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How ESPN The Magazine Made Waves With Its Heroes Issue

ESPN - Media - Mag

For 20 years, ESPN The Magazine has shared some of the biggest stories in sports, both on and off the field. The magazine’s focus on telling moving stories was especially evident in its most recent issue – the Heroes Issue.

The July installment featured Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, along with a slew of other Team USA gymnasts, who came forward about incidents of sexual abuse by team doctor Larry Nassar. The cover story, written by ESPN’s Mina Kimes, dove into the lawsuit against Nassar, but more importantly, it profiled Raisman as more than just a gymnast, but as an activist.

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The magazine cover, though fairly simple, was praised by digital experts throughout the sports industry, including Melissa Sulewski, a digital strategist who focuses on sports and technology.

“Aly Raisman’s expression gives us a momentary glimpse at a woman with incredible strength who has come out on the other side of an ordeal she should’ve never had to endure,” Sulewski said. “She has a soft stoicism in her eyes, but it betrays wisdom beyond her 24 years. The only headline is a call to action that Aly appears ready to lead: ‘We have to change the way our society views women.’”

Digital brand strategist Anna Melissa Raquid added that the powerful cover stuck out to her, as well.

“To be honest, I don’t necessarily pay attention to print as much as the digital space, which is mostly a byproduct of the space I work in,” she said. “I actually have the Heroes Issue, though, because it caught my attention. The reason why it caught my attention was – as a woman who has worked in sports and seen the treatment of women in sports – there’s such an important conversation that needs to happen with providing women with a platform to speak.”

Beyond the cover, Sulewski took note of the stories inside the magazine, which she said could not have come at a more important time.

“The Heroes Issue was an exercise in celebrating what athletes stand for beyond the pitch or court real-life heroes who symbolize hopes and strengths for so many,” Sulewski said. “There may be a lot of men and women reading who can imagine themselves in Aly’s shoes, having gone through a similar trauma. Though difficult to talk about, it’s the very light being shined on the issues that is removing the stigma behind sexual abuse and allowing survivors to be believed and heard more than ever before.”

Raquid also mentioned the strong, dynamic photography that was featured throughout the pages of the magazine.

“I was excited about the inside,” she said. “When you go past the photos of Aly, they have these beautiful, powerful images of women. It’s nice.”

For Sulewski, the Heroes Issue is emblematic of what ESPN The Magazine is all about – transcending the sports themselves.

“ESPN The Magazine largely focuses on athlete stories linked to a world outside of their chosen sport,” she said. “Today’s fan wants to deeply understand and connect with their sports hero in new ways. They use social to stay plugged into players 24/7 and, naturally, stories and profiles have also evolved to match this shift.”

In order to continue to progress, ESPN The Magazine sets itself apart by creating unique narratives that break away from traditional stereotypes, Sulewski said.

“In some ways the magazine has expanded the way we see athletes, i.e. the hugely popular Body Issue, celebrating the power of the athletic form beyond vanity aesthetics,” she said. “What’s more, in an industry climate largely covering men’s sports, I’m noticing a movement to stories about female athletes  often profiled by women writers in strong, stirring narratives.”

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Raquid added that, in addition to presenting quality content, ESPN The Magazine’s key to success has been staying true to its brand.

“I always tell people this – I believe authenticity and transparency is what will always get you your returns,” she said. “If you have beautiful photos and a well-shot video, but they’re not authentic and not speaking truthfully – well, that’s the most important.”