For many of the middle years of the 20th century, the king of sports magazines in North America was not Time Inc.’s later-dominant Sports Illustrated, but the brainchild of a much smaller publishing house, McFadden Publications. Launched in 1946, McFadden’s SPORT magazine broke truly new ground both as the first mainstream national sports publication, but also in its editorial innovations.
Many of those innovations – such as its SPORT talk digest of short items at the front of the magazine, the SPORT Special long feature at the back and, in particular, the use of full-page color portraits of the sports stars of the day – were later borrowed by the new kid on the block, SI, when it made its debut as a weekly in 1954. In fact, Time Inc., tried to purchase the name SPORT, but the company’s final offer of $200,000 fell on deaf ears at McFadden – they would have sold for $50,000 more – and the new guys on the block went with Sports Illustrated instead.
From its launch in September 1946, SPORT – its pages filled with evocative writing by the likes of Grant land Rice, Roger Kahn and Dick Scrap and exquisite photographs by such shooting stars as Ozzie Sweet, Hay Pigskin and Martin Blumenthal – thrived. It kept right on thriving for the next quarter-century or so, as SI, having made its debut as a weekly to SPORT’s monthly schedule, struggled to reach profitability, and to find the right blend of spectator and participatory sports. Representative of SPORT’s superiority, in the hearts and minds of the reading public but also of the men who ran the leagues and teams across North America, was the magazine’s success in establishing the SPORT Award for the most valuable player in the World Series, in 1955. As the years went on, the concept was expanded until the magazine presented the SPORT award to the outstanding post-season performer in all four major team sports.
But by the early 1970s, McFadden, lacking Time’s deep pockets and staying power, was fading and thus ensued a dizzying succession of ownership changes for the magazine. With the corresponding zig-zags in editorial direction, it gradually lost its way, its distinctive voice and, eventually, its presence. In August 2000, after appearing every month for 54 years under 10 different owners, SPORT ceased publication. Its passing was mourned in many quarters. As The Wall Street Journal’s Allen Barra, writing in Salon.com, put it,
Though it didn’t make any headlines, the news of the death of SPORT magazine…must have put a lump in the throat of those old enough to remember the greatest of all American sports magazines…Sports Illustrated was great, but SI, in an era when you couldn’t see all the highlights every night, was read for news; SPORT was for reflection.
And, in a rare departure for the competitive magazine industry, SI itself paid tribute to SPORT on its own pages with a heartfelt piece that began,
They closed the barbershop last week, the one in town, the first place – not counting school or a friend’s house – where your mother would drop you off and leave you…
Such was the comfort afforded by SPORT magazine.
Today, the archive of the magazine, consisting of hundreds of thousands of photographic images and illustrations, lives on, forming the base of The SPORT Collection.