A sports icon, soon to turn 70, is on life support. It happens. Life’s expiry dates and terminal diseases are unpredictable, often arriving when least expected. However, did anybody really see the demise of Sports Illustrated coming?
At birth, SI was unique. A weekly sports magazine, it was the younger sibling of a weekly news magazine, Time, and the brainchild of a man, Henry Luce, who wasn’t a fan of sports but who saw an opportunity to grow his stable, which also included Life and Fortune. Spectator sports was about to explode. The market was ripe for a sports Time.
Last week, Sports Illustrated’s entire staff was fired, laid off or told to go through the motions until their contracts expired. If its death is indeed imminent, blame corporate America. In the last decade, take your pick of the corporate fingers in this bean-counter pie — Meredith, Authentic, Maven, The Arena Group, etc.
Sports Illustrated was in a league of its own. Sports news was reported in print by daily and weekly newspapers but not by a classy weekly magazine that in 70 years never really had competition. The Sporting News, baseball-oriented most of its life, morphed into a major-sports publication but it was a newspaper, often with outdated news…and perished in 2008. Sport Magazine, a monthly, was also untimely.
Let’s be clear. I don’t profess to understand why Sports Illustrated — which came along when Eisenhower was President and when TV first arrived in Winnipeg — is becoming extinct. However, because it played a part of my life, I have more than passing interest.
For much of the ’70s, I was a correspondent and occasional writer for Sports Illustrated, took my bride to our first Broadway play (Lost In Yonkers) when the magazine flew us to New York, watched the Kentucky Derby with its people in Louisville and sometimes participated in exhaustive research the magazine always did on major features.
At one time, we thought New York would become home.
Sports Illustrated grew from stories of fishing and judo and yachting to what its market demanded, major pro sports in America. Coverage in Canada was sporadic. For example, when the Montreal Canadiens won their record five straight Stanley Cups in the 1950s, tennis hero Bill Talbert was on the cover. When the New York Islanders won FOUR Cups in a row in the 1980s, it was front-page news.
Its writers, from Jim Murray to Frank Deford, found fame beyond the press boxes. Its editors, from Andre Laguerre to Mark Mulvoy, made momentous decisions. Andre Laguerre? He was responsible for creating the Swimsuit Issue, which years later Mulvoy took to an unprecedented level with five million readers.
Last week, one of the early swimsuit models, Cheryl Tiegs, was on CNN. She was asked if the timely shift away from models of traditional age, gender and “look” contributed.
“Don’t give us that much credit,” she replied.
It was the right answer to a fair question, because after its first 12 years of losing money, the Swimsuit Issue was a saviour. At one time, one Swimsuit issue made more money than Time did for a whole year.
For the icon on life support, that was the healthiest of times.