Using a blend of groundbreaking photography and revolutionary writing, Sports Illustrated changed the way spectator sports fit into American culture during the 1960s and 1970s. As the first weekly magazine devoted solely to sports, Sports Illustrated was a media leader that contributed, along with television, to sports moving from a pleasant diversion into big business, spewing out multi-million-dollar player salaries. The magazine's influence also cast beyond sports, as its annual mid-winter swimsuit issue became a popular phenomenon and created lasting changes in the modeling industry. " Sports Illustrated served as a counterbalance to the persistent hype of television, offering a way for new and educated fans to put the endless rounds of games and matches into a meaningful context," Michael MacCambridge observed in his book The Franchise. "It made an art out of in-depth reporting on those games, and thereby made the games themselves more important to more Americans."
Henry Luce, founder of Time Inc., the publisher of Time and Life, conceived the idea for Sports Illustrated. Though not much of a sports fan, Luce saw the potential for a weekly sports magazine based on the increased leisure time of the burgeoning post-war middle class, a large percentage of whom were migrating to the suburbs. Against the advice of his aides, who thought the idea folly, Luce launched
Sports Illustrated on August 16, 1954. Initially, the magazine covered an eclectic assortment of sports—big game hunting, yachting, horse racing, dog shows, and fishing, along with cooking, fashion, and travel—in addition to more traditional sports such as baseball, football, and boxing.
The magazine was positioned as a "class" magazine, much like the New Yorker, with sophisticated, intelligent, critical writing with no pandering. But it attracted neither readers nor advertisers in large numbers early on. The magazine began to fulfill its promise with the installation of Andre Laguerre as managing editor in 1960. Laguerre, a cosmopolitan and urbane native of France, had a keen appreciation for good writing. He focused the magazine on the four major team sports (baseball, football, basketball, and hockey) plus boxing, golf, and tennis. Fishing, which had ranked fourth among all sports in articles per year in the magazine's third year, ranked number 13 by 1963.
Laguerre hired two writers who would forever change the face of sports journalism: Dan Jenkins and Frank Deford. These two writers gave readers insight and analysis unavailable elsewhere and helped SI, as the magazine was often called, to create a new approach to sportswriting. MacCambridge described the SI style as "not just reporting or covering an event, but distilling it, capturing its essence and presenting it in a compressed, lyrical image of deadline literature and photojournalism."
SI became a part of the weekly routine as much as the daily sports page. Millions watched the games on the weekend, then waited for SI to arrive in their mailboxes on Thursday or Friday to tell them what had really happened behind the scenes. To many sports fans, SI was "the final word" and "an event wasn't real until ratified in the pages of SI." From its initial 350,000 subscriber base in 1954, circulation grew to 1 million readers in 1960, 2 million in the mid-1970s, 3 million in the mid-1980s, and topped out at nearly 3.5 million in the late 1980s.
As James Michener explained in his book Sports in America, "Sports Illustrated has become the bible of the industry, and it has done so because it appreciated from the start the facts that faced printed journalism in the age of television: don't give the scores, give the inside stories behind the scenes. And deal openly with those topics which men in saloons talk about in whispers." Besides the ongoing sports seasons, the magazine also took on hard subjects as exempli-fied by Jack Olsen's 1968 series on the exploitation of the black athlete, "The Black Athlete -A Shameful Story." In the late 1960s, SI also published series about the growing threat of drugs in sports, women's rights in athletics, and the electronic revolution in sports.
In addition to great writers, Laguerre also hired two photographers named Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss, who would transform the nature and art of sports photography. Leifer and Iooss shot many of the SI cover photos in the 1960s. As SI continually pushed the technological limits in color photography printing, Leifer and Iooss captured on film the very essence of a weekend sports event and had it appear within a few days in SI. Laguerre thus merged the best color with the latest analysis to expand the SI influence. In 1965, Leifer also shot what is considered one of the most famous sports photos of all-time, Muhammad Ali standing over a prostrate Sonny Liston with Ali's fist angrily imploring Liston off the canvas, with three faces—mouths agape—seen between Ali's legs. The image, oddly, was not chosen for the cover shot that week.
An athlete's appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated became a cultural icon, proof of an athlete's legitimacy. People framed SI covers for keepsakes, beginning with the cover of its first issue in 1954, Milwaukee Braves' third baseman Eddie Mathews. The top cover subject in the magazine's first 40 years was Ali, who appeared on 32 covers, followed closely by Michael Jordan with 30. Being on the SI cover also became identified as a jinx, a double-edged sword of being on top of the sports world but at risk for malfunctioning in the big game. The first incident occurred shortly after the release of the January 31, 1955 issue, with skier Jill Kinmont on the cover, when Kinmont fell in a ski meet that left her paralyzed below the neck.
