape. To a great extent, for much of my youth, SI pretty much was the sports media landscape. But that was then, and this is now.

In recent years, SI has been caught—along with virtually every other magazine in existence—in a brutal economic environment, where both readers and advertisers are abandoning print and migrating to digital content on the web. SI suffered another round of cutbacks in June, when its parent company, Time Inc., laid off or bought out 300 employees amid corporate doublespeak about “cost-structure reengineering” and “employee headcount reductions.”

Then last November, the entire company was purchased by the fusty Midwestern publisher Meredith Corporation. It’s a long way from the venerable Time & Life Building in midtown Manhattan to the Better Homes & Gardens test kitchen in Des Moines. Meredith is a red-state entity that thrives on niche titles like Martha Stewart Weddings; the company was never a logical fit to run the nation’s largest sports magazine. So few were surprised, three weeks ago, when Meredith announced that SI (and Time) would be up for sale again. Ninety-six years after Henry Luce cofounded Time Inc. and 64 years after he launched SI, the magazine is now a wounded, lame duck.

But the bare business facts don’t really express the way SI’s prestige and influence has declined over the years. “I don’t read it anymore,” said one former staff writer. “And it’s my profession.”

For the first 61 years of its existence—except for a holiday double-issue here and a summer double-issue there—SI was a weekly presence in the lives of sports fans, but that has changed as well. The magazine published 50 regular issues in 2015, but that number fell to 46 in 2016, and 38 last year. Then came the announcement, in the fall of 2017, that SI would be reduced to a biweekly this year. The deeper problem may be that the magazine’s relevance has diminished to the point where some subscribers barely noticed. (“I didn’t know if it was biweekly,” confessed one sportswriter friend recently, “or if it was just sporadic.”)

The anecdotal evidence is all around: I have a friend in Chicago who is 62 and has been a subscriber since 1987. He’s essentially the bull’s-eye of SI’s target audience. But he’s letting his subscription lapse this month—“It’s just not as good as it used to be,” he says—and has now become a loyal reader of The Athletic and The Ringer. I get together once a month in Austin with a group of a half-dozen sportswriters and editors. These people live and breathe sports. But half of them no longer subscribe to SI. As one columnist put it, “The magazine got too thin. Too many other options. A bit dated. I don’t know how magazines survive.”

Though the circulation is down somewhat—from 3.2 million a decade ago to 2.75 million today—the problem is not that there aren’t enough people who subscribe to the magazine. The problem, in recent years, is that there aren’t enough people who care about it.

Full disclosure: I’m not merely a loyal reader, I’m a fanatic—a true believer, an SI lifer. I began subscribing when I was 7 years old, in the fall of 1970 (Dick Butkus was on the cover of my first issue, the pro football preview, with a stellar eight-page photo essay inside by the great Neil Leifer).

Sports Illustrated wasn’t just where I learned about sports. It also was where I discovered literature and urbane wit, graceful art and design. I still vividly remember the covers of my youth. Donald Moss’s brilliant 1971 pop art ode to Roy Lichtenstein, presenting the jerseys of Willis Reed, Lew Alcindor, and Earl Monroe in an explosion of comic color. Hank Aaron holding his record-breaking home run ball aloft on the April 15, 1974 cover, whose only headline was the number “715.” The cover following the Ali-Frazier Thrilla in Manila, which simply read “The Epic Battle.” My favorite baseball player, George Brett, was on the cover of the issue dated on my 13th birthday, June 21, 1976.

As I grew older, the arrival of SI each week was a matter of great urgency. I was the latchkey child with two keys—one for the apartment and one for the mailbox—because I couldn’t stand to wait the extra hour or so before my mom came home from work to check the mail. In Kansas City in the ’70s, SI would usually arrive on a Thursday, but sometimes not until Friday. If the issue hadn’t arrived by the end of the school week, I would sometimes go and buy it off the newsstand, rather than waiting another day for Saturday’s mail to arrive.

