LeBron James holding up his first SI cover in February 2002. LeBron James holds an issue of Sports Illustrated on Feb. 13, 2002. James was on SI’s cover as a junior at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. (Phil Masturzo/The Akron Beacon-Journal, via USA Today Sports.)

There’s considerable uncertainty ahead for Sports Illustrated, and that now extends to the future of its print edition. Ben Mullin of The New York Times reported Thursday that The Arena Group, which currently operates SI, told employees in a newsroom meeting Thursday that the May print edition will be the last one:

As Mullin notes in that story, though, there’s significant uncertainty around that considering that Arena doesn’t own SI. Indeed, they even had their license to operate the publication pulled by SI owner Authentic Brands Group in January over a missed payment. That led to Arena sending layoff notices to all union employees (with some of those immediate and some future-dated). And while Arena has made a bid to continue publishing SI under changed terms, several other companies have also bid.

Arena has kept operating SI for now, but that’s on a very tenuous basis. And Minute Media was tabbed as the “front-runner” to take over SI publication Wednesday. And SI owner Authentic has indicated their commitment to an ongoing print presence, so that makes it quite unclear how Arena can just declare this will end. Here’s more on that from Mullin’s story:

Friction between Sports Illustrated’s owner and its operator has led to disarray at the venerable magazine in recent months. On Thursday, that dysfunction again came to the fore.

Employees were told during a meeting that the magazine would cease publishing its print edition after its May issue, according to Steve Janisse, a spokesman for Manoj Bhargava, the businessman whose handpicked leadership team effectively operates the publication. But that message runs counter to what Sports Illustrated’s owner, Authentic Brands Group, has said about looking for a way to ensure that the magazine endures in print.

The discussion of print versus online is common across journalism these days, but it carries some different dimensions with Sports Illustrated. One is that much of SI’s value, especially to Authentic, doesn’t specifically come from the publication; it comes from the brand, and what else Authentic can use that for (similarly to what they do with much of their portfolio of other brands, athletes, and celebrities, covering everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to the estate of Muhammad Ali). That’s included deals around parties, TV specials, sportsbooks, resorts, nutrition supplements, and more. And yes, some of that brand value may still continue without a print edition of SI, but there are less differentiators for it from its sports coverage competitors if it’s an online-only outlet without a print magazine.

There’s also still some specific value to the print magazine for SI. For one, there’s advertising: there are still things that work for brands about full-page magazine spreads versus digital ads, even with declining subscription numbers. Beyond that, SI has always had significant numbers of individual-issue sales to non-subscribers in newsstands, airports, bookstores, corner stores and more.

And that’s part of why the covers have been and continue to be so important for SI. Indeed, editor-in-chief Steve Cannella told AA last January (he was co-EIC then) “The importance of the cover has never been higher.” And as Cannella discussed in that interview, there are major editorial benefits for them from continuing their focus on distinct covers, with many athletes citing a SI cover as a particular reason they want to work with the magazine.

That’s much harder to do as a digital-only publication. And the athletes who have cited that include LeBron James, seen at top holding his first SI cover in 2002. James was featured in an August 2022 cover harking back to that along with his sons, and even wore a t-shirt with his first cover on it for the photo shoot:

None of that means SI will retain a print product forever. The print model has numerous challenges in 2024, and many magazines (including many sports magazines) have already moved to digital-only formats (or completely shut down) over the last decade. (At SI, print has not shut down, but they’ve dropped to 12 issues a year from the weekly model they had just seven years back.) And, similarly with what we’re seeing in the transition from cable/satellite/virtual multichannel video programming distributors to individual or joint direct-to-consumer streaming ventures, as people leave an older model, that older model gets harder and harder to sustain.

That’s perhaps even more true with print publications. Creating and distributing a print product requires a lot of specialized technology, knowledge, and space. And economies of scale for that diminish or vanish as print products decrease. And the long-term future of all print publications is certainly hazy right now. But it shouldn’t automatically be assumed that SI print is indeed dead in a few months just from an Arena comment, as it’s quite unclear how long Arena will be operating that publication.

[The New York Times]



About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.