Thursday, November 1, 2007

Speaking of Sports Illustrated ...

This afternoon Will passed along to several of us a really good article from Slate. It's a long read, but worth the time if you've ever been an SI reader or just like sports writing.


I had thought about writing about SI when I read that it had hired Dan Patrick and let Rick Reilly go, a move that the story chronicles well. I wasn't really into reading Reilly's stories about golf and other vaguely sports-related inspirations, but replacing him with Dan Patrick? The guy's been nothing but Chris Berman Lite for the past 10 years, too caught up in self-branding to contribute meaningfully to the sports conversation. My other complaints about SI:

-Golf Plus takes up way too much space. I like golf, like reading about golf, and understand the motivation for attracting advertisers that follow golf's high-income fan base. But way too many pages for what is still a niche sport.

-Hate SI Players. If I wanted to get tips on how to exercise my core - and who doesn't? - I'd read Men's Health, not look to SI for how Todd Heap or Mike Modano do it. The section reads like something a college newspaper would produce.

-Too much NFL. Granted, it's the biggest thing going in American sports right now, but do we really need long glorified game stories - even if they're in-depth, well-done, and go beyond that game - every week? The space, and the covers taken up by this unmemorable coverage would be better spent on enterprise stories that SI has done so well for so long. What would you rather read: a 16-page Gary Smith story or what LaDainian Tomlinson thinks about Phillip Rivers while eating swordfish at a trendy San Diego restaurant in September?

To a larger point that is made in the story, SI doing game coverage in a print weekly magazine is absurd, even if they put a great spin on it. Leave gamers for newspapers and websites, give us enterprise and commentary.

-Steve Rushin consistently pissed me off, but then I stopped reading him, and then he left the magazine. Yes, you're married to the most overrated women's basketball player of all time, we know, move on. (That's Rebecca Lobo, WNBA haters)

Ultimately, the story infers that SI has fallen victim to the ESPNization of sports media, and I agree. In a larger sense, both have fallen victim to the cult of celebrity worship and lowest common denominator publishing that pervades American society, like making Dwyane Wade Sportsman of the Year last year over someone far more deserving like Roger Federer.

And that's too bad, because not everybody wants to read who Faith Hill would prefer to quarterback a fourth quarter drive (Brett Favre or Vince Young). We'd rather read more stories about how the Celtics traded for KG, or Stewart Mandel and Luke Winn on college sports.

There's still good stuff coming from SI, it's just not always in their pages, or easy to find.

The story references a book called The Franchise, written by Michael MacCambridge, which I read about six years ago. I literally couldn't put it down, stayed up all night reading it. It is absolutely inspirational to anyone who loves sports writing, and really pushed me to read more Dan Jenkins. Just like many organizations, SI can look on those glory days and remember them fondly, but will have a tough time recreating them in the 21st century. The thing is, we don't expect that level of excellence - just something better than the fluff that has invaded the pages in the last decade.


olson said...

This post deserves at least one comment...

I agree on most everything, Scott (man, I'm starting to feel a bit like one of Rush's "Dittoheads"...), and I still really enjoy getting and reading my SI each week.

I had a free subscription to ESPN THE MAG for a year, and I still found myself spending more time with SI. I'll be bummed out if they move any further away from good long form stuff than they already have. Just because we play Guitar Hero doesn't mean we can't read a story longer than 2 pages.

Scott Tappa said...

Thanks Eric, I'm going to give this post a bump because it may have gotten buried and I want to hear what people think. I couldn't read ESPN's magazine after a year - there's good stuff in there too, but too much of the brand's personality-pushing for me. The most consistently interesting parts of each one of those magazine are the "Inside" sections, always good reporting and insight there. But we want more of the in-depth stuff.

Like you said, though, I still enjoy SI.

Jim Polzin said...

I read the slate article on the plane ride to Columbus last night and I agree with some of it, but certainly not all of it.

I still love SI. The SI Players stuff doesn't really appeal to me, although I, unlike Tappa, did find some of the workout stuff interesting.

Some other points:

-- for the most part, I think SI does a good job handling ``gamers.'' Take the Red Sox story from this week: Verducci provided information I didn't know, like David Ortiz expletive-filled motivational speech when the Red Sox were on brink of elimination against the Indians. Maybe that stuff was in the Boston Globe or elsewhere, but I hadn't seen it so I thought it was pretty fascinating.

-- I used to open to the back page and read Reilly first, but he's been hit-and-miss for a while now and I'm not sad to see him go.

-- I have a love/hate relatioship with Gary Smith and S.L. Price. I love reading their stuff -- they're fantastic -- but I'm always left with this feeling of knowing that the stuff I write is absolute crap compared to what they produce.

-- Here's my biggest gripe with SI: The mistakes. It's rare that you'll find an issue now where there's not a ``SI regrets the error'' in the front section. And that doesn't count mistakes I'll find.

Before anybody thinks it, I make mistakes in my writing. Plenty of them. But I guess I have this belief that SI should be the best. It should have the best editors and the best fact-checkers. Now, it has the appearance that the company does things on the cheap and it's kind of disappointing to see.

That's all.

Scott Tappa said...

SI does make a ton of mistakes. I remember reading their 1998 college football preview of Ohio State and saying in a headline that the Buckeyes hadn't won a national title in 20 years ... every casual fan would have known they last won it in 1968 at the time. They also get guys' first names wrong a lot.

I too have made plenty of mistakes, but as Jim said, the fact checkers ought to catch that. Hell, when I was quoted by Joanna Cohen in her story some fact checker called me to check the quotes.

will said...

Not sure if morale at SI - or at a lot of magazines - is at an all-time high. Don't discount the impact that has. Lots of perks/benefits are going by the wayside and I think that has a trickle-down effect (in areas like reporting and fact-checking).

One thing that I noticed that Slate picked up on is that many of the bonus stories are so doom-and-gloom. What happened to the quirky, longer stories? As much as I enjoyed reading the Shannon/Minaya stories that Gary Smith wrote they sounded pretty similar.

I really loved the essays that used to lead off Scorecard and was pretty bummed when they replaced them with smaller stories/Players. Some of the rubrics are interesting, but others are really tired.

Still think SI has a lot of potential. Enjoyed the story on the NFL practice squad a lot. There's an example of a fun, light read that ended up being pretty interesting.

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