An elite title covering elite athletes makes Sports Illustrated an elite pitch challenge. However, you can earn space on its pages with homework, hard work, and knowing the rules of the game. By Gideon Fidelzeid
You know a magazine has clout when it has a jinx associated with it.
Such is the case with Sports Illustrated. The SI jinx was born when the short-term performances of some cover subjects suffered immediately after gracing its cover.
Traditionally, PR pros have had even worse luck when trying to gain editors' interest. As a prestigious weekly title that focuses mostly on recent major sporting events, the only pitches that usually concern SI are those thrown by guys in professional uniforms who are paid huge salaries to do so.
Since its first issue (August 16, 1954), SI has cultivated its image as the preeminent sports publication. Over 16 million men, with an average age of 37, and over five million women read it weekly. More than 60% of its readers are college graduates or above, with a median household income of just under $60,000 a year. Furthermore, readers tend to really delve into it, as 96% of the issues read come from subscriptions.
SI is widely known for the high quality of its news-breaking reporters, writers, and photographers. Its virtually iconic status is confirmed by instances like the current steroid scandal rocking baseball (see Media Watch, p. 12). The June 3 cover story, in which ex-major leaguer Ken Caminiti exposed the rampant use of steroids by players, was not only reported by every major news outlet, it started a maelstrom that prompted a US Senate hearing last week.
Of course, if you dare to dream of pitching SI a cover story, forget it. Ditto for any event-specific features, investigative reports, or pretty much anything in the heart of the issue.
While that does not leave much, persistent PR pros can increase their chances of landing on these hallowed pages by doing their homework.
"It's challenging, but doable, claims Brett Werner, VP at Alan Taylor Communications. The key is knowing the magazine well, recognizing its tendencies, and honing your pitch accordingly.
According to Rick McCabe, SI's associate director of communications, the most pitch-friendly section of the magazine is Scorecard, the front-of-the book news and notes section, which includes items such as new products.
"If presented in a clever, professional manner, a pitch can work, he says. Within Scorecard, sections like The Blotter and Sports Beat are the best pitch targets.
Other receptive sections are the weekly columns that cover each pro league (Inside Baseball, Inside the NBA, etc.), and Catching Up With ..., the occasional section where SI revisits the lives of past cover subjects.
Recently, Werner successfully pitched an awards banquet he coordinated featuring Edwin Moses, multiple Olympic gold medalist and past cover star.
Executive editor Charlie Leerhsen, who oversees Scorecard, welcomes pitches because "a good story is a good story. However, he emphasizes that SI has a time-tested formula for its content and won't deviate from it.
"Don't send something stretching the boundaries of what we do, warns Leerhsen. "We get really discouraged when we see pitches that make us say, 'Has this person ever read SI?'"
Once you decide to pitch, it's best to do so on a Thursday, when the weekly production cycle begins. (It ends late Monday, with Tuesdays and Wednes-days actually being "weekends for staffers, so the office is mostly empty.)
Ironically, for a magazine widely held to be a technological leader in terms of production, Leerhsen prefers to get pitches via fax. "We have a real respect for paper here, he says. "It's easier to traffic for everyone."
It's also worth noting that even if your idea is initially accepted, wait until you see it in print before breaking out the bubbly. A while back, Werner pitched SI a story on an Antarctica marathon, which intrigued the editors enough to send a writer to compete in it - paying all of the expenses itself. "I felt like I was 95% home, says Werner. "Unfortunately, the other 5% prevailed. Despite the costs incurred, the editorial board changed its mind. SI's status and hefty Time, Inc. coffers afford it the luxury of reconsideration.
As an elite weekly, SI will never be the easiest PR pitch target. But even it recognizes that today's increased competition and economic instability necessitate some increased editorial receptiveness and flexibility.
After all, if someone had told you a few weeks ago that in a five-week span, two US soccer players would grace SI's cover, you'd have laughed.
But US World Cup star Landon Donovan is on this week's cover, following his teammate Clint Mathis' appearance on the May 27 front page. The seemingly unattainable - from soccer to PR pitches - is possible with Sports Illustrated, just as long as you are diligent and prepared when seeking the goal.
Address: 135 West 50th Street, New York, NY 10020
Tel: (212) 522-1212
Fax: (212) 522-4543
General editorial e-mail: email@example.com
Managing editor: Terry McDonell
Deputy managing editor: David Bauer
Executive editors: Charlie Leerhsen, Rob Fleder