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The changing face -- and pace -- of Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated magazines are seen on Jan. 23,

Sports Illustrated magazines are seen on Jan. 23, 2015 in Miami, Florida.  Credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

“Sports Illustrated” arrived in the mailbox as it has for decades, looking sharp and flexing its journalistic muscle, this time with a nifty foldout cover that featured nine MVPs of Super Bowls played in South Florida.

It was February, after all, so why not? Inside was a gallery of Super Bowl rings past and a photo-rich feature on the game’s historical ties to Miami.

But upon further review, two important elements of The Big Game were unmentioned in the Super Bowl preview issue. One was the Chiefs. The other was the 49ers.

So it goes for SI as it completes its evolution in recent years from weekly to biweekly to monthly, beginning with that February edition, which also made reference to Carlos Beltran as manager of the Mets.

It is not easy in this era being timely as a biweekly, weekly or even daily print publication. Now, perhaps the most venerable brand in sports journalism is taking a swing at coming out once a month.

The abrupt pause in sports caused by the COVID-19 pandemic gave the magazine a chance on its April cover to address that subject with a stark image of empty seats.

But the fallout from the virus was another blow to business, leading to the layoffs of 6 percent of the remaining editorial staff on Monday, including longtime writer Chris Ballard and a beloved editor, Sarah Kwak.

Eventually, the pandemic will be over and the games will return, but there still will be no practical way to keep up with them in a monthly print publication. Can this work in 2020?

Co-editor-in-chief Stephen Cannella, who has been with the magazine for a quarter-century, believes it can — as long as the mission is properly focused. (All interviews for this article were conducted before Monday’s layoffs.)

“Trying to chase news in a print product, if you’re not going to be daily — and even then it’s tough — it’s kind of pointless,” he said. “I think that in a monthly magazine we can now concentrate wholly on what for 65 years people have thought of as a quote-unquote SI story.

“The occasional great event coverage story aside, they generally weren’t talking about news coverage. They were talking about the great bonus pieces, the great literary pieces, the Frank Defords, the Gary Smiths, the stories like that. That’s what we can do.”

The goal, Cannella said, is to put out a magazine with “essentially four or five bonus pieces. That way we feel like we can give people as much or more as they were getting in print even back in the early days.”

Sports Illustrated debuted in 1954 as a weekly. It began cutting back on issues in the mid-2010s before officially becoming a biweekly in 2018.

Often over the next two years, it seemed SI was suffering through an identity crisis, providing traditional covers and coverage of events that had grown stale by the time the magazine arrived in mailboxes.

“The move to monthly is fully pulling off the Band-Aid that we started to pull off a couple of years ago with the biweekly,” Cannella said.

While the magazine was trying to find itself, it was in the middle of a dizzying ownership transition.

Time Inc. sold it to Meredith in 2018, and Meredith sold it to Authentic Brands in 2019, which in turn licensed a company called The Maven to run print and digital operations.

That led to a devastating wave of layoffs last autumn that swept out much of the staff and led to the departure of editor-in-chief Chris Stone.

The turmoil also featured a controversy over plans for coverage of specific teams on the website, in some cases using writers with minimal experience making minimal pay.

The website’s home page still features familiar bylines such as former Newsday baseball writer Tom Verducci, and editors and business executives promise to bolster the journalism on team sites as well.

“SI.com is going to do what we’ve always done at the national level: best-in-class sports journalism at the national level,” Cannella said. “And we’re building a structure to cover teams at the local level, too . . . We will have on-the-ground coverage of every major pro and college team in this country.”

SI undoubtedly would have faced challenges in the 21st century no matter how it handled the last few years of the 20th, but it was relatively slow to embrace the digital revolution and was left behind.

Now it is doing its best to serve readers there while continuing to publish in print every now and again, having improved its paper stock and binding in an attempt to turn each issue into an event for subscribers.

“We’re going to evolve and learn how we can bring some interesting angles to the stories people are talking about,” Cannella said. “We want to be timely without being beholden to what’s going on in the news . . . I do think SI added to the Super Bowl conversation. We were of the Super Bowl if not necessarily on the Super Bowl.”

As strange as it is for longtime readers to see SI go monthly, it is stranger still for longtime writers, such as Tim Layden and Peter King, both formerly of Newsday, formerly of Sports Illustrated and currently of NBC Sports.

King recalled seeing Tom Brady’s father at a Sportsman of the Year event in 2005 and having him tell the story of young Tom coming home in the fall on the day SI would arrive and asking if there was a story about his 49ers in it.

