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Culture War Roundup for the week of January 15, 2024

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Sports Illustrated is no more.

The future of Sports Illustrated looked dire Friday after the publisher of the diminished outlet announced mass layoffs because its license to use the iconic brand’s name in print and digital was revoked.

“Yesterday, The Arena Group’s license to serve as the publisher of Sports Illustrated was terminated as a result of the company’s failure to pay its quarterly license fee despite being given a notice of breach and an opportunity to cure the breach,” the company said in a statement provided to The Post. “Authentic is here to ensure that the brand of Sports Illustrated, which includes its editorial arm, continues to thrive as it has for the past nearly 70 years. We are confident that going forward the brand will continue to evolve and grow in a way that serves sports news readers, sports fans, and consumers.

Now go woke, go broke is a simple and shadenfraude explanation, but I don't think it tells the full story. And with recent full wokeness on the swimsuit edition - well I doubt that it endeared the core audience more. And this year is already full with disney flops and victoria's secret epiphany that people like hot women.

Media in US is in trouble. While I hold the opinion that wokeness hastened their demise, probably it was inevitable. And the US journalistic class has a monoculture problem. There was obviously no one that knew how to run a media property targeted towards red bloodied males. To write films in Disney that are alluring to non CRT degree holding single women.

We are in a money is tight period - and the people that hold the reigns of the biggest media conglomerates have no idea how to sell to huge part of the audience.


I'm going to claim the primacy of lived experience here and say that I know SI better than most of the other commenters here, who seem confused about what exactly it is/was. SI was distinctly not killed by fat girls in the swimsuit issue, at most that was a last gasp effort for a dying icon to regain relevancy. My parents first got me a subscription to SI Kids when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, and I think I had a subscription to full-fat SI by the time I was 11, definitely by the time I was 12. My parents have always been magazine people, and magazines have been in overall decline for that entire period. The magazine peaked in the 90s, and has declined pretty straightforwardly since then. What killed SI wasn't wokeness, and it wasn't GloboHomo, it was the internet, and particularly the niche sports blog, along with an overall culture of specialization, the Culture of Refinement (tm LindyMan), an increase in the niche appeal of things and an unwillingness to venture outside of one's niche. In the flood of content on the internet, people sought out only those things that perfectly met their interests, and were uninterested in paging through a news magazine with reports on sports they weren't interested in.

But man, at 12? I read SI cover to cover every week, from the letters to the editor to the off-beat Rick Reilly article on the back page. Sports Illustrated was, for men, considered one of those cultural sacraments, similar to how growing up I imbibed that one was just supposed to listen to Counting Down the Hits with Casey Kasem on the radio so as to know what was going on in pop music. The nature of the activity is that listening to the whole top-40, there would be lots of songs I didn't really like, but I would also discover songs that I did like. I might have to "endure" Can't Fight the Moonlight, but I would hear about this cool new band Linkin Park, and I knew all the lyrics to Uncle Cracker even if it wasn't my favorite song.

Growing up, I was a baseball fan and to a lesser extent a football and basketball fan, but reading SI cover to cover I also would read articles about Hockey and Boxing and Olympic sports and NASCAR. I might zero in on the baseball articles, and especially the ones about the Yankees and Phillies, but I would also read articles about the Penguins and the Avalanche and Jeff Gordon and the Klitschko brothers. My favorite issue came out in the late-winter early-spring every year, but it wasn't the swimsuit issue*, it was the MLB season preview special issue. SI would go through all 30 MLB teams, and go in depth on each team, covering their starting lineup, their depth chart, their great MiLB prospects who might come up and make a difference mid season. I would read every team, but memorize the Yankees and the Phillies. I was aware of every team, but I focused on my favorites.

