Sports Illustrated needs to make a bold move to replace their most coveted talent, columnist Rick Reilly, who bolted for ESPN. The answer, more than mere replacement:
Hire Deadspin's Will Leitch.
I spent way too much time the past few days thinking about this wild story that Rick Reilly jumped from Sports Illustrated to ESPN. The sports-media implications are fascinating: SI's signature "name" leaving for... TV. (Although it sounds like his main focus will be simply replicating his column on the back page of ESPN the Magazine.)
Beyond the implications for ESPN, the reality is that SI needs a bold move. One is available:
SI should hire Deadspin's Will Leitch away from Gawker Media and give him the back-page column, the new lead voice of SI (including SI.com).
Rick Reilly's biggest problem: His relevance has declined precipitously, as was noted at The Big Lead. If you're over 35, you might still think of him as the multiple-time "Sports Writer of the Year" and the lead "identity" of SI. (Even if you think he has lost something off his fastball.) But as someone who is perilously close to the not-so-coveted "Over-35" demographic, I can say with authority: We are hardly the target audience.
If you're under 30, if you knew who Reilly was at all (and you probably don't know or, more likely, don't care), you know Reilly as the author of those columns that -- if they didn't have Reilly's byline -- you'd wonder why editors at SI were putting warmed-over Page 2 column ideas on their back page. (The nadir: Reilly's tortured "live-blog" of the NFL Draft, which nearly offset his campaign to raise money for malaria nets, which was inspired.)
On the other hand, Will Leitch couldn't be more relevant. He launched and writes the most influential proposition in sports, a blog that not only is the center of gravity for the entire sports blogosphere, but drives a healthy portion of sports newspaper, radio and TV conversation, too.
That's precisely the kind of impact that a brand like SI needs. It needs relevancy, not with its established and aging base of magazine readers who might enjoy Reilly, but with its unestablished and young base of cross-platform consumers who do enjoy Leitch.
Yet for all of Leitch's talents as a blogger, he's an even better essayist, as anyone who has read his column series on either the NCAA Tournament or the MLB playoffs knows. Things are about to get even bigger for Leitch: His new book, "God Save The Fan," comes out early next year. I've read it. It's mind-bogglingly good; enough to establish – or, to many of us, affirm – Leitch's position as THE leading voice of the sports fan today.
I don't usually think about life after Deadspin for Leitch, but I know it has to be there. Of the "what's next" opportunities I think he would be perfect for, taking over the back page of SI would be at the top of the list: Escorting SI from the plateau of the "Reilly Era" into lockstep with the "Deadspin Era."
What makes Leitch so unique for that role is that, for all of the "Underground" populism, he is a purist at heart. He cares about sports in a way that old school guys like Reilly -- who long ago drifted into cynicism cloaked under some kind of stab at "humor" -- simply can't grasp. It's why Reilly can't connect with younger consumers anymore. Leitch combines a reverence for what made SI great with a unique empathy for today's sports fans and a unique understanding of today's sports landscape. Consequently, he can uniquely bridge the gap between SI's older consumers and its younger ones, its bygone golden era and its future.
Most of all, it is precisely the bold step that SI needs to take to stay relevant. I appreciate the Dan Patrick deal last week, but the buzz lasted all of 36 hours before the leaked Reilly story trumped it. SI will never be (or beat) ESPN, nor should it try. As sports bloggers have picked up faster than their traditional counterparts, in sports media, direct competition is overrated -- the most important thing is to serve an audience uniquely (and, hopefully, profitably):
It is better for SI to stake out its own unique voice for the next era in sports and sports fandom; who better to represent that effort that the voice who single-handedly eclipsed SI (and everyone else in traditional sports media) to become the most powerful complement to ESPN among sports fans?
It's a very simple proposition for SI Group President Mark Ford, SI Digital President Jeff Price, SI Managing Editor Terry McDonnell and SI.com Managing Editor Paul Fichtenbaum:
Replace Reilly with relevancy. Putting Will Leitch on the back page of SI every week would be a breathtakingly bold move for SI and a spectacular victory for sports fans everywhere.
(Mega-Disclosure/Caveat: Leitch is a very good friend of mine. We play in two fantasy leagues together, virtually year-round, which in this day and age is as entangled as people can get. I write a weekly guest-post on Deadspin, for which Gawker Media pays me, and I have written other posts for Leitch before. I am a huge fan of his, personally and professionally, as should be obvious. All that said: This post was written entirely independent of Leitch. He didn't know about it, and I didn't tell him I was going to post it.
Also, though it might look like I'm crushing Reilly here, by all accounts he's a fine fellow, who has built a world-class reputation at the top of the sports-media world; still occasionally manages to turn a clever phrase; who consistently and admirably lends himself to extremely worthy causes; and who even is rumored to find his way into Baton Rouge press boxes with foxy arm candy, which anyone can't help but respect. While I am not unfairly skeptical whether he can move the ratings needle at ESPN to justify his rumored multi-million dollar annual deal, I am quite sure he will find much success and happiness there. I am always in favor of bold career moves, and his certainly qualifies. I wish him well.)