This degree of loyalty was extreme but hardly unique. By 1970, SI’s legendary, imperious managing editor, Andre Laguerre, had recruited some of America’s best writers to work for him, and had refined SI’s formula, creating a smart, stylish, literate newsmagazine with a strong editorial voice. In the process, SI made a case that the realm of sports was not a juvenile triviality but instead an important part of the culture, worthy of attention and understanding. “It legitimized sports,” said longtime Time editor Ray Cave. “We’ve seen sport, the role of sport in society, change tremendously through the years. And the existence of SI played a significant role in that change. All of a sudden, you could read a sport magazine, and still be considered able to read, for starters.”

The rise of sports on TV helped SI, but the converse is also true. Many of the events that became central to the American sports experience were aided by coverage in the magazine. Pro football’s rise in the ’60s was accompanied by the magazine’s growth, and the weekly rhythms of the sport were perfectly attuned to SI’s publishing schedule; its readers could read about the previous weekend’s games before the next ones were played, and the serial drama of each season was faithfully documented in its pages. The ’60s also saw college football develop a truly national following. The legendary writer Dan Jenkins was there to cover every Poll Bowl, like Michigan State–Notre Dame in 1966. “Old Notre Dame will tie over all,” Jenkins wrote in his story, after the Irish ran out the clock and settled for a tie—prompting angry students in South Bend to torch thousands of copies of SI on sale in the city. In golf, Jenkins didn’t invent the term “the majors,” but his coverage elevated the importance of those four tournaments, reducing everything else to the status of the Doral Open, more or less. The popularity of college basketball’s March Madness was aided by SI long before the alliterative phrase was trademarked by the NCAA.

In those years, SI’s writers enjoyed tremendous access to the biggest names in sports. At major golf tournaments, Jenkins would often be seen holding forth in a corner with Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer, discussing the day’s round. The Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp let Frank Deford sit in the locker room at halftime, to hear Rupp address the team during Kentucky’s 1966 national championship game against Texas Western. When Muhammad Ali flew from Washington, D.C., to Houston four days before declining to enroll in the Army in 1967, SI’s Bud Shrake picked him up at the airport and drove him around the city, witnessing some indelible scenes he later wrote about in the magazine.

Then there was Laguerre’s implementation of the “bonus piece” in the back of each week’s magazine, the origin of longform journalism in modern sportswriting, a literary-minded profile or historical piece that featured, with astounding regularity, some of the best sportswriting ever. The form was perfected in the ’70s by Deford, in his lyrical portraits of everyone from Jimmy Connors to Bobby Knight, and was later a platform for such talents as William Nack, Gary Smith, Alexander Wolff, and others. By the mid-’70s, James Michener wrote “only The New Yorker, among contemporary magazines, has been as effective in sponsoring good writing with a certain wry touch.”

The magazine continued to affect me in profound ways, even as an adult. In 1991, I read my friend Robert Draper’s book Rolling Stone Magazine: The Uncensored History. In his acknowledgments, Draper mentioned that he had grown up relying on Rolling Stone as his window to the larger world, in much the same way that his parents had relied on Time magazine to interpret and analyze events. As I read the words, it occurred to me that—for better or worse—I’d grown up looking to Sports Illustrated in much the same way.

So the first book I wrote was a history of Sports Illustrated called The Franchise, published in 1997. It was an earnest attempt to justify my childhood obsession while also taking the measure of the magazine’s historical importance in the growth of spectator sports. I’m told it sold very well in certain bookstores near the Time & Life Building. I knew my book would be out of print one day; it never occurred to me that the same thing might happen to the magazine.

With SI’s future in doubt, as the magazine waits to be sold for the second time in less than a year, an interesting question presents itself: Are the dire straits that SI finds itself in simply the product of the horrific state of modern magazines? Or is it the result of grievous managerial and editorial missteps dating all the way back to the ’80s? I’ve spent the past week talking to dozens of people inside and outside the magazine—writers and editors, former writers and editors, and readers past and present. The answer seems to be: both.

