Before we get into the confusing details of the latest and perhaps final requiem for Sports Illustrated, an observation amid the nostalgia and elegies:
For all of the inimitable voices SI gave its appreciative readers — Jenkins, Deford, Reilly, Rushin, Montville (purloined from these pages, of course) — it’s remarkable how our broader memories of the magazine tend to all sound the same.
Those of us beyond — in some cases well beyond — the 30-something generation, you remember the anticipation of receiving SI in your mailbox every week, eager to see if a favorite athlete was on the cover. Some among us read the back-page column first, while others dived right into the “bonus” piece, which we call “longform” today for some haughty reason.
Chances are you looked at the “Faces in the Crowd” section to see if an athlete from your state had been recognized with a brief accolade. And I’ll never forget my envy, as a teenage wannabe sportswriter, when someone from my school had a letter published in the “19th Hole.” If you had a letter published, I’m envious of you, too.
To this day, long after the cruel realities of print media and a string of greedy, soulless owners post-Time Inc. diminished SI to an afterthought, a list of our favorite covers can be conjured immediately from memory.
For me, it’s the textless March 3, 1980, cover of the euphoric US men’s hockey team after its unfathomable upset of the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics. (Honorable mention goes to any cover featuring the 2004 Red Sox or Larry Bird.)
Social media was decorated with Sports Illustrated covers Friday when, in perhaps the saddest day among way too many recent sad days for the greatest magazine there has ever been, word broke via A.J. Perez at the website Front Office Sports that SI’s entire staff had been notified that their jobs were being eliminated.
As the day went on, while those of us who remembered SI at his best were overwhelmed by nostalgia, not much clarity followed the dire report.
The condensed version of what transpired: Perez reported that Arena Group, which licenses the Sports Illustrated brand from the magazine’s owner, Authentic Brands, had missed a payment. That led to the revoking of the licensing deal, which preceded the email to employees saying that those who worked on the SI brand would be laid off. SI’s union confirmed its status with a statement, saying in part, “The Arena Group is planning to lay off a significant number, possibly all, of the Guild-represented workers at SI.”
Sports Illustrated as we once knew and savored it ceased to exist years ago. It has been through several brutal layoffs in recent years, including a slashing of one-third of its staff in 2019, and another significant cut a year later. In December, it suffered extreme embarrassment when it was discovered — unbeknownst to its skeleton crew of remaining dedicated editors and writers, including Tom Verducci, Pat Forde, and Chris Mannix — that Arena Group had been using artificial intelligence and phony writers to create articles in the depths of its website.
SI had endured enough papercuts and slashes through the years to require a tourniquet. But nothing seemed as hopeless as Friday’s news, which certainly seemed to mark the end of SI. Yet later in the afternoon, Authentic Brands provided a statement to the sports media website Awful Announcing saying that SI and its website “will not go dark . . . It’s not an ideal situation any way you can cut it, but Authentic is determined to protect and provide stewardship for the brand. And that includes making sure the editorial arm continues to operate while partners are discussed and negotiations happen.”
That likely would require a publishing partner other than Arena Group. In the meantime, the future — and the present — remains murky. At approximately 3 p.m. Friday, Forde, the magazine’s ace college sports writer, posted on X, “The entire staff was not laid off. There still is a website and a magazine. That said: Ugly, brutal day with many layoffs. Nothing quite like hearing colleagues and friends saying they just got termination emails in real time while on a Union zoom call.”
It’s tough not to think about the juxtaposition of the warm sentiments for the magazine and its 70-plus years of history with the harsh reality. So many of us that shared our favorite covers or stories Friday probably couldn’t name a recent cover subject, or even the magazine’s current publication schedule. That’s not readers’ fault, it’s the logical fallout from legacy print media’s struggles in the digital landscape, and shortsighted failures from a string of owners who love to throw around jargon such as “brand” and “steward” and always seem to manage to expedite the worst outcomes.
Sports Illustrated has been issued its last rites more than once over the last half-dozen years. It’s not dead yet. But reminiscent of that cherished cover from 44 years ago, it sure could use a miracle now.