What's Wrong With Sports Illustrated
And how to fix it.
The magazine's longer essays are better written than the profiles, but they're just as formulaic. All of SI's recent "bonus pieces"—the lengthy, literary takeouts that run in the back half of the magazine—have focused on tragic circumstances: Jack McCallum on the death of young athletes in Vietnam and Iraq, S.L. Price on Mike Coolbaugh (the first-base coach who was struck and killed by a batted ball in July), Alexander Wolff on sports in New Orleans two years after Katrina, Gary Smith on the deprivations suffered by Miami coach Randy Shannon and Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain on the road to athletic success. Many of these pieces, particularly Price's essay, are skillfully crafted and emotionally powerful. Still, it's hard to shake the notion that, for SI, these weighty stories are a kind of penance, the magazine's telegraphing that, despite the buffoonery that lards the rest of its pages, it still has a serious mission.
But sports stories need not be sad or redemptive to be works of art. It's possible to write a long, well-written essay that doesn't take itself too seriously—just take a look at an old Dan Jenkins spitball, Frank Deford's probing psychological pieces, or Rick Reilly's jokey features. Or, better yet, read Michael Lewis' new story on NFL place-kickers. It's the consummate SI bonus piece, written with an inquisitive eye and packed with detail, except it was published in thenew issue of the New York Times sports magazine, Play.
Sports Illustrated has plenty of competitors besides ESPN and the New York Times. The increase in sports television coverage, and partly the popularity of SI itself, created a huge demand for comprehensive, sophisticated sports journalism. Traditional beat reporters, Web writers, enterprising bloggers, brainy statisticians, and YouTube videographers are now producing plenty of smart, funny, indiscreet, insidery material every day. Sports Illustrated used to distinguish itself by writing better, and securing better access to its subjects, than anyone who wrote faster. Now, with a few exceptions—Ian Thomsen's recent story on the Celtics' maneuverings to corral Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Tom Verducci on how the Red Sox saved Jonathan Papelbon's shoulder—the magazine's reported pieces don't offer original details. They just come out three days later than everybody else's. By the time SI documented Appalachian State's win over Michigan (cover line: "All-Time Upset"), every TV show, newspaper, and blog had moved on to Michigan's next opponent.
A return to the days when SI had a sports-media monopoly isn't possible, so the magazine must find a new way to succeed. One way to become relevant again would be to publish tough opinion pieces. Sports Illustrated is no longer the sports world's weekly must-read, but it's still an influential voice. At least it would be, if it ever tried to exert any kind of influence over the games it covers. SI rarely picks fights or filibusters for change. (This was the case even when Steve Rushin and Rick Reilly were still around: Rushin long ago succumbed to the puns dancing in his head, while Reilly has abandoned sports journalism to write the copy for Successories posters.) As it stands, the magazine has but one true opinion piece each week, a toothless essay on the front page of the Players section that hems and haws over questions—"Should a U.S. World Cup player suffer for criticizing her coach?"—that it rarely bothers to answer. What happened to the SI that, 12 years ago, editorialized on its cover that the University of Miami should drop its football program, to the publication that, in 1968, published a wildly ambitious five-part series on the trials of the black athlete?
Sports Illustrated could also beef up its investigative reporting. Currently, there's little to be found in the magazine, perhaps on account of a disastrous 2003 story that alleged Alabama football coach Mike Price had "aggressive sex" with two women in a hotel room. (Price sued for $20 million; the case settled out of court.) Luis Fernando Llosa and L. Jon Wertheim of SI.com have broken several stories on HGH, and SI did at least run an excerpt from Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams' BALCO exposé Game of Shadows. Still, come up with a list of juicy topics in sports today—homosexuality, online gambling, gene doping—and you'll have a roster of stories that SI has yet to put its stamp on.
With the print magazine ill-positioned to break news, it's now essential for Sports Illustrated to build up SI.com as a repository for developing stories and opinion. But the Web has simply become the next place for SI to get its ass kicked by ESPN. For a decade now, ESPN.com has pursued a scorched-earth policy, hiring loads of writers (including from SI) and running so much content that a sports fan need never leave its bosom.
SI's recent Web plays—a plan to simulcast Dan Patrick's radio show, acquiring sports news and blog aggregator FanNation.com, investing in high-school sports site Takkle—seem misguided, an effort to branch out before SI.com has grown a trunk. Sports Illustrated's Web site lacks faith in the institution's core product: words. SI.com has writers worth checking in on—Peter "Coffeenerdness" King and the curmudgeonly Dr. Z pepper their football insights with highly readable lunacy, Jon Heyman breaks news on the baseball beat, and Stewart Mandel (college football) and Luke Winn (college hoops) have built versatile, interactive departments that merit weekly visits—but it needs more of them. And rather than pounce on the one built-in advantage it has over ESPN—a half-century's worth of magazine pieces—SI seems determined to keep its archives shut. A magazine with a rich literary history comes off on the Web as tacky and desperate, a hub for cheerleader slide shows and swimsuit videos. ESPN has a franchise player in the Sports Guy, Bill Simmons. SI.com has the embarrassing, beauty-and-the-beast video series "She Says, Z Says."