“Nobody wants magazines anymore, Michael!” said one of SI’s best-known writers. “They’re passé. I don’t necessarily think this is something where SI didn’t package this right, or didn’t sell this right, or didn’t do this or that.”

But a former staff writer disagrees just as strongly: “This is not about social media or the internet. This was self-inflicted. Just one bad choice after another.” A veteran editor concurs: “They made categorical managerial mistakes at every turn.”

There’s credibility to both viewpoints. But neither tells the full story. Looking back, the year 1990 was a watershed—Sports Illustrated became the first large-circulation title to win the National Magazine Award for general excellence in consecutive years. It was both a critical and commercial colossus. “You’d pick up the magazine then,” said one staffer, “and it’d be thick and 120 pages, and full of ads for cologne, and 19 subscription cards would fall out.” In 1989, Time Inc. entered into one of the disastrous corporate mergers that marked the era. The ensuing entity, Time Warner (later AOL–Time Warner), was a behemoth where the high-minded journalistic principles that Luce espoused were overrun in the race to the next quarterly report. In the ’90s, the highly leveraged company directed all of the mature, decades-old magazines in the Time Inc. empire to increase their profit margin by 12 percent annually. At a time when the magazine business was robust, those targets were usually met, but even then it came about largely through cost-cutting measures—a decline in paper quality, a marginal shrinking of the magazine’s dimensions, and a reduction in staffing. One other way the goals were met was through “extending the brand,” spinning off the magazine’s best-selling edition, the SI swimsuit issue, into video, calendars, and coffee-table books; the issue already seemed anachronistic in the ’90s, and feels more so today. And yet … it remains SI’s best-selling issue each and every year.

Meanwhile, the magazine already had missed a crucial opportunity. In 1984, Time Inc. had a chance to buy a fledgling cable network called ESPN, then being peddled by Texaco. Though then-publisher Bob Miller argued for the deal, the board at Time Inc. passed (the network was subsequently sold to ABC for $237 million). There are not many multibillion-dollar mistakes made in the world of publishing. This was one.

SI has spent the past 35 years trying to rectify that error and, in the process, making new ones. When the network launched its sports website, ESPNSportsZone.com, in 1995, SI remained on the sidelines for two more years, ceding the early days of the internet to the media entity that would soon eclipse it. Later, in a belated attempt to get into electronic media, SI launched the sports news network CNN-SI in 1996. As a challenge to ESPN, it was too little, too late—a classic case of bringing a knife to a gunfight. The venture was out of business by 2002.

CNN-SI’s demise underscored how rapidly the media environment had changed. ESPN, under executive editor John Walsh—who’d first proved his brilliance with the short-lived monthly Inside Sports in the early ’80s—went from merely showing sports to covering them. Suddenly SportsCenter and NFL Primetime and Baseball Tonight featured not only highlights, but also analysis. This change reverberated through the world of sports media, and irrevocably altered the relationship between athletes and writers. I remember talking with Michael Wilbon of The Washington Post in the ’90s, before his PTI stardom. He’d just started doing occasional spots on ESPN’s Sunday morning show, The Sports Reporters, and said he could instantly tell a difference. It was easier to get interviews with athletes. Sometimes they didn’t even know his name, but because they recognized him, they were more cooperative. They perceived him as important simply because they’d seen him on TV.

When ESPN The Magazine launched in 1998, it was originally dismissed by many of SI’s editors as not a threat—basically a feature magazine for a younger audience. But as the competition matured, you could start to see SI change in response. From the early ’60s, the magazine’s feature well moved in sequence from the big news lead of the week, followed by one or two additional timely news stories, each full of the sort of analysis and detail that wasn’t available on TV or in daily newspapers. Deeper into the magazine, there were less time-sensitive features, profile pieces and quirky, out-of-the-way sports features, followed by the trademark bonus piece. Every week, that story mix provided a particular texture, a keen balance between timely news and timeless features.

