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Thanks to Deadspin, I learned late last year that Sports Illustrated is getting skunked by ESPN.com (and Yahoo! Sports, and Fox Sports) in the battle for Web supremacy; as of November, the Worldwide Leader had almost three times the number of unique monthly visitors as the magazine that defined 20th-century sports journalism.
I found this depressing--SI was still an estimable publication during the 80s and 90s, and more than any other publication got me interested in the business I find myself in. I've since moved to the vivid astroturf fields of the Web, however, and SI's contribution to the field is an embarassment.
This morning, I count four swimsuit issue ads (six, if you include all three iterations of one rotating ad box; seven, after their overloaded Flash interface went haywire), including four lined up in an S-shaped grid--an odd choice, given the unsubtle nature of the content. Despite the vaunted collaboration with CNN, the featured videos are boilerplate commentary and the nightmare fuel of Rick Reilly dressed like an aging hipster and making Z-grade late-night humor jokes against an Xtreme electronica soundtrack.
Then there are the infernal Access Hollywood-like stylings of Jenn Sterger (who parlayed one college football cheesecake shot (see above) into a gig as a Real Journalist, a tale for our times). Fortunately, "Z Says, She Says," a video feature pitting old football grump Paul Zimmerman against swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker, is in hibernation.
ESPN.com doesn't lack for stupid (see Page 2 after the untimely deaths of Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Wiley), but they've made an admirable attempt to corner the geek market. The stat heads I play fantasy baseball with are even willing to shell out $5 a month for Bill James disciple Rob Neyer, fellow geek Jayson Stark, and Buster Olney's must-read roundup of local baseball news around the Web. On other fronts, they've got international basketball expert Chad Ford traveling the world looking for the next Andrea Bargnani, and similiar niche reporters. As a whole, ESPN.com Insider is much more exhaustive and serious than the NYT'sTimesSelect content.
And they understand one very important thing about the Internet: in the competitive arena of monetizing pictures of scantily clad women in the age of freely available hard-core pornography, you will lose (cf. the decline of Playboy). That market is full.
Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated's bread and butter--general national sports reporting--is becoming increasingly untenable now that anyone with an Internet connection has access to the expertise of beat writers at local papers (ESPN.com actually provides newsfeeds and summaries of papers around the country). The national online market is moving towards data analysis and long-form features. ESPN is superior at the former, and the NYT's wonderful new sports magazine, Play, is cutting in on SI's dominance of the latter.
If I were given the keys to cnnsi.com, I'd take the estimated $400,000 saved by eliminating Steve Rushin's job, buy out Will Leitch from Deadspin, invest in the search for the next Gary Smith, and get in on the embryonic fields of basketball and football stat analysis. I'd also open up the site's vast library of data in the manner of Google and Flickr APIs for computer-literate fans to play with. As a Web-editing, fantasy-sports-playing shut-in, an RSS feed of my fantasy baseball team's stats would make me unimaginably happy and possibly unemployed.
As much as the Web can be credited with destroying culture, its culture of accountability and its opportunities for mobilizing intelligence, human and otherwise, have forced certain aspects of journalism to be more serious and more complex. The race to the bottom of the barrel has become faster and more intense, but the market at the top has opened up. And I hope it finds a space for Sports Illustrated. If not--Gary Smith, you know how to reach me. We'll talk.