Hey, Sports Illustrated: Why Doesn’t the Outdoors Count as ‘Sports’ Anymore? (Updated)

from Wildlife Promise

Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated ‘photo vault’ archivist Andy Gray came across a curious cover from SI’s past:

Gray’s tone betrayed a pretty common assumption: ‘Nature isn’t sports. That’s ridiculous!’

But SI, long the standard-bearer of American fandom, didn’t always feel that way. This was something I knew vaguely, having perused old-timey back issues as a kid, but I never tried to quantify it until today.

At its 1954 inception, Sports Illustrated recognized that getting out and interacting with nature could be sport—in fact, it represented some of our most hallowed sports traditions. That first year, three of the magazine’s 20 issues featured outdoor activities on the cover, including two wildlife-only covers (for our purposes, I counted anything involving hunting, fishing, hiking, birdwatching and general wilderness exploration as an ‘outdoors’ cover. Skiing, sailboat racing, bike racing and the like were left out since they do sometimes rate significant media coverage nowadays and are more structured…and because it’s my admittedly arbitrary system).

Throughout the 1950s, nature shared cover time with baseball, football and boxing. Between 1954 and 1959, SI averaged five nature covers per year, including nine in 1958. Standouts included this 1955 bird-watching cover, which could easily pass for a ‘wonders of biodiversity’ mural, a Chukar Partridge (“Six Pages of Game Birds in Color”) and the seals pictured above.

A TV-Driven Shift?

In the 1960s, things started to change. There were still three nature covers in 1963, but from that point on, the decade featured just two—one being 1965′s power boating feature, which I included with some hesitation only because it includes the line “the most luxurious fishing machine.” It seems that as television was becoming more ingrained in the American consciousness, and its signature sport—football—was exploding in popularity, our conception of sport took a distinctly couch-bound turn. More and more, the sports that SI was illustrating were highly structured activities performed by other people.

True, this cover DOES feature ducks...but not wildlife. SI covers featuring the outdoors have almost disappeared since the 1950s. (flickr | Sports Illustrated)

That the gradual disappearance of nature from the idea of ‘sports’ closely tracked the growing popularity of television shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Research has shown that people (especially kids) are spending more and more of their time looking at screens or otherwise consuming electronic media, quite often at the expense of outdoor activity.

Children ages 3-12 spend 1% of their time outdoors, and 27 % of their time just watching TV. A recent report from Common Sense Media (PDF ) found that more than half of all American children between the ages of 0-8 now have access to one of the newer mobile devices at home, and nearly one-third have a TV in their bedroom. Overall, it indicates that ‘screen time’ is higher than ever for kids (as has been mentioned frequently here, that shift carries myriad consequences, from increased likelihood of poor eyesight to heart disease). Given all this, is it any wonder that televised stars like Brett Favre have replaced brook trout in the popular imagination?

Remembering Our Outdoor Heritage

What’s important to note is that outdoor recreation isn’t dead in America—not by a long shot. In fact, according to the 2012 Outdoor Recreation participation Topline Report, 2011 saw outdoor recreation (which includes fishing, hunting, birdwatching, et al.) among Americans at the highest participation level in the last five years.

And yet, to quote my colleague Miles Grant, “can you imagine Sports Illustrated ever putting wildlife on the cover today? Today, unless it takes place in designated arenas laden with ads that we drive to, it’s not a real sport.”

Sports Illustrated has seemingly confirmed that: since the year 1986, outdoors or nature have not been featured on the cover even once. It may be time to shift our idea of  recreation so that it includes both the Chicago Blackhawks and the Common Black-Hawk once again. If we return to thinking of the outdoors as ‘sports,’ it may help even more Americans see our natural places the way they once did—as the greatest stadiums we’ve ever had.

UPDATE:

After I bothered Andy Gray with a link to this post, he responded:

My sincerest thanks go to @si_vault for paying attention and running the ‘wildlife’ cover idea up the chain. Stay tuned—maybe someday soon we’ll see wild bison sharing cover space with the Buffalo Bills (though the latter might be more far-fetched).