Sports Illustrated at 70

Requiem for a 20th century icon


Sports Illustrated (SI), the literary institution that weaved sports into the fabric of American culture for 3 generations, is turning 70 years old this summer.

Unfortunately, the occasion calls for more nostalgia than celebration since SI has been in free fall for several years now, a victim of waning readership and the 24-hour news beast.

The latest blow was a $3.7 million missed payment in January by SI’s publisher, The Arena Group, to Authentic Brands Group (ABG), the owner and licensor of the SI brand.

The financial setback follows the ouster of Arena’s CEO after revelations that SI was publishing AI-generated articles and photos.

Among other intellectual properties, ABG owns the personal brands to Muhammad Ali, David Beckham, Julius Irving, Greg Norman, and Shaquille O’Neil, in addition to apparel makers Reebok, Spyder, Sportcraft, and others.

SI fell into the hands of ABG in 2019 after long-time owner, Time, Inc., was sold to the Meredith Corporation, which then stripped SI from its portfolio.

ABG acquired SI for $110 million before licensing out the publishing rights to Arena (then Maven) under a 10-year, $15 million per year contract.

Lost in the corporate tosses and financial machinations was SI’s iconic place in sports journalism when ink on paper was still king and sportsmen and women were inspiring figures rather than marketing brands.

SI was the gold standard of its craft before the digital age took over, putting out award-winning long-forms and glossy covers that captured celebratory moments and athletes at their prime.

BUY- First issue ever of Sports Ilustrated (August 16, 1954)

The New York Times wrote of SI recently, “It used to be the most coveted real estate in sports journalism.”

Who could forget the ‘Miracle on Ice’ cover issue of March 3, 1980 when Team USA defeated the Soviet Union in hockey at the Olympics, lifting the spirits of a then downtrodden nation.

Or, the July 19, 1999 cover of Women’s World Cup soccer champion Brandi Chastain stripped to her training bra, her arms flexed and held up, with a single word caption- “Yes!”

John Cooney started his career at SI in 1993 and rose to become the head of its NY sales department, increasing ad revenues from $80 million to $100 million just from the Manhattan office (nationwide revenues were $250 million).

“I was representing something meaningful and important,” says the veteran who now works as Client Development Director at McGuinness Media and Marketing.

“It was a badge of honor to be an employee at Sports Illustrated…I had the privilege of working alongside legendary journalists and editors like Rick Reilly, Gary Smith, Tom Verducci, Frank DeFord, Peter King, Michael Farber, Jack McCallum, Mark Mulvoy...”

BUY- Muhammad Ali issue (March 1, 1971)

Writers penned their stories with deft and elegance, giving the magazine a cache that wasn’t present in other sports publications.

At the Super Bowl, SI would send 15 photographers to shoot thousands of frames, of which only 6 made it into the pages.

“It was a murderers’ row of talent,” notes BJ Schecter of the reporters, photographers, and editors who worked at SI. Schecter spent more than 2 decades at the organization, leaving in 2016 as an Executive Editor.

Now Interim Executive Director at Seton Hall University, Center for Sports Media, Schecter recalls his early days as an aspiring sports reporter who chose SI over ESPN for his dream job.

“If you picked up the phone and said I’m calling from Sports Illustrated, then everyone would take your call even if you were a 23-year-old nobody like me.”

One of his career highlights was putting 16-year-old Jabari Parker on the May 21, 2012 cover as “The Best High School Player Since Lebron James…”

BUY- Michael Jordan issue (June 17, 1996)

Schecter remembers Parker’s parents shedding an emotional tear at SI’s office in Manhattan when he showed them the cover before it hit the newsstands.

Schecter then worked with Katie Couric at ABC to surprise the young hoopster with his photo on the cover during his interview on Good Morning America.

A reading staple in many households, young sports fans remember the anticipation of SI’s arrival towards the end of each week and running to their mailbox to pick up the latest issue.


Mitch Weiner is a retired dentist who also served as President of the New Jersey Dental Association. Growing up in the Garden State, he remembers sharing the magazine with his father and brother.

“It was one way that we bonded in our family and unfortunately, you don’t see that today anymore.”

Later in life, as a dentist who also represented the interest of his peers, he knew that most of them subscribed to SI along with other publications as reading material in their waiting rooms.

“You had to have it in your sitting area and it was usually the most worn-out magazine.”

BUY- Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer issue (April 5, 1965)

SI was the brainchild of Time patriarch, Henry Luce, who saw opportunity in a national sports weekly at a time when sports coverage was regarded as flimsy journalism,

The magazine made its debut on August 16, 1954 with a photo of Milwaukee Braves Eddie Mathews at home plate and New York Giants catcher Wes Westrum kneeling behind him.

Losing money in its first 12 years, SI turned the corner when Time’s European correspondent, Andre Laguerre, was brought on board as assistant Managing Editor and then Managing Editor.

Laguerre redesigned the inside format and introduced full-color photography, becoming the first news organization to do so in sports coverage. Circulation doubled.

Laguerre also created the Swimsuit Issue, first released on January 20th, 1964 and quickly becoming the most popular issue of the year as readers warmed their eyes during the cold days of winter when the sports calendar was slow.

Covering all aspects of sporting life, SI included fishing, hunting and dogs on its cover in the 1950s, in addition to stars such as Willie Mays, Gordie Howe, and Johnny Unitas.

BUY- Dan Marino issue (September 12, 1994)

The 1960s saw the rise of Muhammad Ali who graced the front page 11 times during that decade (39 times in total). The 1970s belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers who won the Super Bowl 3 times and appeared on the SI cover 15 times.

The 1980s ushered in Wayne Gretsky who took the NHL by storm with 4 Stanley Cups and SI’s 1982 Sportsman of the Year. When the Canadian ice prodigy joined the LA Kings, SI placed him on the August 22, 1988 cover next to Magic Johnson with the heading:

“Great Move, Gretzky…Magic Johnson welcomes Wayne Gretsky to Los Angeles”

Every athlete dreamed of an SI cover and while the magazine championed sports, it didn’t slobber over its subjects.

When basketball superstar Michael Jordan swapped his Bulls jersey for the Chicago White Sox baseball uniform 30 years ago, SI captioned its March 14, 1994 cover of Jordan:

“Bag it, Michael!  Jordan and The White Sox Are Embarrassing Baseball"

Bitter at the unflattering publicity, Jordan, who would be featured on SI’s cover 50 times since his college days with the North Carolina Tar Heels, would not grant the magazine another interview.

BUY- Nolan Ryan issue (April 15, 1991)

Despite their upstanding reputation, the staff at SI weren’t necessarily infallible when it came to calling rising stars.

On the April 24, 1989 front cover, Michigan’s hulky Tony Mandarich was named “The Best Offensive Prospect Ever” only to be back-peddled to “The NFL’s Incredible Bust” 3 years later.

SI stayed in print as a weekly for 64 years before switching to a bi-weekly in 2018 and then a monthly in 2020. At the top of its game in the 1990s, it reached a circulation of 3 million, plus 1 million of the Swimsuit Issue.

Circulation today is less than half what it was at peak and a young demographic weaned on blogs and moving visuals isn’t likely to bring back the magazine’s glory days.

For SI’s 70th birthday, at least we have the memories.

Gill Schor is publisher of Sports History Magazine (



Winter 2020

Spring 2020

Spring 2021

Winter 2021


Winter 2020

Spring 2020

Spring 2021

Winter 2021


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's