I stopped subscribing to SI when I went away to college, of course. For the first few years, I would still go out and buy the MLB preview issue, but then I started reading blogs like RiverAveBlues (now defunct), which covered the Yankees specifically, and would go in depth on every aspect of the team. Where before I would only get information about up and coming minor leaguers from SI, now RAB published a list of top-30 Yankees prospects five times a year, and would update with a Down on the Farm feature several times a week. Obviously I couldn't read that level of depth about every team, and certainly not about other sports. I traded being vaguely aware of every MLB team for being extremely focused on one or two MLB teams, knowing the stars across the league to knowing which AA arm in Trenton might develop into a middle innings lefty reliever.

The death of SI reflects that loss of a broad shared mainstream culture, traded in for specificity and niches. SI, and vintage Sportscenter and all the rest, reflected an American male Sports Fan audience, a guy who would watch the NFL, MLB, Boxing, NHL, NBA, College Wrestling, Olympic Snow Sports, whatever was on TV and enjoy it. A concept of the Sports Fan as a universal fan of (male) competition, who also wouldn't mind a bikini issue every February in the dead spot between the Super Bowl and MLB Opening Day. Much more common today is the specific sport fan, the fan of Basketball who doesn't watch Football, or the fan of Baseball who doesn't know anything about Hockey. In the same way that when my parents were growing up, a Pop Music Fan was someone who liked all, or at least most, of the songs on the Top 40, today the idea of someone who enjoys both Olivia Rodrigo and Drake and Cardi B and Luke Combs is just kinda...silly? Even in the 90s one can imagine listening to a whole top 40 straight through (occasionally on long drives with my wife we'll listen to a MixCloud station that does Top 40 from [week, year, country] and laugh at how strange some of the songs are) and it kinda makes sense and is mildly coherent, but after 2010 the lists lose all coherency. Today, Olivia Rodrigo and Luke Combs and Rico Nasty fans are mostly incompatible, they would utterly refuse to listen to each other's music. Similarly you just don't see the generalist American Sports Fan as much, you see extreme football and extreme basketball and extreme MMA fans. We've lost that idea of mainstream American masculinity, the guy who would happily go to a Hockey game or a Baseball game or a Nascar race or look at some tits. Instead we're all hyper specialized, reading blogs and subscribing to Substacks and listening to podcasts about only the one thing we really like. Even the newspaper is something we've lost, a physical newspaper encourages you to page through and notice or skim articles about things you might not have looked into otherwise, in a way that digital consumption does not. SI has been replaced by subreddits, twitter circles, and a dozen specialist websites devoted to specific teams and sports.

My wife is kind of a fancy lady, she gets her hair cut at a particular salon in a small rich town about 45 minutes from us. I'll go with her if she makes the appointment on a day I'm not working too much, and we'll make a cute little day of it in town walking around to shops and coffee and lunch. But obviously when she's getting her haircut for an hour, I need to occupy myself. Last year she had a haircut appointment around when the SI MLB preview issue usually came out, and I had the vague idea that when I was a kid I remembered there being a magazine rack in the back of most grocery stores and CVS's, and I figured hey I'll go buy the MLB preview issue (stores would typically stock it additionally for a whole month, rather than just the current week of SI, I vaguely recalled from when I would hang around Borders as a teen) and take it to the coffee shop and hang out for an hour reading it. I tried six different bookstores/grocery stores/convenience stores, even a place that called itself a "news stand" and NOBODY HAD SI. The magazine racks were stocked with Special Issues of Time and Life devoted to weird niche boomer celebrity stuff. I was so frustrated and disappointed. The idea of the mainstream American Male Sports Fan had declined so far that I couldn't even buy one issue, I had to specifically subscribe to that niche if I wanted it.

Acta est fabula, plaudite

*I recall the swimsuit issue as a major institution, and I remember accepting the first few years that I wouldn't be allowed to get it because my parents would grab it before I got my hands on it, then around 13-14 making extreme efforts to go get the mail every day around when it was coming out so I could slide it into an inside jacket pocket before walking down the driveway, then by 16 my dad just giving it to me in a "don't tell your mother, but we're men together and of course we like tits" kind of way. I still have a few issues floating around somewhere in old boxes.

