Is ESPN’s Last “Body Issue” the End of a Golden Age for Magazine Special Editions?

It's certainly the end of an era

espn body issue brooks koepka
An ad for ESPN's final "Body Issue" at this year's PGA Tour Championship featuring world no. 1 Brooks Koepka
Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images
By Tobias Carroll / September 9, 2019 9:35 am

This month marks the end of an era for sports publications: the last installment of ESPN Magazine’s “Body Issue” will reach newsstands and bookstores across the country. (It’ll also be the final print edition of the magazine, period.)

While the concept will live on as part of a multimedia feature on ESPN’s website, the idea of the Body Issue as something inherently physical — which lines up neatly with the themes of the photographs found inside of it — will cease to be.

The first Body Issue was released into the world in October of 2009. Editor-in-chief Alison Overholt reminisced about its genesis in an interview with NPR. The cover of the first Body Issue featured Serena Williams, and set a precedent for what was to come. “[T]o have somebody like Serena Williams, I mean, that cover is still just one of the most iconic that we’ve ever published,” Overholt told NPR. “For her to do that made other athletes say, you know, all right. This is something.”

What has always made the Body Issue stand out is its commitment to showing different kinds of bodies. You certainly had fit, toned athletes — but you would also see people of different weights, shapes and ages, from Olympic throwers and NFL linemen to figure skaters and fencers. Browsing through the magazine’s archive reveals a project that walked the walk, so to speak: it didn’t attempt to hold up one ideal, but instead demonstrated a welcome diversity of subjects, each looking decidedly comfortable in their own skin.

In an era when the body-positivity movement is increasingly being embraced by the media, brands and society at large, it’s not hard to see a connection between the two. Body Issues past and present have tapped into the zeitgeist, and have been a ready and willing leader of the movement.

One particular Body Issue also led to this absolutely glorious moment of television in 2014, when Conan O’Brien asked soccer player Omar Gonzalez about his experience at a photo shoot for that year’s issue. 

That, too, speaks to the impact of the Body Issue, and special issues of sports magazines more broadly: they give people something to talk about. In 1991, when Sports Illustrated put a hologram of Michael Jordan on their cover, naming him Sportsman of the Year, they weren’t just coronating an athlete — they were coronating themselves, as the de facto arbiter of athletic greatness. In proceeding years, the announcement of the Sportsman of the Year, like TIME‘s Person of the Year, became a story worth reporting on.

But the landscape is changing. In a 2018 article on the unclear future of Sports Illustrated, Michael MacCambridge wrote that “[a]ll magazines provide an illusion that, between these covers, the editors and writers will make sense of this particular corner of the world.” MacCambridge should know: he literally wrote the book about Sports Illustrated. And that comment is especially true where special issues are concerned. It’s not just a case of the writing or photography contained within the issue, it’s that the very subject is worthy of such treatment, to the degree that it becomes a thing readers anticipate and look forward to each year.

Print, though, is dying. ESPN is not the first — and certainly won’t be the last — glossy to fold in 2019. And as magazines give way to their digital equivalents, notions of monthly editorial calendars and annualized special editions can become obsolete. As mentioned, ESPN.com will likely release some online form of the Body Issue in the future. But it won’t be as “special” without the baked-in release date that a monthly magazine provides. (Hell, it could just become a section of the website unto its own, updated regularly and “presented by” some corporate sponsor, in an effort to maximize pageviews and augment ESPN’s influence.)

The New York Times Magazine’s recent “1619” issue, about the legacy of slavery in the United States, shows that a special issue of a magazine can still have a massive cultural impact. And while ESPN Magazine’s physical presence is drawing to a close, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still lessons to be learned from the space they’ve navigated — and a reminder of the what a great issue of a magazine can be.