Saw a few minutes ago that ESPN The Magazine is coming to an end. I’m saddened, even though this felt inevitable.
Back 20 or so years ago, when the publication launched, I was working at Sports Illustrated. It felt like a direct threat to magazine supremacy. ESPN was stealing a bunch of SI’s best people, they were signed up some huge writers, they had the promotional power of the network behind it. One of my good friends, a former SI cohort named Jody Berger, was one of ESPN The Mag’s early writing hires, and I recall visiting her at her new office and being dazzled. It was wide open and fun and built atop a pretend race track. I felt electric and funky and unique. Really, it felt now.
The good folks at SI were definitely scared. One day, out of the blue, Bill Colson, the mag’s managing editor, called me into his office. At the time I was (wrongly) thought to be young and cool and on top of modern thinking (it never hurts being a white hip-hop diehard in an office of editors who didn’t know Tupac was a human being). He said they were thinking of starting a bi-weekly sports magazine aimed at drawing younger consumers (aka: a project to battle back against ESPN The Mag), and would I be interested in putting together a pilot issue. “Sure,” I said. “That’d be amazing.”
So I did. We called it SI Extra, and there were stories about Dennis Rodman’s hair, about five ways to learn to dunk. Stuff like that. I actually spent a day with the LaSalle football team, suiting up for a practice at wide receiver (it didn’t go well). It was fun. Really fun. But it also sucked. ESPN was, if nothing else, authentic. This was a poor Xerox.
The idea died.
At the time, ESPN The Magazine was our competitor. But, save for maybe the first year, it never felt heated. These were our colleagues. Oftentimes our friends. Much like (ahem) the USFL did to the NFL, ESPN The Magazine caused our worth (as writers) to skyrocket. So many of my colleagues were offered deals from the newbie, and as a result SI ponied up more dough.
Today, I take no joy in seeing a former rival come to an end. It was a terrific run, highlighted by (among other things) the long-form brilliance of Wright Thompson and Seth Wickersham, the piercing opinion writing of Howard Bryant, the tastefully done annual Body Issue.
So, much love and respect to ESPN The Magazine.
You made your mark.