In August 1994, on the occasion of the magazine's 40th anniversary, Sports Illustrated ran a 22,000-word story called "How We Got Here." Steve Rushin's sprawling, multipart essay on integration, the rise of television, and the encroachment of corporate interests was the kind of story that the magazine had built its name on—playfully written long-form journalism that pinned down where sports had been and where they were going. Thirteen years later, you would never find such a piece in Sports Illustrated. What was once the sports world's agenda setter has become passive and uncritical. Since the magazine's editors no longer seem to care about such things, it's time for a loyal reader to ask: How'd we get here?
Let's begin with SI's hiring, two weeks ago, of Dan Patrick. The former ESPN host is no man of letters. Take it from his ex-colleague Keith Olbermann, who once called Patrick's softball-filled jock-talk column "a bi-weekly toe dip in the shallow end of the journalistic pool." But Sports Illustrated didn't hire Dan Patrick the writer. It hired Dan Patrick the sports-themed corporation. His magazine column, Web site, and radio show "represent engaging platforms to both sports fans and the advertisers looking to connect with them," according to SI's press release. When longtime columnist Rick Reilly departed for ESPN days later, SI's biggest personnel move in years became, in effect, a swap of TV personalities. Who needs a journalist when you can get a celebrity multimedia empire?
SI's focus on brand extension is a reaction to the competitiveness of the media environment.Before ESPN the Magazine launched almost 10 years ago, SI had never faced a sustained challenge from the print world. Rather than having faith in its product—curious, well-written literary journalism and vigorous reportage—Sports Illustrated has taken to imitating its younger rival. The result: a magazine that's as hip as a 55-year-old with his hat turned backward. In 2004, the mag unveiled "SI Players," a front-of-the-book section filled with lifestyle pieces that could've been lifted from a dumpster behind the ESPN offices. The section bursts with reports on Martin St. Louis' glute exercises ("jump straight up and drive hips forward") and Jose Vidro's favorite off-day activity ("washing my cars"). In pandering to the sort of people who (allegedly) care about Dane Cook's thoughts on George Steinbrenner, Sports Illustrated is allowing market research to masquerade as editorial judgment. Perhaps it's effective from a business standpoint—the mag has maintained its huge circulation lead over ESPN the Magazine, and a recent industry survey showed an increase of 14 percent in readers between ages 18 and 24 the last two years—but it's making the magazine an inferior product.
An avid sports fan can now read Sports Illustrated without learning anything new. In 1997's The Franchise, Michael MacCambridge's history of SI, Bill Colson (the top editor from 1996 to 2002) admits that the magazine's increasing focus on the major sports helped "contribut[e] to the narrowing of interest of the American sports fan." Sports Illustrated had always, for better or worse, featured stories on chess, bullfighting, darts, and sailing. Even if you didn't read all those stories on chess and sailing, SI's implicit message still got through—that sports isn't just the stuff you see on TV, that a great story is a great story no matter whether it's about playing quarterback or handling snakes.
The magazine no longer has this sort of peripheral vision. Coverage of soccer, hockey, and track is restricted to short, perfunctory superstar profiles. The magazine's last 16 covers have featured baseball, football, football, baseball, football, football, football, football, football, football, baseball, baseball, baseball, football, basketball, and baseball. Last year, rather than choosing the best athlete alive, Roger Federer, as the mag's Sportsman of the Year, SI Editor Terry McDonell anointed highly marketable domestic basketball demistar Dwyane Wade. The implicit message: Sports is everything you already know about and nothing that gets low ratings.
To get a sense of what now populates SI's pages, please take a minute to read Michael Farber's recent profile of Seattle Mariners closer J.J. Putz. The story begins: "The first bars of AC/DC's Thunderstruck came at precisely 9:54 p.m. PDT, Putz Domination Time." In the next few pages—about three minutes of reading; please set your watches to Putz Domination Time—we learn the speed of our hero's fastball ("When Seattle's resident sandman tosses his magic dust in a hitter's eyes, it's usually at 96 mph"), the pronunciation of his last name ("puts as in 'puts up numbers so spectacular that they border on the implausible' "), and his prank of choice ("Putz generally eschews cutting up teammates' clothing ... having made the shaving-cream pie his signature bit"). We're never told, however, why we should give a damn about J.J. Putz. The piece, like the great majority of SI's profiles and game stories, is bereft of ideas—it never explains how it feels to close a baseball game or why Putz's magic dust is any different than Mariano's magic dust. The old SI used sports as a window onto life and culture beyond the playing field or, failing that, as a vehicle for great writing. The new SI uses sports as a window onto itself or, failing that, as a vehicle for cringe-inducing anecdotes.