But by the late ’90s, spooked by ESPN’s ascendancy, the editors at SI seemed to lose faith in their own formula. News stories in the front became less newsy, more focused on personalities. In short, they became more like feature stories. The magazine’s justification for this change, then and ever since, has been that the sports media landscape was changing, and that SI needed to be more “forward-looking.” As one editor explained it to me at the time, “When people get their issues in the mail now, they already know the score, they’ve already seen the highlights. We need to tell them what’s going to happen next.”

It all sounds very rational, except it overlooks one salient truth: Sports Illustrated readers have always known the score by the time their issue arrives. From the very first issue, dated Aug. 16, 1954, SI’s readers knew all about the result of the magazine’s first lead story, that Dr. Roger Bannister had defeated John Landy in the “Mile of the Century” at the Commonwealth Games, in the first race between two sub-four-minute milers.

SI’s news stories were never about telling you who won, it was about telling you why and how they won, the subtle differences that separated one world-class athlete or team from another, and the endless ways that people revealed their character through competition. Furthermore, what the magazine learned, again and again in the coming decades, was that a sports event being televised only increased interest in those stories. The more people saw of a sport, the more they wanted to read about it. And SI was there, to provide the best story, the deepest understanding, the telling picture, the last word.

That, along with its role as gatekeeper and tastemaker—defining who and what was important in the world of sports—is what once made the magazine so indispensable. Today’s SI still does important investigative features (like its recent pieces on the allegations of sexual harassment surrounding the Dallas Mavericks and Carolina Panthers) and absorbing long profiles. But with the aversion to news stories that began in the late ’90s, there is less of a texture to the magazine’s story mix these days, and fewer surprises. As SI became less newsy and less timely, and more homogeneously feature-oriented, it began to feel less urgent, less necessary, less vital.

And then, over the past three years, it just began to feel less. Period.

Within the walls of SI, the person who’s held responsible for all this is editorial director Chris Stone, who has been running the magazine under one title or another since 2012. (Stephen Cannella is now the executive editor, in charge of the magazine’s daily operation.) While Stone takes the heat for the magazine’s ills—even though many circumstances have been completely beyond his control—he has earned the fierce loyalty of many staffers. “Chris Stone is heroic,” says one staff writer. “I can give you 40 examples of him trying to plug the holes in the dike. He’s working with a lot of restrictions that no person at SI has ever had to deal with.”

Among those are a decline in staff and budget, which has been slashed by more than 50 percent in the past five years. SI sent nearly 50 staffers to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the London Olympics in 2012, but had just 28 people in Rio in 2016. There were 39 staffers in Vancouver at the 2010 Winter Games, but only 28 in Sochi in 2014, and just 12 (with only three full-time writers) in Pyeongchang this year. Though one could question if it was wise to send 50 people to cover an Olympics in the first place, the shrinking numbers underscore the magazine’s evaporating resources. As the bad news keeps coming, the staff has marveled at Stone’s indefatigable optimism. “He’s so relentlessly positive,” says one friend. “He’s the one who’ll say, ‘I think we’re going to be OK after this round of layoffs.’ Or, ‘It’s going to be better for us if we go to twice a month.’”

When the move to a biweekly format was announced last year, it was Stone who had to provide the least convincing spin outside of the White House briefing room. Defending the move to biweekly in an interview with magazine expert Samir Husni last October, Stone said, “We can’t just anticipate that every consumer of our magazine, every reader, is going to pick the magazine up from their mailbox on a Thursday or Friday and immediately start reading it. It might lie around for a week or even two weeks, but when that reader does ultimately pick up the magazine it still has to feel fresh.”

Of course, if your readers are waiting for a week or even two to pick up your magazine after it arrives, you already have a problem.

Clearly, Stone can’t say what others see about the reduced publishing frequency. “It’s not being done out of a sense of craft, or this is how to succeed,” said one former staff writer. “It’s cost-cutting. And this cutting yourself to the marrow—it’s a recipe for extinction.”

