Monday, January 3, 2011

Sports Illustrated and the way we'll talk Sports in 2011

"The magazine was edited in those days from the standpoint of 'What we think is important is what you should think is important. And if you don't agree with it, that's your problem.'" - Dan Jenkins

I believe I started and finished reading "The Franchise - A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine" in December for a reason. I'm visceral that way. I believe in signs. I trust my instincts. Of all the books I could've picked out, of all the titles I could've chosen, I ended up with a book about the history of Sports Illustrated -- the bible of sportswriting. "The Franchise" was the last book I opened and closed for 2010. It was, fortuitously, my last book for the decade.

I sort of grew up with Sports Illustrated (SI). As a teenager, I was too young to subscribe and it was too expensive to buy on a regular basis. When I was old enough to understand Sports Illustrated's significance in American sports and financially ready to buy mostly back-issues, I immediately understood SI's revered place in the sports universe.

SI opened my eyes to the dramatic and literary value of sports. In my mind, reading SI was akin to printing Joe Cantada's televised eloquence on glossy paper. SI proved that there were provocative ways to document basketball games, Superbowl wins, playoff busts and championship celebrations. Information was simply part of the equation. Insight, on the other hand, set SI pieces apart from news accounts. It was my 90's pseudo-education in sports lit.

Did SI influence my writing? Absolutely. It also taught me to look at teams and athletes from different vantage points. While ESPN SportsCenter (referring to the US-Dan Partick-Keith Olbermann-version which aired on SkyCable in the 90's, not the current Asian-market SportsCenter you see on local cable today) injected snappy humor and repartee into sports broadcasts, SI infused wry wit and the equivalent of literary ball-wizardry into sports articles.

And my imagination ran wild like Sol Mercado on a fastbreak.

Through the book, I wasn't surprised to learn about SI's early impact and substantial conbtribution to the eventual commercialization of sports. I was, however, startled by how ESPN's evolution from cable sports channel to media tour de force ruffled SI's long-established dominance over sports discourse.

Realization: even icons must adapt. And by adapt, so-called legends -- even pop-culture monoliths like Sports Illustrated -- must learn to adjust before the it needs to adjust. Before a group or a body of work or a previously unflappable entity falls into the sentimental category. By the time people recognize your value out of nostalgic obligation, it's over.

As Frank Deford surmises: "It suddenly occured to me that the reason so many people are harsh about the current SI is that they grew up with the magazine. They started as kids. In that sense, SI is like their music or their clothes, or their first kisses. It is part of their growing up, and they have so idealized (as we do much of childhood) that the current version can't possibly measure up."

A milestone of a magazine ruled its domain. Then, cable television happened. And now, in the App Age, sports fans can strive to be Frank Deford and George Plimpton reincarnate on Facebook. The highly-acclaimed SI writer was once the unequivocal voice of some sports god. Today, it is just one, albeit highly-literate, voice in a universe of cynics and die-hards, experts and fairwearther fans, speedy tweets and kilometric blogs.

In 2010, we discussed sports and debated over athletes on many platforms. We watched. We read. We went online. And in no particular order. SI was once the voice just as Joe Cantada was once the voice just as the sports page of the newspaper was once the voice.

Today, we can all speak up. It's a fact SI now has to contend with. It's 2011 and the sporting galaxy is made up of connections. Television is never totally seperate from print media. A live event is plugged into online consciousness. One athlete can achieve immortality through one spectacular online highlight. A league, for instance, is one twitter account and several successful YouTube uploads away from transforming itself into the Arnel Pineda of sports.

Coaches preach ball movement. It isn't time to drop the ball. It's the best time to pass it to the next guy. It's time to play motion-offense. Swing the ball around. It's 2011. Time to move. Time to grow. Time to share. Time to understand. Time to connect with the sports we follow...through 3G, through 4G, in 3D, with WIFI, on HD, through Vimeo, via USTREAM, download by download.

As soon as I closed the book, I recognized the sign. It says sports events, sports leagues, sports personalities don't exist in a time warp. They can choose to stay put to where they think they are. Or...they can grow, exponentially, like a compelling FB status message. They just have to learn how to do it. The challenge for sports is no longer to catch up with New Media. The challenge for Philippine sports, in particular, is to play an active part in Now Media. So athletes from different disciplines can speak up. So we can all share our voice. So everyone can join the game. Happy New Year everyone! MH

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