The LeBron Sports Illustrated cover: Pull out a chair

The Sports Illustrated cover dedicated to LeBron James' return to Cleveland seemed a little ... basic. Herein, Vox Media designer Ramla Mahmood talks with Jon Bois about how they fell short, and what a magazine cover's purpose is in the 21st century.

Jon: So I'm looking at this week's Sports Illustrated cover, which, of course, is dedicated to LeBron James' return to Cleveland. I'm counting a lot of sports items in this cover: a ball, a jersey, and a pair of shoes. It's a sports magazine with lots of sports things on the cover. By that measure, is this the best magazine cover possible? Or could they have shot even higher, and tried to include a fourth sports-related item?

Ramla Mahmood, Vox Media designer (@ramoved): Let's not forget the chair. Perhaps that is what makes the cover. Not the off-centered jerseys hanging on wire hangers with a disproportionately small basketball to the side, but the black office chair you probably have at your very desk. Could this foreshadow a possible injury in LeBron's career? Could this mean a more serious and professional outlook for the 29-year-old? What other hints can we gather from the cover?

Jon: The chair might be the most important element of this illustration. Either he refuses to acknowledge the health benefits of standing up while working at a desk, or they simply don't make ergonomic standing desks that are tall enough for him. The folks at IKEA were probably like, "well ... I guess we could sell you a tool shed ..."

And man, that basketball is probably about half as big as it's supposed to be. These Cavaliers will be a score-happy team, especially if they can acquire Kevin Love. Maybe the ball's smaller so they can fit two into the net at the same time.

Cover Examples

Left: Bloomberg Businessweek never fails to impress with their covers, this time creating a literal impact on the NFL brain injury story. Right: Sports Illustrated showcases Michael Phelps' eight gold medals in a similar style to Mark Spitz's iconic pose.

Ramla: People waited days by their phones and computers to hear where LeBron was headed and when it was announced the internet erupted before any pen hit paper. The newspaper front pages were the last to report the story that Sports Illustrated had announced online the day before. So in a time when print is constantly declared dead, what role did the LeBron James covers hold and are they responsible to still break news or just conclude it?

Jon: That's true. Magazines like Sports Illustrated can still break big stories based on original reporting if they want (although they often post the story online before the print edition hits shelves anyway). But even before the advent of the Internet, magazines were always beaten to the punch on common-knowledge news by newspapers and TV anyway. So the value of a magazine, and a magazine cover, is often to generate interest in breakdowns, analysis, opinion. Not the news itself.

Ramla: As much as I want to blame the chair, the issue with the Sports Illustrated cover for me is the lack of excitement. When you have to present a story that everyone already knows, how do you do it in a way that still captures people's attention? Whether you are the publication that broke the story, or a different one that is simply reporting on it, what role does the front page play? It's like telling a story to your friend that they've already heard about from someone else. How do you tell them something they already know, but from a different angle?

Plain Dealer Cover -Photo credit: Cleveland Plain Dealer

Jon: Maybe they were just trying to take it in another direction: Every outlet everywhere, of course, had plenty of old photos of LeBron in a Cavs jersey at their disposal, and they could have done something flashier. It looks to me as though they were going for contemplative, minimalist, tasteful. Like, "we don't need to shoot fireworks, we were the ones to break the story." But there's minimalist, and then there's "a collection of some stuff."

Ramla: That's a good point, but in the end of the day they still have a magazine to sell. The New York Times cover on LeBron is a great example of a simple yet enticing cover. The hand drawn cover by the Cleveland Plain Dealer was like a piece of art I would hang on my wall. Since magazines are telling stories rather than breaking them, the cover is for me has always been an important part of the story. Having said that, I think that an impactful cover can also bolster a story that may otherwise been shadowed over, so it works both ways.

This takes me back to my original question on if the magazine cover in a story like this matters anymore. Events like previews work well for magazines since that is budgeted and planned and gives an opportunity to showcase beautiful layouts and editorial content. For a story like LeBron's decision however, maybe this was best lived on the web. There can be books written on what went behind his decision to return but in the end of the day, the vital under 140 character snippet is that he is returning to Cleveland to continue his career and maybe that is all people truly care about.

Plain Dealer Cover

Two players often compared. Left: ESPN shows Jordan in a mellow, up-close manner. Right: the flashier GQ cover on right has James holding a basketball on fire.

Jon: In a lot of cases, I think you'd be right. In this particular one, I think a lot of folks had an endless appetite for the hows and whys of LeBron going back home. Does he think leaving in the first place was a mistake? Does he not believe in the Heat anymore? What are Cavs fans saying? What is this well-known writer, who may or may not have more insight than you, saying? I think this story was one that was perfectly marketable to the couple-days-later crowd. And maybe readers don't need magazine cover art to sell them on it. But the SI covers have become events in and of themselves. This was a huge opportunity, and they spent it on some laundry.

And finally: if SB Nation were a magazine, this would be our cover:

Lebron_medium

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