“If it’s a monthly, are you going to get used to on the fourth week of every month coming home and saying, ‘Hey, I wonder if there’s anything in SI about my team?’ ” King said. “Man, that Brady thing, it wouldn’t happen today.”

King, 62, recalled that the first SI he received after getting a subscription for his birthday was the 1969 issue with Joe Namath on the cover beside the headline “Namath Weeps.”

“You just think about things like that and the staples of your life,” he said. “I’m not blaming anybody. I am not among those who say, ‘If only SI had done X, this would have never happened.’ I don’t believe that.”

King, who left SI in 2018, saw the challenge firsthand in trying to sell advertising for “MMQB” after his “Monday morning quarterback” column morphed into a separate site under the SI umbrella in 2013.

At first, business was good. “The third, fourth and fifth years, it was lousy, and I soon learned why it was lousy,” he said. “People really don’t want to advertise in a weekly publication now, at least about sports.”

Layden recalled a conversation with Stone years ago, before Stone was the top editor, when they agreed that SI’s future might be as a sports version of The New Yorker magazine, heavy on well-written, well-researched pieces.

“The problem is, I think it’s really hard to put out a sports monthly and sustain relevance,” Layden said. “Even if you disengage from the sports calendar, you can’t completely disengage - or if you do, it’s an experiment. I’m not sure how that will work.

“I think they’re putting great content in the magazine. I just don’t know if a monthly sports magazine in 2020 is viable. I guess we’ll find out.”

Layden traces SI’s digital missteps to the early years of the internet, when the site chose volume over leveraging its reputation as a home for quality writing.

“I think that same mistake was made again when Maven came in [last year]; the entire world decided that SI was now a collection of high school kids when there were still a lot of good writers writing for SI,” he said.

“I don’t know if there was anything the company could have done to make that clearer. The narrative got so propelled forward that I don’t know if that could have come out.”

The better path then and now, he believes, would have been focusing on what SI traditionally has done best.

“I never thought of financials; I don’t know if that strategy failed completely,” Layden said of the early internet days. “But it certainly cost SI a lot of its prestige. It allowed SI to be made fun of for all the lousy posts instead of praise for all the good stories. I think that mistake continues to get made today.”

Even after last year’s staff purge, SI retained some veteran writers, and last October it added one in Pat Forde, formerly of ESPN and Yahoo. Why did he choose to join what many considered a fading brand?

Forde, 55, said that like most sports fans of his generation, he grew up with SI and its writing. When the magazine reached out last summer and explained the game plan, he was intrigued.

“It’s a monthly, but I think there’s going to be renewed emphasis on quality writing and on finding really good, interesting, sometimes offbeat stories,” he said. “I think they are looking at things more as a kind of a long-form literary magazine that happens to be tethered to sports.”

Forde also writes breaking stories for the website, but he said that at times “it will be nice to have the opportunity to disengage from the daily and spend a couple weeks, maybe longer, working on a bigger piece.”

Even in this era, Forde said he quickly noticed how receptive many people still are to a call from a Sports Illustrated writer. He called it the “pick-up-the-phone factor.”

“The name resonates, and people want to gravitate at least to the standard that has always been there and see if it is still there or not,” he said. “Hopefully, you pick up [the magazine] and your answer is affirmative.”

Cannella, co-editor-in-chief Ryan Hunt and the staff hope to drive home that point as they adapt to a new reality.

“While we’re evolving as a print product, we feel we’re doing this, believe it or not, with our readers in mind,” Cannella said. “We can give them the best of what SI does. We are not limited in doing that by being a monthly any more than we were by being a biweekly or a weekly.

“In some ways, not having to do some of the things we did in the biweekly world frees us up to focus more on the premium, impactful subjects.”

(The lucrative Swimsuit Issue will remain on the publication schedule, by the way.)

No one said it will be easy.

“For me, it’s not an issue of the content, because there are some great writers and great reporters there,” Layden said. “It’s an issue with the format. It’s a tough format.”

He said that, even a decade ago, there would be regular conversations in the hallways about whether Sports Illustrated should “decouple from the sports calendar.”

“It seemed like the world was moving too fast for a weekly magazine,” he said. “Now you’re a monthly. It does require a complete change in philosophy, but again, I don’t know how viable that is.”

The past couple of years have been wrenching for SI readers, for employees who no longer work there and for those who remain. The magazine has an unparalleled past and an uncertain future.

“I’ve heard a lot of my peers say, ‘It’s not SI anymore,’ ” King said. “Well, were people lining up in the business community to buy SI? No, they weren’t. Either SI was going to die or it was going to transfer into something.

“It’s obviously not something that I wish was reality, but reality might have been the dissolution of the brand, the franchise. So for all I know, this was the only thing they could have done.”

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