WE EXPECTED surprises, and still we were surprised. The decision of what to put on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED has been the top editor's since the founding of the magazine in 1954. There have been eight such editors. Some have thought choosing the cover was the most interesting part of the job and others the most difficult, but either way they guarded it. Some were collaborative, others not so much.
The idea that the editor should relinquish that call this week and ask fans to choose the cover came from Scott Novak, SI's vice president of communications. Novak is editorial minded and brilliant at driving connections with readers through social-media platforms such as the SI Facebook page, where he proposed to invite visitors to vote for the best sports moment of the year, with the winner featured on the year-end cover. The argument against him was simple: As much as readers may second-guess the magazine's cover choices, that's where they want SI's credibility and authority to start. And who said the voters would be readers in the first place? But the argument Novak, his team and a growing number of staffers made was that letting the public in on the selection process would strengthen the bond between the magazine and its readers and, further, allow SI to plug into a new two-way relationship with a wider landscape of sports fans (page 50).
The surprise came from the Web campaigns, first on behalf of the transcendent surfer Kelly Slater, whose supporters got the word out quickly across the digital landscape. ("Kelly Slater ... won his 11th ASP Championship this year. Share in our support of Kelly by voting this historic feat Sports Illustrated's Top Sports Moment of the Year."—Pearl Jam.) But the early leaders were World Series hero David Freese and Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers defensive tackle who has shown disarming courage coming back from a spinal cord injury. Things got even more interesting when the international soccer community stirred and support grew for Abby Wambach and the U.S. women's World Cup team, and for Lionel Messi, who led Barcelona to the Champions League title. Messi, as well as Novak Djokovic, pulled in votes from countries far beyond SI's usual subscription base.
Was SI really going to put surfing or soccer or tennis on the cover in the heat of football season? Yes, if that's how the voting turned out. We knew most of the voters at facebook.com/SportsIllustrated were not subscribers, and the irony that they might pick an unpopular cover was not lost. But on the final day the support faded for Messi and the momentum kept coming for LeGrand ("Vote 4 Eric LeGrand leading Scarlet Knights on 2 field vs West Virginia as 'Best Sports Moment of 2011' "—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie), who last week sat up by himself for the first time since his injury and tweeted a photo of the achievement. He was the perfect choice.
WAS SPORTS ILLUSTRATED REALLY GOING TO PUT SURFING OR SOCCER OR TENNIS ON THE COVER IN THE HEAT OF FOOTBALL SEASON? YES, IF THAT'S HOW THE VOTING TURNED OUT.