7/6/10 - sports illustrated

In today's excerpt - Sports Illustrated. Time Magazine founder Henry Luce launched the new magazine in 1954, an era in which the biggest change in American life was the rapid growth of leisure and entertainment. The writing was superb—William Faulkner wrote an account of the 1955 Kentucky Derby—but it did not produce a profit until its tenth year:

"By the spring of 1953 Luce was once again in what [employee John Shaw] Billings called 'an empire-building mood,' which usually meant launching a new magazine. And even though Luce had never been very much interested in sports or wilderness activities himself, he began to imagine a 'sporting-magazine' that would capture what he believed was a growing market for leisure, and thus for sports. ...  Some of his colleagues were aghast at the idea, convinced that a sports magazine would degrade the Time Inc. brand by focusing on trivial and consumer-driven activities. ... Other colleagues were similarly dubious about the project, and many of them told Luce bluntly that he was making a dangerous error. He was not impervious to these criticisms, and at times he wavered in his commitment. ...

"Throughout the development stage of the magazine, the working title was 'Sport.' There was, however, already a magazine using that name, which had offered to sell itself to Time Inc. for $ 250,000, more than Luce was willing to pay. In May, with the publication date approaching, Harry Phillips, the Time Inc. publisher of the as yet unnamed magazine, ran into a friend in a restaurant who offered an alternative. The friend owned the title of a defunct magazine, Sports Illustrated. Everyone involved was immediately enthusiastic, and the company purchased the name for five thousand dollars. ...

"From the start Luce expected Sports Illustrated to be unprecedented. It would not be a 'fan' magazine, filled with gossip, adulation, and over-the-top language. ... It would not compete with the daily newspaper coverage of sports. It would not focus too much on what had happened in the previous week. ... It would look at sports not just as fun but, Luce wrote, as something that was 'deeply inherent ... in the human spirit.' ...

"The first issue of Sports Illustrated was published on August 16, 1954, a few days after issues actually appeared on newsstands. It sold out quickly. ... The first story in this first issue, 'The Duel of the Four-Minute Men,' chronicled the classic rivalry between Roger Bannister and John Landy, the first two men to run a four-minute mile. It also illustrated how unconventional a sports magazine it intended to be. 'The art of running the mile consists, in essence, of reaching the threshold of unconsciousness at the instant of breasting the tape,' the Sports Illustrated writer Paul O'Neil began:

" 'It is not an easy process ... for the body rebels against such agonizing usage and must be disciplined by the spirit and the mind. ... Few events in sport offer so ultimate a test of human courage and human will and human ability to dare and endure for the simple sake of struggle.'

"This elegant and sophisticated language was a sign of what Sports Illustrated aspired to be, and often accomplished—a magazine that would elevate the world of sports from being 'just a game' to being a powerful metaphor for the human condition. ... On February 21, 1955, the magazine ran a cover of a smiling young woman in an unrevealing swimsuit (part of a feature on sports fashion)—an augury of one of the magazine's most popular and sometimes controversial features of later decades.

"Luce took particular pride in the quality of the writers he could attract to Sports Illustrated. The revered New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling submitted an elegant essay on Stillman's Gymnasium in New York City, where many notable boxers were trained. Wallace Stegner wrote an elegy to Yosemite National Park. Budd Schulberg wrote a sympathetic story about an aging prizefighter who was finally making it big. John Steinbeck insisted he could not write for Sports Illustrated because 'my interests are too scattered and too unorthodox.' But he wrote a long letter on his eclectic interest in sports that the magazine published anyway. And William Faulkner wrote an extraordinary (and predictably unorthodox) account of the 1955 Kentucky Derby. ...

"Circulation exceeded five hundred thousand in every issue in 1954, rose to six hundred thousand the following year, and climbed steadily through most of its history (to more than three million a week in 2009). It quickly established itself as by far the most famous and influential sports magazine ever published in the United States. ... Not until 1964, however, ten years after its first issue, did Sports Illustrated produce its first profit."


Alan Brinkley


The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century


First Vintage Books a division of Random House, Inc


Copyright 2010 by Alan Brinkley


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