The Book of the Week is “The Franchise, A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine” by Michael MacCambridge, published in 2009. There were two attempts to publish a magazine called Sports Illustrated in the late 1930’s and again in the late 1940’s, but both failed after a few years.
In summer 1954, Sports Illustrated (SI) was launched for wealthy men who engaged in golfing, croquet and yachting. Time, Inc. was able to arouse significant interest in its new magazine venture by soliciting existing subscribers of Time and Life.
Sidenote– The New Haven line leased out private rail cars to wealthy Westchester-County New York commuters. Rye was one train stop of the 1950’s Sports Illustrated’s first project manager, who got his shoes shined and was served ice water on his way to work.
Postwar prosperity and more leisure time allowed Americans to do more ping pong, softball, bowling, roller skating and boating. The original goal was for the publication to project a brand image of superiority in quality and comprehensiveness in coverage. However, target readers– athletes and spectators– were not thought of as intellectuals, so there was doubt as to whether they would read a magazine, even if it was about their hobbies.
The 1960’s saw television decrease the intellect of the nation as a whole, but it caused the popularity of such spectator sports as baseball, football and basketball, to soar.
The main competitive advantage of the magazine was full color photos. The publishing of those photos, even when generated with the latest technology, was very expensive and had a lead time of days. Nevertheless, in those days, publishers were willing to spend lots of money to ensure quality, and gave new projects lots of time to develop into successful ventures. SI was losing money for ten years before it turned the corner.
Long lunches and greatly exaggerated expense-account claims were also rife then. As were excessive alcohol consumption and bloated staffing. Starting in spring 1974, at SI, there was a team of four editors for every single article in every issue.
In September 1979, the magazine’s major area of dominance (college football and basketball recaps) was attacked with the introduction of ESPN.
Beginning in the late 1980’s, staffers “…willfully blurred the line between… edit and business, publicity and journalism.” The ethics conflict peaked during the 1996 Olympics, when “… the effect of having the business side of the magazine promoting an event that the editorial side was covering was profound and distracting.”
Read the book to learn of the other obvious contrasts between Sports Illustrated‘s early history and the current climate in magazine publishing in general in terms of sloppiness, illiteracy and lack of fact-checking, not to mention lack of ethics (mostly due to unwillingness to spend money on quality, and too much focus on the big dollar sign); the people who ran SI; their office politics; and their ability to change with the times.