The state of the magazine doesn’t occur in a vacuum. SI still has a thriving presence with its digital site, SI.com, highlighted by Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column. But the magazine is the anchor of the “brand”—there wouldn’t be an SI.com without an SI in the first place—and the path to success for relevant publications in the 21st century is to find a way to integrate print with digital, without surrendering the quality of the former. It’s not impossible. This is something that has been accomplished at The New Yorker, New York, and The Economist.

The problems with SI’s shift to a biweekly schedule are manifold; at a time when the hold on readers is slipping, the new schedule forces further contortions and compromises. For example, because of the magazine’s publishing schedule this year, SI’s March Madness preview issue was released days before the NCAA tournament field was announced, which meant that SI previewed a tournament without knowing either the full field or the opening-round matchups.. The preview issue featured a gatefold tournament bracket, which was neither filled out nor left blank, but annotated with random facts and oddities about past tournaments. (It was almost as though editors hoped readers wouldn’t notice that there were no teams listed on the bracket. Perhaps some readers didn’t.)

It was during the reading of that issue that I had my moment of clarity. In addition to the phantom bracket and the in-name-only preview, the magazine’s design—in that issue particularly—could best be described as overcaffeinated bordering on hysterical. It looked as though the new owner, Meredith, had acquired a surplus supply of bright yellow ink, and given SI’s designers strict instructions to use as much of it as conceivably possible. Between the acres of fluorescent yellow and the surfeit of oversized dingbat graphic arrows littered throughout the pages, the issue was difficult to look at, much less read. Here was a magazine that seemed unsure of what it was or what it was trying to be. SI’s clean, innovative design used to make all other sports magazines look garish by comparison. No more.

Going to a biweekly schedule prevents SI from doing one of the things that it can still do quite well when it wants to—reporting on big events on deadline, providing the definitive real-time account of some of the most memorable moments in sports. One of the great examples of this was the 1997 Masters, which witnessed the record-breaking coronation of a young Tiger Woods. Despite seemingly every media outlet in the country throwing numerous resources at an event that transcended sports, SI’s Rick Reilly still delivered a story—which reached subscribers four days later—that hadn’t been told before, along with a series of remarkable photographs to further dramatize the epic event.

There’s infinitely more competition today, but when SI reports from big events—what some refer to internally as “posterity” events or “Library of Congress events” (the Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff National Championship game, the Final Four, the Masters, the World Cup, etc.)—the magazine can still summon fresh angles, incisive news, and a deeper insight into the character of the people involved. Read Greg Bishop and Ben Baskin’s story “Game of Stones” on the Eagles’ audacious upset of New England in Super Bowl LII. Weeks earlier, Andy Staples wrote revealingly about Alabama’s comeback to beat Georgia in the national championship game in “It Takes Tua.” And this is something that print can still do better than the web—documenting the historic event, capturing that moment in time with words and pictures, delivering not just a story but also a keepsake. This is what SI has done for much of its history.

But that’s harder to do these days, and SI is doing it less and less. The biweekly schedule will make it rarer still. If Tiger Woods had managed to win the Masters this year, it would’ve been perhaps the biggest sports story of 2018, but it would have been old news by the time the next issue of SI came out 10 days later. The same goes for this summer’s World Cup, the final of which will come during an off-week in SI’s publishing schedule. And we haven’t even gotten to football season yet.

When you take the most important news aspects out of the story mix, you’re left with a magazine full of features, and a dwindling number of ways to distinguish what SI does from the rest of the crowded world of sports media.

There are still terrific writers at Sports Illustrated. The best-known among them—Peter King in football, Tom Verducci in baseball, Grant Wahl in soccer—are arguably the nation’s foremost authorities on their respective sports. Each has used SI as a platform to expand their profile to TV, and those TV appearances have in turn helped keep SI visible in the modern media age.

