Mike Bianchi: Demise of Sports Illustrated is a sad day for journalism

ORLANDO, Fla. — I wonder how Steve Shaff is handling the devastating news of our old friend lying helplessly on his deathbed.

Steve and I and many others our age grew up together with this friend; a boyhood buddy who helped us fall in love with sports; who taught us to appreciate the written word; who — much to mom’s chagrin — even introduced us to the beauty and artistry of the female body (see Cheryl Tiegs in a fishnet bikini).

We all love our friend, but Steve loves him more than the rest of us. And that’s why I called him Tuesday. I wanted to see how he was dealing with our buddy being on life support.

“If it happens,” Steve said of the expected death, “it will be the end of a big part of my childhood and my sports fandom. It will be a sad day for sports fans my age and older.”

Our dying friend is not a human being; he is a collection of amazing words and incredible photographs known simply by his two initials SI — Sports Illustrated. The venerable magazine announced a few days ago that it is laying off “a significant number, possibly all” of its staff.

The reason I thought of Steve when I heard this news is because he is the biggest Sports Illustrated fan I know. I met him when he worked in the sports information office at the University of Florida and he told me about his vast collection of autographed SI covers.

His passion started as a teenager when he mailed off an SI cover of the iconic Hank Aaron and it came back weeks later with a message and a signature from the then-home run king. “I was hooked after that,” says Steve, who is now the sports information director at Brophy College Prep — a private high school in Phoenix.

Steve’s collection of signed SI covers has grown to 850 over the years, including the 1984 College Basketball Issue in which he acquired the autographs of all three men on the cover — President Ronald Reagan, Georgetown coach John Thompson and Hoyas star Patrick Ewing.

Shaff, 54, isn’t nearly as vigilant about getting the covers signed as he was in his younger years. Then again, SI isn’t nearly as vigilant about putting out a good product as it was in its younger years.

And really it’s nobody’s fault except Father Time. There are some conservatives who fall back on the “Go Woke, Go Broke” mantra to try to easily explain away SI’s demise, but the magazine was going broke long before it decided to put a transgender model on the cover of its renowned Swimsuit Issue last year.

A more popular theory about SI’s downfall is that the magazine was purchased by a greedy venture capitalist company — The Arena Group — a few years ago. In an article headlined “The Long, Sad Decline of Sports Illustrated” written recently after SI was busted for trying to pawn off A.I.-generated stories as content created by real journalists, writer Jesse Pantuosco eloquently wrote that The Arena Group was “stripping SI for parts like a rusty two-seater headed for the junkyard.”

He went on to write that the venture capitalists care little about quality journalism and more about making money by using SI’s name on tropical resort hotels and sports betting apps.

“Paying no mind to Sports Illustrated’s rich legacy,” he wrote, “The Arena Group has made painfully obvious its lack of journalistic ambition, happily profiting off a reputation that took the better part of a century to build, clumsily slapping its name and likeness onto products not even tangentially related to sports. To the suits in SoHo, Sports Illustrated is little more than a cash register, a piggy bank for big business to take from. SI’s precipitous decline should be viewed as a cautionary tale warning against opportunistic VCs [Venture Capitalists] blinded by tunnel vision, leaving Sports Illustrated, like so many others undermined by corporate meddling, to die on the vine.”

Profoundly written, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I hate to say it, but the main reason Sports Illustrated and many other newspapers and magazines are being sold to venture capitalists is because they are already dying on the vine. The Los Angeles Times isn’t owned by a hedge fund, and it’s slashing jobs. The New York Times isn’t owned by venture capitalists and it shut down its sports department last year.

In today’s changing media climate, it’s no secret that magazines and newspapers have failed to figure out a way to adequately monetize their digital content and advertising. As a result, profits shrink, staffing is cut and the journalistic product suffers.

There’s a reason that the Villages Daily Sun — the newspaper that serves the thriving retirement community in Central Florida — is the largest weekly circulation newspaper in Florida. The 55-and-older crowd still wants a printed newspaper, but most everybody else gets their news for free online.

The kids of today get their information on Twitter, TikTok or YouTube. They don’t run to the mailbox every Thursday like Steve Shaff and millions of others once did to grab dad’s Sports Illustrated before he got home from work.

We used to read SI from cover to cover — from the quick takes in the “Scorecard” section … to the props for amateur athletes in the “Faces in the Crowd” section … to the always-entertaining back-page column written by Rick Reilly or Steve Rushin.

And in between, some of the best sportswriters in history — Reilly, Dan Jenkins, Frank DeFord, Gary Smith, Curry Kirkpatrick, etc. — would mesmerize us with longform writing that was a combination of colorful storytelling, intense insight and a deep dive into the human emotion of the athletes and coaches. These weren’t just sports stories; they were sports novellas that transcended the games themselves.

And when we were done reading the stories, we would tack or tape the SI covers onto our bedroom walls. I had a Pistol Pete Maravich on my wall … and Mercury Morris … and Steve Garvey.

“I used to guess who would be on the cover and couldn’t wait to get the magazine to see if I was right,” Steve Shaff remembers. “I miss those days.”

Every Thursday was like Christmas morning and SI was like getting a Christmas present in your mailbox every week. When you eagerly unwrapped it, there was no telling what surprises would be inside.

Sadly, those days are all but gone.

SI is a monthly now and the Christmas present seems more like junk mail.

The news is mostly old; the writing is mostly underwhelming.

You wonder how many times it goes straight from the mailbox into the recycle bin.

A dinosaur marching into the tar pit.

Death by disinterest.

Rest in peace, old friend.