Thursday, February 07, 2008

The end of the affair

If you're under 30, or not a sports fan, I won't be able to get across to you just how big a deal it used to be when Sports Illustrated showed up in the mailbox.

My freshman year at the University of Georgia, Herschel Walker -- the greatest college football player of all time, and I will brook no argument about this -- announced that he was leaving school a year early to join the new United States Football League. On campus we talked about it for days, in shock, but it wasn't real until that Thursday afternoon when SI arrived and there he was on the cover in that freaking New Jersey Generals uniform.

No big sports event was over until you read SI. It was like talking about the concert on the drive home -- that's how you digested the event, savored it, figured out what it meant. I have never loved a publication (except for the ones I worked for) as much as I loved Sports Illustrated.

Which is why I've waited so long to admit that it's over.

I've found reasons to keep stringing it along. The photography is still fabulous. Gary Smith is still one of the top sportswriters in America. My wife still wears the SI sweatshirt we got for subscribing a few years ago and it's holding up pretty well.

But the Super Bowl clinched it for me.

My issue came Thursday and the coverage is just fine -- a solid game story, great photos, a meaty sidebar on the Giants' final drive from legendary NFL writer Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman.

But that was Thursday. The game was Sunday. And between then and now I've seen hours of ESPN's postgame shows, our paper's coverage, Bill Simmons' melancholy take on the loss of a perfect season, many startled takes on the sudden heroism of Eli Manning, a hundred replays of the miraculous play that turned the game around, and one story of how a Giants fan sneaked onto the team bus and into the locker room on the day of the victory parade.

In the 24/7 ESPN and Internet age, I'm not sure Sports Illustrated could've done anything to make the Super Bowl experience more interesting or rewarding four days after the fact. It's a keepsake for diehard Giants fans and that's about it.

This is an example of the problem most print publications are going through these days, especially the ones that make a living by making sense of last week's news. Time and Newsweek are in the same boat. Every issue starts out behind, and even when they're great, the collective wisdom of all the talk shows and newspaper pieces and blog posts is almost always better.

I realize, of course, that you can say the same thing about the newspaper I work for. We do have some advantages (journalistic if not business-wise). Our print product is daily, so it's fresher. We have a higher percentage of material you can't get anywhere else. And of course we're out here on the Web, like SI and everybody else, trying to figure out how to do good work and turn the kind of profits that magazines and newspapers are used to.

Sometimes we can make the whole thing work and sometimes we can't. But I can't imagine how hard it is to come out once a week, writing about sports, and still try to be relevant.

The little address sticker on my copy of SI -- it's not a sticker anymore, but you know what I mean -- shows that my subscription expires in December. I've subscribed for most of the last 30 years. But I'm not sure what's left to salvage at this point. Honey, I'll always love you, but we've grown apart.


Anonymous said...

I'll admit, its weird not seeing a Riley article on the final page...I really enjoyed those. I've never heard of half of the contributors I see now.

Anonymous said...

I was an SI diehard from about 1970 at age 10 until oh, about 2002. I just couldn't get into it anymore. Behind was part of it, but the obscene salaries and crazy ticket prices along with the drug culture killed it for me. Could be I just got too old to care? Saturday Night Live did the same thing to me as well....Not much good after the Dana Carvey/Dennis Miller years, and not worth my time today.