Although Sports Illustrated is an extremely popular magazine (primarily with a male readership) these days, there were similar magazines called Sports Illustrated which failed before the current incarnation of the magazine that arrives on news stands and in mailboxes across the country. Hard as it may be to believe, sports journalism was once considered beneath other forms of writing. That was before writers like Frank Deford, Robert Creamer and others came along and proved that writing about sports could grab readers and have them debating the pros and cons of various aspects of basketball, football and..yes.. even swimsuit models. Reporting on the Olympic Games was also in demand and some of those covers featuring Olympic athletes have become collector’s issues.
Ironically, an early publisher of the magazine, Henry Luce, was not even an avid sports fan. He could probably be called lukewarm (at best). Still, he managed to ignore those who scoffed at the idea of a magazine focused only on sports reporting and photos. His instincts served him in good stead and Sports Illustrated was ready to take off.
Of course, timing is everything. It didn’t hurt that television was about to help Americans sit in the comfort of their dens or living or family rooms and watch a baseball or other game. It was a natural move to buy a magazine to read during the commercials and Sports Illustrated filled the bill. If there was any question about a particular batting average, the magazine could be consulted. Besides, it was just plain fun to read – and it only became better through the years.
Sports Illustrated was responsible for many innovations in sports reporting. Their noted “Sportsman of the Year” was popular from the start. Everyone loves a good competition so readers were eager to see who’d grace the cover each year – and why. Winners have accomplished such feats as breaking the four minute mile (Roger Bannister) or some other athletic feat. If the covers are representative of the popularity of specific sports, then Major League Baseball seems to be the most popular sport, followed by Pro Football and Pro Basketball.
It would be impossible to mention the magazine without mentioning the infamous and sometimes controversial swimsuit issue. The first one was published in 1964 and men found photos of supermodels posing in often very skimpy, barely there swimsuits impossible to resist ( a fair share of women bought the swimsuit issues, too, perhaps to see how they measured up in comparison with the models). While the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated flies off the magazine shelves, there are some readers who write protest letter or even cancel their subscriptions yearly – all because of this issue.
It isn’t only athletes or swimsuit models who have graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Famous celebrities have been used to promote sports. These include Ed Sullivan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Big Bird. Sports Illustrated has even spun off a special edition of the magazine for children, Sports Illustrated Kids.
Since sports has its share of controversy and a wide mixture of athletes, there have been some who have been featured in the magazine for sad reasons. Sports Illustrated even has had memorial covers. Ted Williams was featured after he died of a heart attack. Pat Tillman, who played for the Arizona Cardinals, appeared on the cover after he died in Afghanistan.
Even with the advent of sports television stations like ESPN, Sports Illustrated remains popular. Close to 20 percent of American males read it. Articles from the magazine form the basis for spirited debates at parties, work and home. It seems to have become a part of American life.