The Story Behind Sports Illustrated's Big LeBron James Exclusive

Magazine's Ad Sellers Didn't Know Before Its Publication

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Sports Illustrated broke the news about LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Sports Illustrated broke the news about LeBron James returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

LeBron James told the world he is returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first person essay that was published on the Sports Illustrated website at 12:13 p.m. Eastern Time on Friday, ending days of intense speculation that had seen Mr. James' website crash and endless erroneous guesses published. Sports Illustrated Senior Writer Lee Jenkins helped Mr. James write the essay, titled "I'm Coming Home," which is poised to be the biggest traffic event in the history of the magazine, according to its top editors.

So how did Sports Illustrated get the big scoop?

"It all goes to Lee Jenkins," said Sports Illustrated Managing Editor Chris Stone. "He made this happen."

Several months ago, Mr. Jenkins mentioned to his editors that he wanted to pursue a big story about the next phase of Mr. James' career. "We told him to go for it," said Mr. Stone. But the magazine didn't "place big money" on it actually coming to fruition, he acknowledged.

Then last Saturday, Mr. Jenkins, who was flying to Cleveland on Friday afternoon when Ad Age spoke with Mr. Stone and Sports Illustrated Editor-in-Chief Paul Fichtenbaum, emailed his editors saying the story was a possibility. Out of caution, he didn't mention Mr. James' name in the email.

"The first thing we asked is whether there were any conditions attached," Mr. Stone said. "There were none."

On Wednesday, Mr. Jenkins traveled to Las Vegas. He met with Mr. James on Thursday night before writing the essay with him. Mr. Jenkins emailed the essay to his editors around mid-morning on Friday. "Everyone reading it was learning the news for the first time," Mr. Stone said.

The magazine, which introduced a top-to-bottom redesign of its website last month, alerted its technology team that a big story would soon publish. That way they'd be prepared for the extra traffic. They weren't told, however, what the big scoop was about.

Only about six Sports Illustrated staffers saw the piece before it went live, according to Mr. Stone, who had worried it would somehow leak.

"I can't tell you how stressful the last 24 hours were," he said. "There were a lot of smart, good reporters pursuing this story."

"We're going to sleep well tonight," Mr. Fichtenbaum added.

Google News is not returning Sports Illustrated's LeBron James scoops among the top search results.
Google News is not returning Sports Illustrated's LeBron James scoops among the top search results.

One question now is how well Sports Illustrated can capitalize after today's undoubtedly huge traffic spike passes. Mr. Jenkins now is writing a piece about Mr. James' decision and what it means for Cleveland for the next print issue of Sports Illustrated, which comes out Wednesday, according to Mr. Fichtenbaum.

Editors didn't tell their business-side counterparts about the scoop ahead of time. "The reason we got this story, I think, is because LeBron's team trusted us not to turn it into a circus," Mr. Stone explained. "So to parlay it into a commercial endeavor ahead of time would have been inappropriate."

Unfortunately for Sports Illustrated, Google News is rewarding other publishers for their own rewrites of the magazine's scoop, with search results for "LeBron" turning up stories from local news sites, ESPN and even Slate ahead of Sports Illustrated. A search for "Sports Illustrated LeBron" didn't even turn up the magazine's essay among the top results.

Mr. Fichtenbaum said this is a point of ongoing frustration. "If you want the only story that matters, you go to SI.com," he added.

Sports Illustrated attracted nearly 20 million unique visitors to its desktop and mobile sites in May, a 49% boost compared with May 2013, according to ComScore.

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