There were two magazines named Sports Illustrated before the current magazine began on August 16, 1954. In 1936, Stuart Scheftel created Sports Illustrated with a target market for the sportsman. He published the magazine from 1936 to 1938 on a monthly basis. The magazine was a life magazine size and focused on golf, tennis, and skiing with articles on the major sports. He then sold the name to Dell Publications, which released Sports Illustrated in 1949 and this version lasted six issues before closing. Dell's version focused on major sports (baseball, basketball, boxing) and competed on magazine racks against Sport and other monthly sports magazines. During the 1940s these magazines were monthly and they did not cover the current events because of the production schedules. There was no large-base, general, weekly sports magazine with a national following on actual active events. It was then that Time patriarch Henry Luce began considering whether his company should attempt to fill that gap. At the time, many believed sports was beneath the attention of serious journalism and did not think sports news could fill a weekly magazine, especially during the winter. A number of advisers to Luce, including Life magazine's Ernest Havemann, tried to kill the idea, but Luce, who was not a sports fan, decided the time was right.
The goal of the new magazine was to be basically a magazine, but with sports. Many at Time-Life scoffed at Luce's idea; in his Pulitzer Prize–winning biography, Luce and His Empire, W. A. Swanberg wrote that the company's intellectuals dubbed the proposed magazine "Muscle", "Jockstrap", and "Sweat Socks". Launched on August 16, 1954, it was not profitable (and would not be so for 12 years) and not particularly well run at first, but Luce's timing was good. The popularity of spectator sports in the United States was about to explode, and that popularity came to be driven largely by three things: economic prosperity, television, and Sports Illustrated.
Mark Ford, President of the Sports Illustrated Group in 2010
The early issues of the magazine seemed caught between two opposing views of its audience. Much of the subject matter was directed at upper-class activities such as yachting, polo and safaris, but upscale would-be advertisers were unconvinced that sports fans were a significant part of their market.
After more than a decade of steady losses, the magazine's fortunes finally turned around in the 1960s when Andre Laguerre became its managing editor. A European correspondent for Time, Inc., who later became chief of the Time-Life news bureaux in Paris and London (for a time he ran both simultaneously), Laguerre attracted Henry Luce's attention in 1956 with his singular coverage of the Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, which became the core of SI's coverage of those games. In May 1956, Luce brought Laguerre to New York to become assistant managing editor of the magazine. He was named managing editor in 1960, and he more than doubled the circulation by instituting a system of departmental editors, redesigning the internal format, and inaugurating the unprecedented use in a news magazine of full-color photographic coverage of the week's sports events. He was also one of the first to sense the rise of national interest in professional .
Laguerre also instituted the innovative concept of one long story at the end of every issue, which he called the "bonus piece". These well-written, in-depth articles helped to distinguish Sports Illustrated from other sports publications, and helped launch the careers of such legendary writers as Frank Deford, who in March 2010 wrote of Laguerre, "He smoked cigars and drank Scotch and made the sun move across the heavens ... His genius as an editor was that he made you want to please him, but he wanted you to do that by writing in your own distinct way."
Laguerre is also credited with the conception and creation of the annual Swimsuit Issue, which quickly became, and remains, the most popular issue each year.
In 1990, Time Inc. merged with Warner Communications to form the media conglomerate Time Warner. In 2014, Time Inc. was spun off from Time Warner. In November 2017, Meredith Corporation announced that it would acquire Time Inc., and the acquisition was completed in January 2018. However, in March 2018, Meredith stated that it would explore selling Sports Illustrated and several other former Time properties, arguing that they did not properly align with the company's lifestyle brands and publications.
On May 27, 2019, Authentic Brands Group announced its intent to acquire Sports Illustrated for $110 million. Authentic Brands Group will leverage its brand and other assets for new opportunities that "stay close to the DNA and the heritage of the brand." Upon announcement of the sale, it was stated that Meredith would enter into a licensing agreement to continue as publisher of the Sports Illustrated editorial operations for at least the next two years. However, on June 18, 2019, it was revealed that the rights to publish the Sports Illustrated editorial operations would be licensed to the digital media company theMaven, Inc. under a 10-year contract, with Ross Levinsohn as CEO. The company had backed a bid by Junior Bridgeman to acquire SI.
On October 1, 2019, editor-in-chief Chris Stone stepped down. On October 2, 2019, in preparation for the closure of the sale to ABG and Maven, The Wall Street Journal reported that Maven was preparing to lay off over 40 Sports Illustrated employees, with an intent to have their roles filled by contracted writers. The next day, ABG and Meredith confirmed that the acquisition had closed, with Meredith stating that staff cuts had been made. On October 29, it announced its hiring of veteran college sports writer Pat Forde.