It was a sort of love affair from the very beginning — a love affair between a teenager just getting into a newspaper career and a new sports magazine filled with interesting stories and colour photographs.
It was a summer day in New Glasgow in 1954.
I had an appointment with my doctor — who was also my uncle — in the Maritime Building downtown. I walked into the waiting room, sat down with a half dozen other patients and, like most folks in waiting rooms, began browsing through the clutter of magazines on a nearby table.
I spotted it almost instantly — a sports magazine I had never heard of. It was called Sports Illustrated and, upon examination, I discovered it was the inaugural issue. The cover photo showed Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves batting in a major league game.
I had just a few minutes to scan its contents before the receptionist said the doctor would see me. I was going to toss the magazine back on the table, but a little voice in my head told me to take it with me. I asked Uncle Henry if I could have it. His wink was a positive sign.
When I got home, Sports Illustrated got my full attention. I loved the stories, I loved the photos, I loved it even more when I discovered it was going to be a weekly publication.
I was already a subscriber to The Hockey News and I always got The Sporting News at Royal Sweets. They both had newspaper formats, but this new discovery was a magazine, just like Maclean’s and Time. Next day, I went to Royal Sweets and, sure enough, the next issue was already there.
That was 65 and a half years ago.
To the best of my knowledge, I’ve read every single issue, week after week, year after year. I wasn’t always a subscriber, intervals when I got it at newsstands.
SI is where I learned about the various sports — at least all the ones known on this earth. I anxiously awaited each copy, wanting to see what was on the cover.
SI covers got a reputation for being a jinx. Land on the cover and you or your team would most certainly suffer. Sports collectors to this day seek back covers.
One indisputable truth about SI was the high quality of its writers. Their work always inspired me to write to the best of my ability at all times. Through the years, the biggest compliments I got were readers telling me I had an SI style. That motivated me even more.
I’ve often referred to SI as my sports bible.
I had favourite writers — Dan Jenkins, Jim Murray, Peter King, Steve Wolff and Peter Gammons among them. And there was another — Richard Deitsch, who wrote for the magazine for two decades until a year or so ago when he came to Canada and joined Sportsnet as a regular analyst.
Now, unfortunately, I must switch moods and talk about SI negatively.
That’s because, for many people in this technical age, reading habits are changing — to the online universe.
Sadly, for those of us who still prefer to read our magazines and newspapers in our God-given hands, that new world is altering our lives much too fast. As a result, even SI is suffering from an economic environment in which readers and advertisers are turning away from print in favour of digital content.
Ten years ago, SI had a circulation of 3.2 million readers. Last year, the number had fallen to 2.75 million.
One recent article I read described SI as “a wounded, lame duck.” Another suggested the magazine has “lost its prestige and influence.”
At Time-Life, where SI used to be a part of the publishing giant’s properties, financial losses were being reported for over a decade.
With new owners, the losses continued.
The SI story gets worse. Readers like me are being hit where we don’t want to be hit — by the number of issues being published.
As recently as 2015, there were 50 issues a year. A year later, the number had slipped to 46. Soon it was down to 38, including some double-issues that counted as two. In 2018, SI announced it was going biweekly.
Now comes another spanking.
The cover of the last issue I received — just before Christmas — hailed soccer star Megan Rapinoe as the magazine’s sportsperson of the year.
Inside, there’s an announcement by “the editors.” I’ll let them explain.
“The sports and media worlds have changed greatly since (1954), but SI’s dedication to premium storytelling, in-depth journalism and gripping photography hasn’t. What’s different is the way you consume that content.
“A 21st-century print magazine is no longer a vessel for news and timely analysis. It’s the ultimate lean-back experience, an opportunity to enjoy the kind of writing and images that can’t — and shouldn’t — be gobbled quickly on a phone.”
They make their announcement sound positive. Sorry, but I can’t take it that way. To me, their next statement is bad news.
“So in 2020, SI will give you the magazine experience you crave by shifting to a monthly publishing schedule. The next issue, dated February 2020, will arrive in late January.”
By then, it will have been six weeks between issues.
SI plans to publish 12 regular issues a year — plus pre-season issues for major league baseball, the NFL and the NBA, as well as an Olympics issue. No mention of hockey, but the annual swimsuit issue will survive.
There is a promised upgrade — “heavier, brighter paper.” Perhaps that will be along the lines of the quality introduced last year by The Hockey News.
And so, two-thirds of a century after always having a copy of SI to read, we must adjust to monthly arrivals in the mailbox.
There’s nothing good about that.