Beyond King, Verducci, and Wahl, there remains a deep roster of talent—Lee Jenkins, whose NBA writing is superb (check out his recent profile on Raptors coach Dwane Casey); the venerable S.L. Price, modern master of the takeout piece; the erudite generalist Tim Layden; and the talented young Ben Reiter, whose prophetic 2014 cover story on the Astros’ rebuilding process (“Your 2017 World Series Champs”) turned out to be the most-discussed SI cover of 2017, thanks to the Astros’ title run. There’s not a great deal of diversity on the staff—“It’s a lot of white dudes,” admitted one writer—and it’s also true that since so many of the writers have a clean, unshowy style, the voices at SI are less identifiable than they once were.

There are some exceptions, including the talented polemicist Charles Pierce, now on contract, and longtime staffer Steve Rushin, who still contributes occasionally. But today, if you drew up a list of the most distinctive writers in sports, it is not a coincidence that so few of those voices are in Sports Illustrated.

Recruiting and retaining the best writers has become a challenge. Sally Jenkins, who followed in her legendary father’s footsteps (and, in some ways, has surpassed him), left the magazine in 1998 for The Washington Post, where she’s built a career that led to her becoming the first woman inducted into the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame. Rick Reilly, for more than a decade the best-known writer at the magazine, left for ESPN in 2008, an exit that left many at SI in shock. Then, after a four-year stint in which he served as the same kind of all-purpose hub like Reilly to the staff—writing news stories, back-page columns, and bonus pieces with equal skill—Joe Posnanski left in 2012, eventually ending up at MLB.com. In each of these instances, the writers received offers they couldn’t refuse. But it’s also true that, for much of the previous 40 years, Sports Illustrated wasn’t a place you left. (When Dan Jenkins was hired by SI in 1963, he explained to his boss at the time, Blackie Sherrod, “I hate to leave you guys, but, you know–the Yankees just called.”)

Of course, 40 years ago, there were precious few other places for writers to go to. In this, SI is something of a victim of its own success, having helped create a world in which there are countless competitors, vying not only for readers but writers as well. Just this month, SI is fighting to keep its biggest name of all, Peter King, who has been the heart of the magazine’s pro football coverage for three decades, and whose Monday Morning Quarterback is the single most-read column on SI.com.

“Peter has kept SI somewhat relevant for years,” says a former writer. “Back in 2013, NBC was offering him multiples of what SI did. But he loves SI, so he stayed.” No one questions King’s loyalty to the magazine. But if he goes this time, SI will have once again lost its best-known writer.

There’s one more fact about the business of SI that bears mentioning. Sports Illustrated, for all the layoffs and decline in publishing frequency, was actually profitable last year. And, according to sources, it was a healthy profit. Of course, therein lies a problem: The magazine has been squeezed and strangled to maximize the bottom line—often at the expense of editorial and aesthetic quality—on a regular basis for decades. If it was owned by someone who truly cared about what the magazine has meant and can still mean, it might be breaking even as a weekly instead of making millions as a crippled, compromised biweekly.

With the magazine up for sale, everything surrounding SI’s mission seems uncertain. Despite the staff reductions, there is some money being poured into new platforms. Those at the magazine talk bravely about their digital initiative, SI TV, which earned two sports Emmy nominations this year (one for 89 Blocks, the gritty, veristic chronicle of a high school football team in East St. Louis that premiered last fall on Fox). But it’s hard to know where these ventures will go without knowing the magazine’s next owner, just as it’s hard to know what happens to traffic on SI.com if Peter King leaves.

There’s a worst-case scenario to consider. If SI is purchased by another entity solely concerned with maximizing short-term profits while cutting costs, then the endgame is clear enough, and it’s fairly mortifying. An SI that doesn’t find the right owner will continue to attenuate, and could well wind up as a web-only presence in the not-so-distant future, with the exception of one print issue a year—which would be, of course, the annual exercise in retrograde cheesecake, the SI swimsuit issue.

