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Sports media: Sports Illustrated sells its rights, not its soul

Magazine’s sale to non-media entity won’t affect its journalistic standards.

The first issue of Sports Illustrated, dated Aug. 16, 1954, with Hall of Famer Eddie Matthews on the cover.
The first issue of Sports Illustrated, dated Aug. 16, 1954, with Hall of Famer Eddie Matthews on the cover.

I don’t see many movies, so I’m about to date myself.

Remember “Conspiracy Theory” with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts from 1997? Hey, that’s only 22 years ago — half my life ago.

Anyway, Roberts’ character, government lawyer Alice Sutton, notices that Gibson’s character, paranoid conspiracy theorist Jerry Fletcher, has a dozen copies of “Catcher in the Rye” on a shelf. Jerry admits to owning more that he stores elsewhere in his apartment.

“Whenever I see one, I have to buy it,” he says.

Minus Jerry’s freaky, obsessive-compulsive nature, that’s kind of how I’ve always felt about Sports Illustrated.

OK, minus just the freaky part. We share the OCD. Fortunately, SI sells annual subscriptions, so I don’t feel the need to buy one whenever I pass a magazine rack.

But I’ve been worried about the venerable periodical that has carried the torch for sports journalism since Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce oversaw its first issue in 1954. SI has been navigating through turbulence for a while, just like many of us in print journalism.

Meredith Corporation bought Time Inc. in 2017 but put SI on the market because it didn’t fit with the company’s lifestyle magazines. As if that wasn’t disconcerting enough, SI went biweekly in January 2018. It took until last week, but Meredith finally sold SI to Authentic Brands Group, a global brand development, marketing and entertainment company.

Basically, ABG spent $110 million for SI’s intellectual property and the rights to its photo library and collection of covers, which make a lot of money. ABG also assumes the marketing and business development and will seek licensing opportunities under SI’s name. Imagine an SI sports-training operation or an e-sports competition or a sports-gambling venture. Maybe even an SI Pop-A-Shot.

That’s all well and good for ABG, whose portfolio includes Muhammad Ali, Greg Norman and Shaquille O’Neal in the sports world. But what about the magazine? Do its new owners view it as merely a branding vehicle? And what does the deal imply about SI’s editorial content?

I reached out to SI editor in chief Chris Stone. He started at the magazine as a reporter (read: fact-checker) in 1992. Obviously, he was happy to be on stable ground for the first time in a long time.

“It’s nice to have an owner who is excited about Sports Illustrated,” Stone said, “an owner that not only respects its past but is very excited about its future and recognizes what we do well and what the opportunity is here.”

ABG might be the owner, but Meredith still has editorial control of the magazine and website for at least two years (it will pay ABG a fee to maintain it). Readers can expect more of the same premium journalism and storytelling that SI is known for. But Stone is excited about what the magazine can do more of with a new steward.

“The whole lure of being bought was to unlock new value in Sports Illustrated and to do things that we hadn’t been permitted to do for a long time,” he said. “We want to reach bigger audiences. We can continue to create a top-notch magazine while being able to deliver even more of a magazine experience through our other platforms.”

Stone’s predecessors began taking SI in this direction years ago, but its importance continues to grow in a media world bent on going digital. Stone is big on the SI “experience,” which encapsulates the magazine, website and video ventures on SI TV, a subscription video service.

For example, last year SI released the documentary “14 Back,” an examination of the Yankees’ comeback to steal the American League East from the Red Sox in 1978. It was accompanied by a cover story by Tom Verducci, who focused on an angle within the film rather than just put the film to paper.

“It was something that was designed to create the same story in two different types of experiences but remain true to our core values,” said Stone, who added that SI will release four more documentaries this year, including one on UFC 1 in 1993. “We’re trying to tell stories in new ways.”

But they won’t forget about the old way, the magazine. In fact, despite the struggles of print journalism, Stone said SI’s subscription base hasn’t suffered massively. According to Stone, SI had 3.2 million paid subscribers when he arrived in 1992. Today, it has 2.7 million.

SI still holds sway. The athletes have changed, but after all these years, there’s still value in being featured in the magazine and even more so appearing on the cover.

“That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed in all my years here,” Stone said, “the cachet of Sports Illustrated, particularly its cover, to every generation of athletes.”

ABG is banking on SI maintaining that cachet. It indeed is putting a premium on the magazine’s editorial work because for this arrangement to make sense, SI must continue generating content that’s worth licensing, whatever platform it’s on.

Remote patrol

If the Cardinals and Cubs are playing each other on a weekend, it must be on network TV. Sure enough, Fox-32 will carry the game Saturday at Wrigley Field with Joe Buck, John Smoltz and Ken Rosenthal on the call. First pitch is 6:15 p.m. It will reach two-thirds of the country. The rest will view Dodgers-Giants or Rockies-Mets.

Then “Sunday Night Baseball” will carry its second Cardinals-Cubs game from Wrigley this season. The “Baseball Tonight” pregame show will originate on site.