What went wrong at Sports Illustrated?

Last week it was announced that the publishing licensee of Sports Illustrated (SI) had missed a payment to their licensor resulting in termination of the agreement and ultimately laying off the entire Sports Illustrated staff. What happened?

For decades, sports stars and youth dreamed of the day they would end up in SI. It was the gold standard of sports reporting, and the coveted cover of the annual swimsuit issue was anticipated by millions.

But like so many other iconic brands and publications, SI may now be on the scrap heap for many reasons.

We can speculate the impact of attempts to conform to new social norms and thereby alienation of the avid SI reader. But that would only be minimal. The real target of any magazine is not the reader, but the aggregation of a group of target clients for the advertisers.

SI’s failure to embrace new media, their sluggish response to create a compelling website, their failure to focus more on reporting in depth stories that couldn’t be covered in a 24-hour news cycle, coupled with a declining interest in print media all led to this result.

Ultimately, Sports Illustrated failed to react quickly to changes in the market and how information was delivered. Any other reason is merely additional fuel to the fire that already existed.

Some will say they lost their way. From the first swimsuit issue through transgender cover models, the common complaint would be, “What did any of that have to do with sports?”

All these apparent deviations from sports reporting are merely symptoms of a brand that failed to recognize that in the span of 70 years of the publication, interest in sports and more specifically the lives sportsmen and sportswomen have changed.

And so has the way the reader consumes it and the advertisers targeting those readers.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners can learn a great deal from this demise if they’ll focus on the overall cause and not the symptoms that resulted.

This is a common failure of small business: We tend to look at symptoms and fail to trace the cause. We believe slow sales are caused by lack of selling, only to ignore the shift in our market that we’ve yet to react to.

So, here are a few take aways from the demise of Sports Illustrated.

  1. If you find yourself saying, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”, it’s time to make some changes.
  2. If you find you team not seeking new ways to do their work, it’s time to hire new people.
  3. If you find declining sales, don’t react radically, but react.
  4. If you find you’re not attracting new clients, it’s time to change your marketing.
  5. If you notice new clients aren’t like the old ones, you need to survey your new and old clients to find out why.
  6. If you don’t find yourself stunned by changes in your market, you need to pay more attention to your market.
  7. If you find yourself making changes that may alienate your core client, you need to determine if the change is proactive or reactive.
  8. If a change you are making is reactive, you need to focus more on the future of your market and company.
  9. If you see changes happening and find yourself saying, “That’s not going to last”, consider changing your mind.
  10. If you find yourself blaming the situation, you need to find your company a new leader.

Change is happening all the time. It’s the leader’s job to watch for it, anticipate it, and react to it before change forces a reaction.