There remains some optimism that between now and June, when Meredith hopes to sell, the magazine will find a new owner who will provide Stone and his staff the runway and budget to restore it to greatness (and perhaps return it to a weekly). “We need to find,” said one writer, “someone who grew up reading and loving the magazine, who wants to come in and rescue it.” What SI needs, then, is someone like me—except with a billion dollars.

But an angel alone won’t solve the core problem.

“Nobody has shown what Sports Illustrated should look like now,” says one former writer. “They need an Andre Laguerre to do that. And nobody’s done that.”

“The lack of a vision,” says one esteemed magazine editor, articulating SI’s biggest challenge. “They’re struggling without a vision to say what’s an SI story. I really think the hardest part about SI—I’m not sure since Andre Laguerre there’s been a person there who’s a true visionary. They need a visionary. It has to be somebody who knows not just the literary world but is well-versed in photography, in electronic media, in the world of media as a whole, if SI is going to survive.”

What would a better, sharper Sports Illustrated look like under new ownership? A magazine that was more attuned to what’s happening in sports wouldn’t be quite so squeamish about documenting the revolution in data within that world. With the exception of Verducci on baseball and Luke Winn’s tenure covering college basketball (he was hired away last year by the Toronto Raptors to help find prospects), SI has been slow to truly embrace analytics. Some writers allude to it, but the magazine hasn’t done enough to show—and teach—readers how advanced data is changing the games they love. We already know that some stories in sports can be better told or illuminated graphically. But SI has lagged behind even the staid Time magazine in its ability to consistently incorporate now-standard storytelling tools like infographics into its editorial mix.

Finally, an SI geared for the long run would also better reflect the larger changes in the culture. A Gallup poll released early this year showed that football was still far and away America’s favorite sport, though its popularity has declined in recent years. For the first time, though, soccer has closed to within two percentage points of baseball—and was actually more popular than baseball in both the 18-34 and 35-54 age groups. Among the younger demographic, soccer is tied with basketball as the second-most popular sport. This change, breathlessly promised by soccer devotees since at least the ’70s, is finally happening—the day has come. Godot has arrived. Yet beyond a few short pieces in the magazine’s front-of-the-book Scorecard section, soccer can barely get into the magazine. There have been just four cover stories on the sport in the past three years. And as Major League Soccer began its 23rd season this spring, at a time when its average attendance exceeds that of either the NBA or NHL (albeit with a far shorter regular season), there was still no preview of the new MLS season in the magazine. This seems indefensible, from both an editorial and a business standpoint. There is a long history of some of SI’s older subscribers being hostile to stories on soccer. But you know what? Some of SI’s older subscribers are dying.

All magazines provide an illusion that, between these covers, the editors and writers will make sense of this particular corner of the world. There’s a certain confidence (perhaps arrogance, even) involved in making a great magazine, but the best of them—The New Yorker at various times through its rich history (including now), Esquire in the ’60s, Rolling Stone in the ’70s, and SI for decades—lived up to the ideal. There is still excellent journalism in Sports Illustrated. But the present magazine is missing something.

Sally Jenkins, for one, knows what it is: “My dad used to say that all his stories, in one way or another, were about answering this central question: ‘Who can explain the athletic heart?’ And that’s really what it’s about—who can explain this, the athlete’s real qualities and real flaws. Not the children’s literature version, but the real athlete.”

That’s a more difficult task than it was 40 or even 20 years ago. But it is a role that SI has historically filled. And it is a role that the magazine, over the past 20 years, has somehow abdicated. The audience is still there, though the magazine needs to redouble its efforts to reach a new generation. The challenge, regardless of the circumstances, is to find a way to make readers care about Sports Illustrated again.

If the magazine can somehow achieve that? Well, that would be an important sports story … and it would make for a great bonus piece.

Michael MacCambridge is the author of America’s Game: How Pro Football Captured a Nation and other books. He lives in Austin.

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