A graphic of some of Sports Illustrated's ownership/publisher history. A graphic of some of Sports Illustrated’s ownership/publisher history.

A new chapter in the history of Sports Illustrated began Monday with the announcement by owner Authentic Brands Group that Minute Media would take over publishing the brand, with both a continuation of the magazine’s print edition as well as their digital efforts. That deal, which is reportedly for 10 years with options that could extend it up to 30 years, ends this year’s tumultuous saga between Authentic and its previous publisher The Arena Group over the future of SI.

But the Minute Media deal is just the latest twist in the since-1936 history of the Sports Illustrated name and the since-1954 history of the current magazine. Here’s a look at some of the many notable things that have happened with the brand during that timeline:

The very first Sports Illustrated (1936-1942)

It’s generally not prominently featured in the official history of the current magazine, given the different ownership and the eventual publication break, but it’s worth pointing out that a monthly magazine known as Sports Illustrated began publication in 1936. There is a direct link to the rights to that name, and the story of how this magazine got it is fascinating.

This started with Stuart Scheftel, a grandson of eventual R.H. Macy and Company co-owner Isidor Strauss. The Oxford-educated Scheftel worked at The New York Times from 1931-35 (first selling subscriptions, then working as a clerk, then working as a reporter who covered cases including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping). He then left to launch a weekly Young America magazine targeted at classroom use, then founded Sports Illustrated as a monthly magazine in 1936.

That version of SI mostly focused on country-club sports like golf and tennis. But it did have some coverage of football and baseball as well, and it did emphasize quality writing and photography. And it found an audience, and might well have survived into the present if not for a World War II-related paper shortage. Here’s what Scheftel, then 79 and “the president of Fonawin, a telephone mass-announcement service that provides callers with the weather, lottery numbers, and off-track betting results,” told SI publisher Donald J. Barr in 1989 for a “From the publisher” column printed in the magazine’s 35th-anniversary edition:

“We were beginning to turn the corner financially. But because paper was at such a premium I had to choose between Sports Illustrated and another magazine I put out, Young America. So I stopped publishing Sports Illustrated.'”

That wouldn’t be the end of the SI name, though, or of Scheftel’s involvement with it.

Dell Publishing (1949)

This is mostly a footnote in the brand’s history, but it’s interesting in light of things that came later. Scheftel sold the name to Dell Publishing (a huge publisher of magazines, comic books, and pulp novels at the time, eventually acquired by Doubleday), and they tried to bring out Sports Illustrated as a monthly magazine in 1949. But there was a lot of competition amongst monthly sports magazines then, and this only lasted six issues.

Enter Henry Luce and Time Inc. (1954)

This is where the current magazine’s linear history starts. It came from Henry Luce, who co-founded Time in 1923, founded Fortune in 1929 (unfortunate timing), and founded the current version of Life in 1936. The latter move was a similar deal to what Luce would eventually strike with the SI name, taking over an existing brand and radically rebuilding it. However, unlike SI, Life had been in continuous publication pre-Luce.

Despite not reportedly being much of a sports fan, Luce saw a gap in sports coverage on a weekly basis, and went ahead with the launch of SI despite pushback from advisors. As per a 2004 American Masters documentary on Luce, SI wasn’t profitable for its first 12 years. However, it established itself as an important national player at that time and eventually became a crucial piece of the Time Inc. empire. During the Time Inc. alone run, SI became known for top photography and writing, was a key adopter of technologies including offset printing and fast color, and became the first full-color weekly magazine in 1983.

As per getting the name from Scheftel, Luce actually started the magazine without a name at all. As per Barr’s 1989 column linked above, Luce sent a letter to Time subscribers in February offering charter subscriptions to his new sports magazine for $7.50 a year, but it didn’t have a name then. And even in the months ahead of the August 1954 launch, one test issue was titled The New Sport Magazine, while the other was just titled Dummy. The project was known either as “Henry” (for Luce) or “Muscles” internally at Time Inc.

Luce tried to buy the name of the existing monthly Sport for $200,000, but their publisher held out for $250,000. Meanwhile, Scheftel pitched new magazine publisher and acquaintance Harry Phillips on the Sports Illustrated name and sold it for “low five figures” and a subscription for himself, which SI honored for his lifetime.

Time Inc. becomes Time Warner (1989-1990)

Time Inc. grew well beyond magazines over the years. In particular, they got into cable distribution through an investment in Charles Dolan’s Manhattan Cable TV Services, and Dolan then convinced them to back his new HBO concept ahead of its 1972 launch. They’d then pick up a third of USA (initially the Madison Square Garden Sports Network) in 1981 and keep that until 1987 after a failed attempt to buy CNN from Ted Turner. In 1989, Time Inc. announced a plan to merge with Warner Communications (then the parent of Warner Bros. Pictures, the Warner Music Group, Warner Books, and Warner Cable), and that was completed in 1990 after a failed lawsuit to block it from Paramount.

CNN/SI launches (1996)

The era of Time Warner alone would run through 2001. Perhaps the most notable development there for SI came from the company’s 1996 acquisition of Turner Broadcasting System, the parent of CNN, TBS, TNT, and more. That led to the December 1996 launch of the 24-hour sports news channel CNN/SI. While that network would only run through 2002, it was responsible for cnnsi.com, SI’s first web presence and a name they’d keep as their main domain until rebranding to SI.com in February 2003. And the CNN and SI brands would stay linked, especially digitally, through 2013, as we’ll discuss below.

