George Solomon on the future of Sports Illustrated


George Solomon on the future of Sports Illustrated
Mar 28, 2018

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Capital One Arena, Washington Wizards, Capitals and Mystics, with an ever-increasing interest in the Monumental Sports and Entertainment multimedia company,  tells the story of the excitement his younger self would feel upon receiving his weekly edition of Sports Illustrated.

Leonsis used the tale to make a point to an audience of business students at the University of Maryland several years ago: More Americans every day are receiving their news, information and stories in ways that do not include print.

This sentiment clearly is shared by the Meredith Corporation, owner of Sports Illustrated, Time and Fortune. The company recently expressed a desire to sell these magazines in favor of “lifestyle” brands such as House Beautiful. And, as a kicker, Meredith is eliminating 100 jobs from these more serious publications, with another 1,000 layoffs expected by year’s end.

I would hope whoever buys the three properties from Meredith maintains their quality—and, for starters, restores Sports Illustrated to a weekly publication schedule. (It recently was reduced to twice-a-month publication.)

Ever since the magazine made its debut in 1954, I couldn’t wait for Thursday to get my hands on my delivered copy, much like Leonsis. (In a New York airport or newsstand, you could even buy it on Wednesday.)

You tell journalism students about what it was like to read a weekly magazine that featured, among other writers, Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Bill Nack, Curry Kirkpatrick, Mark Kram, Scott Price, Gary Smith, Tom Verducci and Rick Reilly. And that’s not to mention great photography from the likes of Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss. If you had editing aspirations, you could only hope to be the suave Andre Laguerre, whose byplay in the SI staff drinking haunt included his referring to a young (before he became a legend) Frank Deford as simply “Frankie.”

I wonder if Meredith executives ever read Deford’s profiles of Bob Knight or Billy Conn, or Nack’s horse racing pieces or Jenkins’ coverage of any golf major or college football game. Even those who weren’t on staff could star in SI—see Tony Kornheiser’s memorable story on Rick Barry and John Schulian’s takeouts and a short piece on Baltimore boxing promoter Eli Hanover that  got him hired by a newspaper in Washington.

Which brings us to the recent departure of SI media reporter Richard Deitsch, who left the magazine to join the up-and-coming website The Athletic. Deitsch’s weekly “media circus” column on the SI website was a must-read because of Deitsch’s relentless reporting and educated opinions. He represents a huge loss for Sports Illustrated.

All of the above would have resulted in a  shake of the head by Michael Getler, who died at age 82 on March 15 in Washington from complications from bile duct cancer.   A career journalist, Getler could be referred to as the greatest ombudsman who ever lived, with a five-year stint in that role at The Washington Post followed by 12 years at PBS.

Getler also served for years at The Washington Post as a foreign correspondent, foreign editor and deputy managing editor. He left The Post in 1996 to become Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune, which was owned jointly by The Washington Post and The New York Times. In 2000, The Post sold its stake in the IHT to The New York Times and Getler returned to The Post as its ombudsman.

As a close friend and longtime colleague, Getler showed no mercy when he felt criticism of The Post’s sports section under my watch was deserved. Usually he was right. Once, he came into my office to share a complaint from a reader that the section had underplayed a big horse race–the Travers Stakes–that had been run at Saratoga the previous weekend.

“Okay, Mike,” I responded when it was clear he wasn’t leaving until I admitted my error. “On my gravestone, I’ll instruct these words be inscribed: ‘He never respected the Travers.’”

Getler smiled and left.

On a brighter note, we applaud PEN America’s recognition of Dave Kindred last month. Kindred was honored with the the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing at its annual awards ceremony in New York City.

Kindred, who has most recently written several books on the achievements of a girls high school basketball team in Illinois, has had a marvelous career as a sports columnist for The Louisville Times, The Washington Post, The National and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also has authored a number of exceptional books.

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