Laguerre also pioneered the swimsuit issue in 1964. The original concept was as a "sunshine issue" in the bleak winter days of late January. It was designed to bridge the gap between the New Year's Day college bowl games to the start of baseball spring training in early March, in the years when basketball, either pro or college, had little national following. What might have been just a single issue article blossomed into an annual event, with the commotion about the issue. It brightened some people's winter, but outraged others. The issue went "from moral outrage to hallowed tradition in only one generation," Deford wrote in his 1989 retrospective on the swimsuit issue, "How It All Began."
To take charge of the swimsuit issue, Laguerre tapped Jule Campbell. After fashion model Babette March graced the 1964 initial cover, Campbell used unknown women with "natural" or "healthy" looks instead of the gaunt high fashion look. As the issue gained popularity, Campbell blended known faces with her "healthy" look. She even used the models' names in photo captions, providing a degree of identity that fashion magazines did not at the time. This helped to accelerate the career of Cheryl Tiegs, who appeared on the cover of the 1970 swimsuit issue, and some say, helped to usher in the supermodel era. Other famous models that appeared early in their careers on the cover of the swimsuit issue were Christie Brinkley (1979), Elle MacPherson (1986), and Kathy Ireland (1989). As the issue's swimsuits became skimpier, the battlefield changed from moral corruption of youth to sexism. "Women should stop screaming about that one issue and start screaming that SI doesn't carry enough women's sports. That's sexism," tennis star Billie Jean King said. The debate came to a head with the 1978 issue, when Iooss photographed Tiegs wearing a fishnet swimsuit. When dry, the suit was sensual but not revealing in the upper body area. Tiegs, however, had dipped into the water and the wetness created an exceptionally provocative pose, leaving nothing to the viewer's imagination. The picture caused a furor, eliciting more letters and canceled subscriptions in the history of the swimsuit issue. But it was a defining moment for both the swimsuit issue and the supermodel industry. "If there was any doubt before that modeling was, like everything else, about to lose its virginity (or illusion of virginity) in the 70s, the January 1978 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue put an end to it," Stephen Fried wrote in Thing of Beauty. "The uproar caused by one picture of Cheryl Tiegs reinforced the new truth that the way straight men perceived fashion models would determine the future of the business." "It's a sweet little picture, that's it," Tiegs told Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. Gross went on to write, "But in fact, it was a major coup, adding the powerful appeal of the pinup picture to modeling's arsenal of promotional gimmicks."
As the swimsuit issue gained popularity, SI stepped up its marketing of the issue in the mid-1980s by introducing the swimsuit calendar and touting the models on the talk show circuit before the issue hit the newsstand. The 1986 issue with MacPherson on the cover sold 1.2 million copies at the newsstand, up from just 300,000 in 1983. The 25th anniversary issue in 1989 sold 2.7 million single copies. Newsstand sales by 1996 had slumped back to 1986 levels, a reflection of the changing dynamics in sports journalism.
The creation of ESPN and other round-the-clock media in the 1980s made the magazine's original mission less compelling. Its influence began to wane as sports fans no longer depended on the magazine to explain what had happened a few days before, as a plethora of television highlight shows and the Internet had already done so. In the 1989 merger of Time with Warner, SI moved away from writing and began to pursue a strategy to "extend the brand." Videos and calendars were hawked in crass television advertisements, as were magazine subscriptions (example: this awesome [item] is free with your one-year subscription to Sports Illustrated, which includes the swimsuit issue!). A spin-off magazine was also introduced, Sports Illustrated for Kids.
In the 1990s, Sports Illustrated was as well known, if perhaps not more so, for its swimsuit issue, free videos, and clothing line as it was for the writing and photography that had made it famous in the first place. And thousands of loyal readers still treasured its arrival every week.
Deford, Frank. "How It All Began." Sports Illustrated. Special Issue. February 1989, 38-46.
Fried, Stephen. Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gina Carangi. New York, Pocket Books, 1993.
Gross, Michael. Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. New York, W. Morrow, 1995.
MacCambridge, Michael. The Franchise: A History of "Sports Illustrated" Magazine. New York, Hyperion, 1997.
Michener, James A. Sports in America. New York, Random House, 1976.