Many accused the magazine of pandering to male fantasies instead of highlighting the week's top sports story -- the NBA Finals. (The argument: Kournikova, ranked a lowly 19th on the women's tour, has never won a professional tournament.)
Sports Illustrated's foray into testosterone-driven journalism irked critics because -- with the exception of its massively successful swimsuit edition -- it's a serious sports magazine. Were those 11 provocative photos of a prominently displayed Kournikova an attempt to spice up the 46-year-old magazine?
Sports Illustrated spokesman Rick McCabe claims that the controversial cover story explored a legitimate sports "issue" -- the role of sex in women's athletics. And associate publisher John Rodenburg says the magazine is financially fit; he's guaranteeing advertisers a massive 3.15 million copies each week. "We have a bright future ahead of us," he says.
Sports Illustrated is hardly fodder for any magazine deathwatch. But like others sports mags, it faces increasing pressure from a few tough new competitors: male-targeted magazines and ambitious sports Web sites.
These are certainly healthy days for the magazine industry. Ad revenue is up 17 percent from this time last year, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Ad pages rose an impressive 14 percent, portending yet another robust year for the industry.
But sports titles can't take part in the parade. Sports Illustrated's ad revenue grew only an anemic .2 percent, while its ad pages dropped nearly 6 percent. Its ad-rate base hasn't risen in years.
Last month, Sport and Condi Nast's Women's Sports & Fitness announced they would fold. Both joined Inside Sports, which closed two years ago (ironically, it had been subsequently folded into Sport). Sport's ad revenue plummeted 22 percent for the first six months of the year; Condi Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse Jr. said Women's Sports & Fitness would close because "the readership of the magazine did not develop as we hoped it would." Other sports titles with sagging ad revenue include Runners World, Sporting News, Sports Afield, Tennis, Bicycling, Fitness and Motorboating & Sailing.
Although ESPN the Magazine, which launched in 1998, has had an impressive debut (its ad revenue rose 59 percent during the first six months of the year), general manager Michael Rooney acknowledges that even publications blessed with big brand names have to work harder than ever to lure advertisers and readers bombarded with media choices. "The world is changing, and traditional sports magazines have to adjust to that. We've already seen a contraction in the magazine business."
Rodenburg also admitted that business is "getting tougher and tougher." He believes Sports Illustrated's slow start will be offset by revenue gains from the Summer Olympics in September.
Roberta Garfinkle, director of strategic media services at McCann-Erickson, reports some advertisers held back early this year so they could make a bigger splash during the Olympics. Automakers have also cut back their ad spending 6 percent during the first half of the year. And amid governmental pressure, Philip Morris agreed last month to stop advertising its cigarette brands in magazines. The loss was part of the reason Sport threw in the towel, according to Marcus Rich, president of the magazine's publisher, Emap.
"Sports and men's magazines are very dependent on automotive advertising, and they'll be hit by tobacco losses too," says Steven Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, which tracks the magazine industry. "Media is infinite, but advertising is finite. You can't take it for granted that everything will be as hunky dory as it was before."
The lackluster performance of sports magazines this year does make one wonder what will happen once those Olympic torches blow out and impatient sports fans turn increasingly to the Web for scores, news, video clips and other content. Web sites haven't yet cannibalized sports magazine readers to any significant degree. But as the sites become more sophisticated -- offering original content, real-time scoreboards, video and audio clips, chats with athletes and fan message boards -- magazines have to ask themselves what they can offer that the Web can't. "I don't believe this medium is about sharing space," says Mark Mariani, president of sales and marketing at SportsLine.com, which publishes CBS SportsLine.com among other sports sites. "Over time, I think we're going to divide and conquer."
Sports Web sites have been growing their readership swiftly, although they, like other Internet ventures, have been pressured to stem their losses. (Rivals.com, which operates more than 500 sports-related Web sites, last week laid off 40 employees.) Nevertheless, from April 1999 to May 2000, SportsLine.com saw its unique visitors rise 28 percent, from roughly 3.3 million to 4.2 million. Unique visitors to ESPN.com, the leading sports site, grew 22 percent from 4.2 million to 5.4 million, while CNNSI.com's traffic figures increased 29 percent, from 1.9 million to 2.5 million.
Jim Walton, president of CNN/SI.com, says that sports sites will become even more popular as more people gain high-speed access to the Internet, which will mean better video and audio connections. He also says advertisers will increasingly divide their budgets into different pockets. More than ever, he says, advertisers want integrated packages involving television, Internet and print. Just advertising in, say, Sports Illustrated, isn't as desirable as having a presence on CNNSI.com and television. "More and more, we're selling advertising across multiple platforms," Walton says. "And there's going to be even more integration in the future."
As a result, Garfinkle says magazine salespeople will have to rev up their pitches to advertisers, while editorial staffs will have to come up with attention-getting stories that draw readers ... and maybe even make them drool.
Get ready for a lot more swimsuit issues.