Maybe it was a wordless picture of the United States Olympic hockey team celebrating the “Miracle on Ice.” Perhaps it was Dwight Clark’s perfect frame to make “The Catch” to send the San Francisco 49ers to the 1982 Super Bowl. Or it could have been the announcement that 17-year-old LeBron James was “The Chosen One,” 20 months before he played his first NBA game.
For sports fans of several years, the memory of running to the mailbox to see what was on the cover of the latest weekly issue of Sports Illustrated is inescapable. Over the years, the magazine’s photographers, writers and editors have had the power to inspire stars and provide definitive accounts of the sport’s biggest events, often with just one picture and a few words on the cover. It was a very powerful place in sports literature.
“When I was a kid and found SI, you didn’t have 24-hour news hitting you over the head,” said Nate Gordon, a former Sports Illustrated photo editor who is now the news director at The. Players’ Tribune. “You’ll pick up the cover and you’ll be like: ‘Man, this is what happened last week. That’s great.’”
To the extent that any magazine used to have that power, it’s waning a lot now. But the road has been a tough one for Sports Illustrated, with its staff shrinking and print frequency dropping. Last week, many of the staff members were laid off or told their jobs would be indefinite after 90 days, leaving the future of the book in limbo.
Sports Illustrated’s prowess in sports coverage has already faded before 2024. A combination of factors such as the growth of sports on cable channels, the presence of mass media and the rise of the Internet have been eroding the magazine’s power and cover over the years. But it is hard to overstate the power it had in the first place.
Robert Beck was one of the last Sports Illustrated photographers when the magazine cut all of its photographers in 2015. He is best known for his classic photo of Brandi Chastain wearing a brandi suit celebrating the US soccer team’s victory in penalties in the Women’s final. World Cup in 1999.
Many photographers were at the game, and Mr. Beck was far from the only one who took a picture of Ms. Beck’s celebration. Chastain – although unlike others, she took a photo of herself from the head, not from the side. It was the placement of this photo on the cover of Sports Illustrated that made it famous.
“As far as Joe Normal knows, he thinks Robert Beck has the only picture,” Mr. Beck said.
Famous athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods appeared several times on the cover of the magazine. For Fred Vuich, one image of Mr. Woods stands out.
Mr. Vuich was on his first Sports Illustrated cover at the 2001 Masters. Sitting on the 16th hole during Sunday’s final round, he thought he’d caught a glimpse of Mr. Woods nailing his fourth major, the Tiger Slam, with a birdie. But Mr. Woods missed a birdie putt, and Mr. Vuich didn’t have enough time to get to the 18th green.
Instead, using a silent camera with no engine to avoid distracting Mr. Woods as he retreated, Mr. Vuich took a great photo from his tee tower on the final hole, almost surrounded by fans. The editors of Sports Illustrated put it on the cover, along with one word: “Great.”
“That picture made my career,” said Mr. Vuich, pointing out its similarity to the original Sports Illustrated photo, in 1954, which showed Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews, a junior in the home plate frame. a crowded stadium.
In addition to covering high-profile events, Sports Illustrated can showcase athletes from around the world. Mr. James was still in high school when he first appeared on the 2002 cover.
“The cover pushed me onto the national stage, whether I was ready or not,” he said in a book published in 2009 by journalist Buzz Bissinger.
Famous actors, before and after Mr. James appeared on the cover, used to cry for a place and promised artists and writers for hours. Sports Illustrated’s influence has been that its annual swimsuit issue has supported the rise of superstars such as Kathy Ireland, Tyra Banks and Brooklyn Decker. But with great power comes great responsibility – and one star has not forgiven the magazine after she felt it treated her unfairly on its cover.
Jordan didn’t give interviews to Sports Illustrated writers for three decades, the cover said “Bag It, Michael” and called his short baseball career “disgraceful.” Steve Wulf, who wrote the following article but did not write the first line, has since apologized.
Some athletes had more complicated relationships with the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 1989, the magazine put Michigan’s Tony Mandarich on the cover and called him “the best offensive prospect,” shortly after being taken second overall in the NFL draft.
Mr. Mandarich recalled in a 2009 article that he saw 50 copies of the magazine on a newsstand at Los Angeles International Airport. “I realized then that I was a world-shattering thing, the world’s prime time,” he wrote. “This was another humiliating experience, adding to my arrogance and self-righteousness.”
Three years later, out of the league, Sports Illustrated announced Mr. Mandarich “The NFL’s Incredible Bust.” In his autobiography, Mr. Mandarich admits it was accurate, but says he “felt a quick tug in my gut that I believe Sports Illustrated intended when they published it.” He will ban Sports Illustrated reporters for 12 years.
Others were also tainted by the so-called Sports Illustrated cover jinx, which was said to cause harm or foul play to those who graced the cover. Jinx himself once designed the cover – featuring a picture of a black cat – and it was the subject of a lengthy article investigating whether it was genuine.
Over the years, as the publishing economy changed, so did the choice of cover.
“It became less of a story and more of a person,” said Al Tielemans, a photographer of nearly 20 years. He described the evolution of editors looking for a key moment of a game, then a good photo of a sports star, then a photo of a famous person in the game, and then finally just a headshot of stars.
Last year, perhaps to attract more celebrities, and perhaps because of the magazine’s longer print run, Sports Illustrated named Deion Sanders the Football Player of the Year. At one point his Colorado Buffaloes, in his first years as their coach, were 3-0 and No. 18 in the college football rankings. But when the magazine with Sanders on the cover came out, the Buffaloes were 4-8.
The internet, and social media sites like Instagram, means that more photography is exposed to more people than ever before. Now that fans can see every aspect of every game, the highlights and photos are instantly available on television, no single image has the power that the cover of Sports Illustrated did.
In 2014, Mr. Tielemans shot an unforgettable cover photo of 13-year-old Mo’ne Davis playing in the Little League World Series. He dreamed of spending 20 or 30 years as a Sports Illustrated photographer, which he got. But he hoped that he would eventually be replaced by a new generation of illustrators, drawing their own famous covers.
In fact, after he was fired in 2015, he was not replaced.