The AOL Time Warner merger (2000-2001)

One of the biggest deals of the dot-com boom and bust era saw America Online announce it would purchase Time Warner for $183 billion in 2000 (which actually was a merger, with AOL shareholders holding 55 percent of the equity of the combined entity). That deal closed in January 2001, but it didn’t work out well; around the dot-com bubble bursting and AOL revenues tanking, the company posted a loss of $99 billion (including goodwill write-offs) in 2002, and the stock lost nine-tenths of its value. The “AOL” was dropped from the name in 2003, and AOL was spun off in 2009; Jeff Bewkes, who would become Time Warner CEO in 2008, would later describe the AOL Time Warner merger as “the biggest mistake in corporate history.”

From the SI side specifically, the AOL era seems more like a missed opportunity than anything. The state of SI’s web efforts was well below what was offered by competitors like ESPN.com in 2001, and sports was a big deal for AOL. But there was never much integration of SI (or much of anything else Time Warner) into AOL, leading to AOL forming their own AOL FanHouse in 2006.

One of the many interesting things with FanHouse was its early focus on covering and opining on the news of the day, something the still-magazine-focused Sports Illustrated didn’t do extensively digitally until later. So there seemingly could have been some cross-promotion and synergies between those properties. But in our 2016 oral history of FanHouse, Neal Scarbrough (AOL Sports general manager/editor in chief) said “AOL had millions of users, but very little traction in sports,” and Jeff Price (president, Sports Illustrated Digital) had quite a revealing quote on the overall difficulties integrating Time Warner units with each other, much less AOL:

There were numerous discussions within Time Warner about what could have been done to create a digital sports enterprise within and nothing ever materialized out of it. But there were at least three distinct efforts made to try and combine resources, traffic allocations, content development, video involvement… but ultimately the way that Time Warner worked, was each business within Time Warner, whether it was AOL or Turner, was ultimately driven by their own division. Getting cross-functional work done was not the Disney approach, where you put everything together… inevitably the sports brand goes away in favor of everyone uniting behind ESPN. Those types of decisions were not made at Time Warner.

The Time Inc. spinoff (2013-14)

Announced in March 2013 and completed in January 2014, this move led to the publishing assets of Time Inc. becoming their own company separate from Time Warner’s TV and movie businesses (which would in turn be bought by AT&T in 2016-17 in a shift to WarnerMedia, then spun off and combined with Discovery for the current Warner Bros. Discovery in 2021-22). Ahead of that, Time Warner had bought Bleacher Report (announced in 2012), and they worked to build that into their own sports portal and replaced their CNN links to Sports Illustrated with ones to Bleacher Report in January to February 2013.

Thus, the CNN/Sports Illustrated partnership (which was still driving an estimated 20 percent of SI’s web traffic in early 2013) ended even before the Time Inc. spinoff was announced. But that Bleacher Report acquisition and split of CNN and SI was part of the same line of thinking of separating Time Warner print and TV assets that would lead to the eventual spinoff.

While Time Inc. as an independent company would only last a few years before magazine publisher Meredith Communications bought it (announced November 2017, completed January 2018), there were plenty of developments for SI in that period. One was a significantly increased focus on the website now that it was fully separated from CNN.

Of course, SI had begun developing some notable website features before that point. Those included Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column (which dates all the way back to 1996, the first year of cnnsi.com) and Jimmy Traina’s 2007-created pairing of scantily-clad women and sports links in Hot Clicks. But the digital focus grew further after the Time Inc. spinoff and grew to feature more prominent voices who had come up through the blogging world (especially after the 2015 acquisition of blog network FanSided and the incorporation of that with SI.com, which led to some of its own controversies) and more coverage and commentary on the news of the day (although still not to the level many thought they should have done).

The flip side of that, though, was a reduction in the frequency of standalone print issues (from 45 to 38 in 2017, with many of those becoming double issues, and to 27 in 2018). It should also be noted that some prominent layoffs took place during this era as well.

Video amplification and SI TV launch (2016-17)

Another notable development in the pre-Meredith days, and one that also seemed to have some ties to the exit from CNN and Time Warner, was SI expanding its in-house video efforts. They’d done some digital video even before this spinoff, but that amped up afterward, as did some forays into TV specials. The video efforts took a particularly notable shift in 2016, which saw Time Inc. itself create an in-house video unit and saw Josh Oshinsky join the company as a supervising producer for the Sports Illustrated Group to lead creative strategy, monetization, and distribution for all the company’s sports videos (that June).

Oshinsky started boosting SI’s long-form and documentary content, and that led to the launch of the subscription SI.TV service on Amazon Channels that November (with that combining on-demand access to both original programming and a library of sports films). He wound up overseeing SI TV’s programming more specifically in early 2018, and spoke to AA then about their efforts to expand into the documentary space as “that legitimate 30 for 30 alternative.” They would also launch a 24/7 linear channel with fuboTV in 2018.

While SI TV made some prominent documentaries with prominent people and partners, the widespread adoption didn’t happen. The brand eventually moved away from it (with ownership changes from Time Inc. to Meredith Communications in 2017-18 and Meredith to Authentic Brands Group in 2019 playing a notable role there). It’s worth noting that they tried several things now prominent in the sports media space more than half a decade ago, especially around one ultimately unsuccessful SI suitor recently citing a strategic “pivot to video” plan without referencing SI’s past efforts in that space.

Read on for more on the Meredith takeover, Authentic/Maven/Arena, and now Minute Media.

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.