The idea of the mainstream American Male Sports Fan had declined so far that I couldn't even buy one issue, I had to specifically subscribe to that niche if I wanted it.

How does this make sense when you lay the blame for the decline in Sports Illustrated on the Internet?

The internet allowed for niche publications like RiverAveBlues or BleedingGreenNation to achieve circulation that would have been impossible in print. This strangled SI's interest until it became hard to even buy it on a newsstand. I couldn't just pick it up I had to subscribe.

I feel like the relentless optimization of sports has also contributed to this. Everybody's got media training out the ass, the majority of games have congealed around one or two correct ways to play a given position and exposure to Instagram etc. means that whilst the stars are more accessible than they've ever been there's just not that much of a cult of personality around them.

Or maybe I'm getting old.

Good point. The relentless optimization of sports, and the altering perspective to have more advanced metrics, is precisely the specialization I'm talking about. Old time stats were fairly intuitive: Runs Batted In or Touchdown/Interception ratios or points per game. Modern stats like True Shooting Percentage and Wins Above Replacement require a lot of background knowledge to properly apply in context. It's harder to keep up with multiple sports at that level of fidelity.

I also think that Fantasy and vidya and the book Moneyball, along with tbh a lot of other social changes, have caused a lot of fans to change perspective on sports: fans used to picture themselves as the man in the arena, now they picture themselves as coaches and GMs. More and more, superfans no longer fantasize themselves as the QB leading a game winning drive, they fantasize themselves as the GM building the team. Participation in youth sports and even rec leagues has declined in the major sports {largely as a result of social forces in which middle class athletic kids have fled the classic team-ball sports in favor of weirdo shit}. People less and less picture themselves hitting the game winning three, or coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth. More and more among the extremely online and the upper middle class the fantasy seems to be playing Billy Beane GM in the front office, finding the diamond in the rough players and being smarter than everyone else, or being a coach and building a fascinating scheme that no one can penetrate.

This lends itself to deep and specific knowledge rather than broad and shallow coverage, to deep dive statistical pieces you need to understand 15 advanced concepts to comprehend versus lightweight human interest stories about how X developed The Will To Win.

Thanks for this. I'll pay back the favor with an X-rated companion piece...

This post means I should write about the dual-episode of finding my Mom's old playboys (it's a non-twist twist part of the story) the same week that a friend introduced me to a guy who used to run strip clubs in the 70s - 90s.

The sophistication of smut is a lost art. To take this metaphor into orbit; Intern porn today is as to 70s - 90s smut as Michael Bay action movies are to Platoon and The Deer Hunter.

I'll set a reminder to write this. Let's get weird.

I'm reminding you to write this, because my wife has sat me through two separate Hugh Hefner/Playboy docuseries in the past week, one pro and one con, and I have an extensive comment to add to your comment on Playboy.

Scheduled for either this evening or tomorrow AM.

Hefner would agree with what I will write

I'd be very interested in reading this! I read a lot of vintage playboys over the early days of the pandemic, I found them a fascinating artifact.

This is 100% right; it's the same with soccer in other countries. Add to that that the best media for a given team is usually fan-created, free/crowdfunded, multi-media, and updated daily, and something like Sports Illustrated can't compete. The Athletic tried to combine the two formats by getting the best journalists specialized in popular teams and making it easy to filter for your teams, but my subjective impression is that it's declining in quality or at least putting on a more clickbait front to get signups (they were, relatively recently, bought by our good friends at the NYT).

Just as an aside, I'm not a sports fan, but I go to pub quizzes regularly in a team that consists of sports fans (pretty useful since pub quizzes regularly contain a lots of sports trivia), and while they're primarily soccer fans and know each other as local team supporters, they also follow other sports like hockey, pesäpallo (Finnish baseball variant), track sports etc. Young guys, 30+.