End of an Era for ‘ESPN The Magazine’

By Serena Fox

The theme of ESPN The Magazine’s 2019 “Body Issue” is “Every Body Has a Story.” The issue celebrates top athletes in several sports and will be the last issue available on newsstands (the magazine will continue online).  

ESPN The Magazine is cancelling its print version—the last issue hits newsstands in September—and moving to an all-digital format. Born in 1998 during the heyday of ESPN’s cultural rise and conceived as a sort of hybrid between Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated, the biweekly periodical soon achieved a reputation for award-winning long-form journalism and inventive, gutsy editorial design and illustration. Moving beyond the photography-only look of its competitors, ESPN The Magazine boldly mixed stellar editorial illustration, photo illustration, in-your-face typography, and strong graphics to create a unique editorial design that spanned political and cultural analysis, photojournalism, and celebrity fandom. Above all, it sought to humanize and contextualize the people and the business of sports. Here’s a retrospective look at some of the best covers and interior spreads over 21 years.    

ESPN The Magazine’s debut cover in March 1998, provocatively titled “Next,” featured the then-rising stars in sports: Kobe Bryant, A-Rod, Kordell Stewart, and Eric Lindros. Since then, its covers have ranged from all-type treatments to photo illustrations, but they have often featured an extreme closeup of a famous sports figure in their “shoes-off personality,” going about their daily life.

The annual “Body Issue,” ESPN’s daring answer to Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue,” celebrates the human athletic form by posing nude sports icons of all ages, from every sport.

Eschewing pure photojournalism, ESPN used editorial illustration far more than most pop culture magazines, not just for cultural or business articles, but also in profiles and interviews.

Known for its eye-catching use of type, ESPN The Magazine sometimes commissioned custom typography for its features. In these images, custom typography is by Michael B. Myers (“Revenge of the Defense”) and Michael Brandon Myers (“Favorite Son”).

Unafraid of controversy, ESPN The Magazine explored many of the unspoken or difficult issues in the business, culture, and politics of sports.

The magazine often used photo-collages or composited photo illustrations to create a mood or convey an editorial point.

The hallmarks of ESPN’s photographic approach were images that strove to humanize famous figures in sports. The magazine often depicted sports icons in street clothes, going about everyday activities, and its on-field portraits emphasized the personality over the persona.

Marquee image: Christian Yelich photographed by Joe Pugliese for EPSN The Magazine.