SOC professor talks about the future of "Sports Illustrated"


A week ago, Sports Illustrated announced a massive round of staff layoffs, leading to speculation that the magazine, once considered the preeminent source of sports journalism, would soon cease to exist. Radford University School of Communication Professor and media historian Bill Kovarik explains why. 

“Sports Illustrated — once the beloved icon of sports news and photography — has been sidelined for financial irregularities and technical fouls. It probably won’t be back. 

The fouls involved articles scraped up through artificial intelligence bots – an ethical lapse that came to light in November 2023. Worse, the magazine tried to cover it up with AI portraits of the supposed authors. The ruse was quickly spotted, and the editor was fired. 

As advertisers began pulling out, the remaining editorial management faced increasing financial trouble and then, on Jan. 5, 2024, defaulted on the regular quarterly payment to its owners, Authentic Brands Group. Two weeks later, ABG terminated the licensing agreement and laid off most of the editorial staff.      

Let’s pause for a moment of silent reflection in recognition that another great institution is passing us by, headed for the intellectual property boneyards, where its icons will be recycled to brand products like designer swimsuits and tennis shoes.   

Sports Illustrated was founded in 1954 by Henry Luce of the Time-Life group to compete with two of the major sports magazines of the time — Sport (founded 1946) and the venerable Sporting News (founded 1886).   

Back then, people thought Luce was crazy, but his timing was good — illustrated magazines were filling the consumer demand for high-quality visuals, while the dominant media — radio and early television — offered audiences only low-definition visual experiences.     

Sports Illustrated also presented better quality journalism and photography than was possible in daily newspapers at the time, and Luce managed to keep all his magazines a step ahead of the competition.  

In the 1950s and 60s, Sports Illustrated occupied center field by raising the tone of sports news. Along with sports that were already well covered, like boxing and baseball, Sports Illustrated opened tennis, golf, football and basketball to greater public participation. Some of its editorial innovations are still well known, such as the Athlete of the Year and the annual swimsuit issue. Making the cover of Sports Illustrated was, for an athlete, a lot like a Nobel Prize for a scientist.  

However, by the end of the 20th century, the business of magazine and newspaper publishing fractured under competitive pressures from cable, streaming and internet publications. Advertising and circulation declined, and so did Sports Illustrated, despite valiant attempts to save it.   

The magazine was sold during the Time-Warner breakup in 2018 and, after changing hands, was picked up by Authentic Brands Group, which specializes in franchises like Reebok shoes, clothing brands like Juicy Couture and commercial celebrity names like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.  ABG will profit from the Sports Illustrated photo archives and the famous swimsuit editions if nothing else.   

The chances that Sports Illustrated will return from the elephant graveyard of news magazines are probably about the same as those of Sport (d. 2000), Sporting News (d. 2012), or for that matter, general photo magazines like Look (d. 1971) or Life (d. 2000).

It’s not only that the genre is no longer profitable, or that if you want to make a small fortune in publishing, you have to start with a big one.

No. It’s that the world has moved on. Deadspin, The Athletic, network media like ESPN and media from individual franchises and conferences have taken the lead. Magazines of all kinds are long gone.    

One reason why all this matters more than, say, shifts in seasonal produce or fashions in furniture, is that print journalism was a quality element in a bundle of services that have come unglued. Thoughtful writing and brilliant photography no longer have financial support. They have lost out to the amusement park midway and the digital-industrial information complex.   

There is no fixing the loss of magazines, but there are ways to rebuild the media. Repealing Section 230 would be a start in the U.S. Adopting legislation like Canada's Online News Act and Australia's News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code would be helpful. In Europe, the Digital Services Act is expected to restrain Big Tech and new cross border journalism initiatives will help stabilize financing for some publications. 

Recent reform proposals in the U.S. include the Local Journalism Sustainability Act of 2021, 2022 and 2023.  While the act has attracted bipartisan support, it remains in committee while larger antitrust issues get sorted out in U.S. v. Google, U.S. v. Apple, issues with Microsoft and U.S. v. Meta.”

Jan 22, 2024
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761

Jan 30, 2024
School of Communication