Sports Illustrated Ends Print-Only Subscriptions

Sports Illustrated is trying to force subscribers to pay for a bundle of web and print services. Bad idea.

The magazine industry has been in trouble even longer than the newspaper industry. Most magazines sell subscriptions at ridiculously low prices in order to boost circulation numbers to charge high prices for advertising. A handful, with National Journal the most notable, charge very high prices to a niche audience who can pass off the cost to their employers.

Sports Illustrated has long employed the former model but is now trying something new: forcing would-be subscribers to pay for a bundle of services, including various digital formats.

Advertising Age (“Sports Illustrated to Stop Selling Print-Only Subscriptions“):

When Sports Illustrated unveiled its new $48 “All Access” subscription package bundling print, web and app editions for Android tablets and phones, a related detail went unmentioned: Sports Illustrated is quitting the business of selling print-only subscriptions.

One year of the dead-tree edition, without the Android apps and web edition, was still available Friday for $39 at SI.com/subscribe. But that $39 print-only offer will go away soon, a spokesman confirmed, replaced by the $48 package that wraps up print and digital. “You’re really buying a subscription to the brand, not a magazine,” the spokesman said.
The idea is to offer a universal price for access to the brand on any platform you like. That will please the kinds of subscribers who’ve complained in the last year about being asked to pay again for their magazines’ app editions.

The magazine industry has also been knocked for selling subscriptions cheaply and relying on advertisers to carry the real freight. Charging $48 instead of $39 will help Sports Illustrated get more revenue from its readers and theoretically reduce its exposure to advertisers’ comings and goings.

But Sports Illustrated is making the transition at an awkward point in time. Many people don’t own Android devices and don’t care much about reading the magazine’s web edition on their desktops. The magazine’s full content is still free on its website anyway, albeit in a less attractive package than “All Access” offers. For those people, the cost of a new subscription to Sports Illustrated is going up almost 23% for no appreciable gain.

I’ve subscribed to SI for most of the last 25 years, seldom paying anything like the full subscription rate. But if they actually makes the $48 rate stick, they’ll lose me.  Not because $4 a month would impose a noticeable strain in my budget or strikes me as outrageous but because the value added is so small in the Internet age.

Until a few years ago, Sports Illustrated was simply one of the best written magazines available. They were the prestige outlet for sports writing, so they were able to attract all the best writers, most of whom had come up on the local newspaper circuit. Even though I’m primarily a football fan, which means that six months or more of the magazine was mostly on subjects of tangential interest to me, the extraordinarily high quality writing made subscribing worthwhile.

Now, though, I can get news on the Dallas Cowboys, the Alabama Crimson Tide, and pro and college football generally, year-round. I can read all the local papers (except, intermittently, the Dallas Morning News, which trots out a subscription-only format every few years until discovering, yet again, that it’s not working).  For the most part, the writing’s not SI level — or, frankly, college level — but there’s a ton of it.

Relatedly, ESPN has caught up with and surpasses SI as the mecca of sports journalism. The plethora of networks and the website have managed to do what SI did back in the day: hire the best of the local sports writers. In many cases, they’ve managed to do so without taking them off their local beats, making the ESPN gig part time. And, a dozen or so years ago, they launched their own bi-weekly magazine.

Ironically, I started “subscribing” to ESPN The Magazine in the opposite fashion of what SI is trying to do now. I wanted ESPN.com’s “Insider” content and was willing to pay the $19 or so annual fee to get it. And they threw in the dead tree magazine for free.

The upshot is that I take both Sports Illustrated and The Mag.  And, at this point, they run together in my head. Both provide interesting stories but neither is indispensable.  But the ESPN package gives me access to dozens of stories each and every day online. So, while I “engage” with ESPN almost daily in some form — usually watching something on their television channel, reading something on their website, and reading their magazine — SI remains a magazine with a mediocre website that I seldom visit. And I’m certainly not willing to pay extra to access it.

See more reactions at Mediagazer.

FILED UNDER: Media, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Herb says:

    I don’t know, man….This seems like a more welcome development than say, Dorchester Publishing going e-book only, or the NYT putting up a paywall on their site.

    SI should probably keep the paper-only option open, but this seems to be a tacit acknowledgment that if they want more money, they’ll have to provide more services. That’s something neither Dorchester or the NYT are wiling to do. Dorchester wants you to pay for a book which you will never receive* while the NYT wants you to pay for something you can currently get for free.

    So I say, keep it up, SI. I wish your value-added publishing experiment great success.

  2. The question becomes: do they still offer the great cut-rate deals like they currently do for print only (e.g., $25 for a year plus some sports-related goodie?). Heck, the last time a re-up’d my subscription was because I needed a cheap windbreaker and I got one “free” with a subscription–and since I would have paid close to that for the the jacket int he first place, getting the mag too was a good deal.

    I would be more than happy to just read the magazine on my iPad (although that cuts down on sharing with the kids), but I don’t want to pay more than I pay now.

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  3. Barry Rose says:

    I’m not a subscriber, but I bet they will discontinue the print edition within 5 years. As to newspapers, our local daily paper was free on the internet for years and then they went subscription only. I neither take the print or internet subscription and can also get all the news I want, even on the local college sports teams, from other sources.

  4. Herb says:

    “I bet they will discontinue the print edition within 5 years”

    If they do, expect SI to quickly go out of business. The novelty of ebooks is what’s fueling their growth. If proprietary e-readers are still around in 10 years, I’ll be very surprised.

    Buying your first Kindle, I can see being excited by the brave new world of e-publishing. But I think after you bought your second, third, fourth Kindle, you’re going to remember the good old days when all you had to do to read a book is to pick one up.

  5. anjin-san says:

    The way she has her arms folded is kind of pissing me off…

  6. Maureen says:

    My dad doesn’t have Internet, so the “extra content” isn’t going to do him any good whatsoever. He doesn’t have cable either, but it still sounds like the ESPN magazine would be a better deal.

  7. DougJ says:

    I agree, the writing in SI was top notch until a few years ago (I don’t know that it’s gotten worse, I stopped reading it because of online sources). I’ve always wondered why the “serious” glossies (other than the New Yorker — Time, Newsweek, etc. — never had writing of that caliber.

  8. David G. says:

    As long as I can keep reading Joe Posnanski for free I don’t really care. He’s far and away the best sports writer there is today.

  9. James Joyner says:

    DougJ: I think it’s just diffusion. SI was *the* place to be if you were an American sportswriter. But I’m not sure Time was ever most prestigious than the great newspapers. And there was always Atlantic Monthly and the more highbrow opinion journals, too. Not to mention three roughly equal prestige national newsweeklies.

  10. the permanent newbie says:

    Oh dear. There are other considerations besides individual subscribers. I’m a public librarian, and if the price of our two SI subscriptions (one reference, the other circulating) goes up to $48 each, we’ll have to drop at least one – and possibly both. From that perspective, SI is marginalizing itself rapidly.

  11. blah says:

    I agree that this might not be the best move for Sports Illustrated, but ESPN is hardly an acceptable replacement. Maybe the magazine has improved since I last read it, but for its first 5 or so years it was essentially Cosmopolitan for Jocks. I’ll take Jack McCallum, Peter King, and Stewart Mandel over that any day.

    Also, I refuse to pay a dime for online content at a website so atrociously designed. With no auto-play videos, SI’s website is much better, and it’s all free.

    (Beside your overall point, I know, but I really, really dislike that company in Bristol.)