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Sports Illustrated’s clash with time and technology

Irene Hwang and Vidushi Upadhyay
The storied history of a magazine that played a pioneering role in modern sports reporting, seems to be coming to an end. Half a century of ground breaking photography, intelligent writing and iconic tradition may soon become a relic of the past.

The endpoint was a number of years ago when CNN dropped Sports Illustrated as its main supplier of sports content on their website.”

— Mike Corpos, Spartan Daily Production Chief

From its inception in 1954 to its looming collapse in 2024, Sports Illustrated has been a place where fans can keep up with the latest trends in the sports world. However, in recent years, the multi-award magazine has been steeped in controversy, marking the slow demise of a decades-long legacy.

“Being a national publication, they’ve had deeper access to athletes and coaches behind the scenes,” said Mike Corpos, the production chief for the Spartan Daily newspaper at San Jose State University.  “This enables a level of reporting that not every publication can achieve. The magazine has had a major influence on every sports writer I’ve worked with.”

Henry Luce, co-founder of Time Magazine, saw the opportunity for a weekly sports magazine to make waves in the 1954 market. However, Luce’s advisers saw his idea as expensive and foolish. Luce persisted and succeeded in publishing the first issue of Sports Illustrated featuring a striking picture of baseball star Eddie Matthews on the cover. 

Those who doubted Luce were proven right with the magazine’s losses reaching $30 million in its first several years. Despite the magazine not experiencing financial success, it quickly became iconic as the magazine revolutionized sports reporting with its innovative format, writing and photography. 

In 1960, Andre Legeurre replaced Sidney James as managing editor of SI, shifting the magazine in a more serious direction. Previously, the magazine focused on leisure sports such as golf, tennis and fishing, but Legeurre shifted the focus to sports such as baseball, basketball, football and hockey, which appealed to a wider audience. Leguerre also enlisted photographers like Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss Jr., who revolutionized the field of sports photography, introducing innovative techniques, compositions and styles featured on the covers of SI issues.

Legeurre pioneered what is arguably the most iconic tradition of SI with the first swimsuit issue published in 1964. The majority of the first issue’s content revolved around travel and nautical articles. However, the cover depicting Babette March in a white two-piece and the six-page feature showcasing models on the beach wearing a variety of different swimsuits, was enough to spark controversy over concerns of modesty from a conservative audience. Despite the uproar, the tradition would persist, evolving into an entire issue worth of bathing suit coverage released every year.

Physical education teacher Ray Wright remembers the progression of the magazine’s high-quality photography throughout the decades. The photo of Sidd Finch wearing only one shoe in the snow captured the moment before he pitches a fastball.  Looking back on the iconic image reminds Wright of the astonishment he felt in 1985 discovering that Finch had been recorded pitching a ball at 168 mph — an incredible 65 mph over the previous record.

“I thought ‘there’s no way he pitched 168’,” Wright said. “Maybe their radar gun was off. I never thought it was a hoax, and I was shocked when I found out it was an April Fools joke.”

Another popular SI segment was ‘Faces in the Crowd’. This segment allowed talented unprofessional or minor league athletes to shine, featuring unknown people who had broken records or achieved amazing athletic feats.

“Young athletes being able to see people like them, some high school kid or someone from a small town in the middle of nowhere, achieving certain feats, reaching certain goals, helps young athletes strive to achieve their own goals,” Wright said.

SI experienced massive success after the appointment of Legeurre and the changes he brought to the magazine. In 1986, the issue featuring MacPherson on the cover sold 1.2 million copies at the newsstand, a significant increase from the average of 300,000 sales in 1983. The 25th anniversary of the swimsuit issue in 1989 achieved even greater success, with sales reaching 2.7 million copies. 

After decades of being a weekly magazine, SI shifted to a biweekly schedule in 2018, and eventually moved to a monthly schedule in 2020, during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. These changes came as a result of the magazine changing owners three times over the course of just a few years. In 2018, Meredith Corporation purchased Time Inc., the company co-founded by Henry Luce that had published SI for decades. Following that, in 2019, Meredith sold the rights to SI, along with various other brands to pay the over one billion the company owed in debt. As a result, SI ended up in the hands of Authentic Brands Group who then signed a 10 year licensing agreement with the Arena Group. In addition to changing hands, the monopoly SI had previously had on sports reporting diminished as outside brands cut ties with SI, such as CNN in 2014.

“For me, the endpoint was a number of years ago when CNN dropped Sports Illustrated as its main supplier of sports content on their website,” Corpos said. “Sure enough, the quality had a steady decline from there.”

In November 2023, Futurism published an article alleging that articles published in SI had been credited to authors that did not exist outside of the SI website. The reporters at Futurism found the profile pictures on SI’s website of these allegedly fake reporters on a website selling AI generated images. According to an anonymous source from SI that spoke with Futurism reporters, some published articles were written with AI as well.  According to Futurism, the profiles in question were deleted when Futurism reached out to SI representatives for comment. 

After the article was published, the Arena Group published a statement on the SI X account, stating  that the articles and profiles accused of being AI generated were the responsibility of a third-party company, Ad-Von Commerce, that published licensed content under the SI name. The Arena Group’s statement additionally denied the AI claims, saying that AdVon did not use AI generated content but did credit some fake authors in order to maintain author privacy.

The possibility of AI being utilized in a magazine as well known and previously respected as SI, highlights a fear of the technology taking over jobs in fields like journalism. The SI Union published a response on X, formerly Twitter,  expressing that members of the SI Union were “horrified by [the] article,” and that “[the AI allegations do] not represent the hardworking journalists who make up the SI Union.”

“Journalists spend hours at a time hanging out with the same athletes, the same coaches, covering their games every week,” Corpos said. “You get to know them and you get better stories that way. You can’t get that out of AI.”

Just over a month after the AI controversy, the magazine fell into even deeper waters when on Jan. 18, Arena laid off over 100 workers. Arena released a statement revealing that the company had missed quarterly payments to Authentic Brands Group and was experiencing considerable debt. The lay-offs were an attempt to cut costs and streamline the company. 

Despite the unresolved payments between Arena and ABG, Arena plans to continue publishing SI and has maintained the magazine’s website since the mass layoffs. 

As the world increasingly becomes more on-line, newspapers and magazines have had to adapt with the times. Sports Illustrated is one of many publications struggling to stay afloat in an environment that has proved to be largely adversarial to the journalism industry as a whole. Brands like SI that used to be a beacon of trusted journalism are having to compete with the majority of people getting their news from television or social media, largely for free or a fee cheaper than that of a magazine subscription.

“Constantly newspapers are folding because they don’t know how to make money in the internet age,” Corpos said. “In the 90s, just to get people to go to their websites and get those clicks and get the views, newspapers would give their content away for free. Now, 20 years later, they’re trying to add paywalls and people don’t want to pay for stuff that they’ve been getting for free for two decades. I get that but journalists don’t work for free.”

The storied history of a magazine that played a pioneering role in modern sports reporting, seems to be coming to an end. Half a century of ground breaking photography, intelligent writing and iconic tradition may soon become a relic of the past.

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About the Contributor
Alex Cotterel, Staffer
(they/them) Alex is a sophomore and a first year staffer. Their hobbies include biking, painting, and reading novels. In their free time they like to listen to music and podcasts, and binge watch whatever their latest tv show obsession is.

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