Sports Illustrated may no longer be the revered repository for serious, well-composed, compelling sports writing and photography it once was during the glory days of yore, but that doesn’t mean the shop is no longer an innovator. Careful readers of the publication’s print and online offerings have increasingly come to notice all the work SI has done leading the industry in the trumped up, high-minded, not-even-veiled sponsored content department.
Which brings us to this week: In an exasperatingly detailed 1,700-word article describing a collaboration between SI, SI senior writer Charlotte Wilder, and an MLB team the publication ostensibly covers and definitely shouldn’t be doing this kind of cutesy advertorial bullshit with—and all in the name of creating some gross Frankenfood no one in their right mind would ever eat—SI has arguably reached the apex of the overwritten sponcon style it has spent years attempting to master.
On Monday, the Arizona Diamondbacks took a break from spring training to unleash the newest in that depressingly prominent ballpark tradition of disgusting stadium food. The resulting culinary atrocities: a series of 18-inch hot dogs, expertly crafted to be as overstuffed as possible, bearing the friendly co-sign from the D-Backs’ newest brand besties, Sports Illustrated:
The hot dogs themselves aren’t really the story here, though a fair accounting would find them in violation of most if not all of the seven deadly sins. This kind of stadium stunt food—viral-friendly food-based advertisements designed expressly to be good for nothing else other than to be purchased by bored stadium-goers, photographed, posted on social media, nibbled on out of dutiful curiosity, and promptly thrown away—is bad, but it’s bad in a familiar way. What makes these particular stunt foods notable is their connection to SI.
In case you thought SI might’ve limited its shame to lending its prestigious name to what is essentially an advertising campaign in support of one of SI’s coverage subjects, the publication did one better by posting an article even more turgid and difficult to stomach than the hot dogs themselves.
“The Story Behind the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Outrageous 18-Inch Hot Dogs” reads the headline of Charlotte Wilder’s 1,700-word opus, though a more accurate headline would be “The Story Behind Sports Illustrated’s Gleeful Selling Of Its Soul.” As far as subject-writer synergies go, you’d be hard pressed to find a better match to write some gussied up sponcon than Wilder, the writer/web show host who finally answers the age-old question of what former ESPN shill-in-chief Lynn Hoppes’s writing might look like had he ever learned to read.
Wilder herself couldn’t have summed things up better:
The article is stuffed with verbose passages that would be bad but unremarkable in the best of circumstances, but which become even more unforgivable when attached to an article about a once-proud institution shilling a baseball team’s weird hot dogs. After a lede containing the type of aimless scene-setting that plagues so much modern feature writing, Wilder explains what gross stunt food is, and what it means in relation to How We Live Today:
The two things America does best are serving hot dogs at baseball games and making food larger than it has ever been before. By these metrics, the Arizona Diamondbacks are the most patriotic team in the country: Chase Field is known for the 18-inch hot dogs piled high with toppings that can feed entire rows of fans at baseball games. The team calls these gargantuan creations their WOW Items, because each is designed to shock, awe, and compel consumers to blast a picture onto their social media feeds.
This isn’t a trend specific to Arizona. Over the past ten years, novelty foods have exploded into stadiums across the country. Used to lure fans to games (especially when teams aren’t poised to have a winning record), these offerings are another way for franchises to further differentiate the in-game experience from watching the game on your couch. So these hot dogs can’t just be fun to look at. They must be fun to eat, too.
Enter: Chef Stephen.
The article then makes the case for the underlying artistry required to heap disparate food items on top of each other until it congeals into a mass so hideous that it compels attention from lookie-loos the way a gory traffic accident might. Stray too far from acceptable parameters of weirdness, and you might get the only thing that professional sports teams avoid like the plague: bad publicity.
Coming up with ideas for food like this is harder than it seems. This requires more than the kind of slap-dash creativity found in elementary school cafeterias when some knucklehead pours milk on his pizza, top it with gummy bears and dares his friends to eat it. While there are similar elements of madness involved, this requires talent, training, and finesse. These offerings must sound strange enough to puzzle, taste good enough to delight, and look different enough to light up social media without being repulsive. When the Jacksonville Jaguars released a cheeseburger encased in a teal bun a few years ago, Twitter erupted because it looked more radioactive than edible.
The WOW Items walk a tightrope of taste, where the only thing worse than falling into the valley of public derision is having no one notice they exist at all.
What about the mastermind behind these hot dogs? Wilder deftly captures the ineffable cool of “Chef Stephen,” a man who empties the contents of your average suburban house wife’s refrigerator onto a baguette for a living:
Chef Stephen is kind of a rock star. While he chops up pork belly he tells me about the heavy metal he listens to that has damaged his hearing. He has tattoos up and down his arms that he covers up with shooting sleeves. He’s already had three energy drinks this morning and is drinking another one as he whips together Béchamel sauces and times the frying of an egg down to the millisecond. He quit booze a few years ago after decades of living hard. He’s devoted to his wife and son.
The dogs are just so yummy—but let’s not forget the super-hip and credible journalism entity making it all possible!
By the end of the day, I’ve eaten parts of eight different massive hot dogs. My favorite has definitely been the Reuben Dog, a hot dog version of the classic sandwich. [...] He will ultimately name this one the Rueben Some Dirt On It Dog. The S.I. Cover Dog is the third dog we design—shout out Sports Illustrated!—and features an apple slaw with fried mac and cheese on top.
Toward the end of this tome, we get to the moral of the story. Wilder, once a skeptic of the value of stunt food, at least until SI paid her to fly across the country to go design and eat some herself, shares with us the epiphany that led her to appreciate the phenomenon:
I’ll be honest, I’d never looked at a WOW Item before and thought “I need one.” They’ve always seemed more intimidating than appetizing, an exercise in American excess. But after witnessing the process, the amount of thought, and the high quality of the ingredients—not to mention how damn good it all tasted—I know that it would be worth going back out to Arizona just to eat one again. Because sure, this is about excess, but it’s excess meant to be shared and made with self-awareness. It’s a treat. It’s a spectacle. It’s sports—go for it.
For being an article purporting to reveal “The Story Behind” the story, it’s what is left out of the article that’s most interesting. How did this whole thing come about? Did the Diamondbacks approach SI or Wilder about a potential brand collab? Did Wilder petition SI with what is a craven and conflict of interest-ridden idea, and did SI’s editors just green-light it, no questions asked? Who proposed calling one of these items the “SI Cover Dog,” and did anyone think that was a terrible look? (A Sports Illustrated spokesperson had this to say when asked for answers about the genesis of this idea: “This was a lighthearted subject the writer found personally interesting. There is no partnership with the Diamondbacks.”)
More fundamentally, whose side is SI even on anymore? The readers looking for smart, entertaining coverage of sports, produced with the freedom and independence necessary to avoid undue influence from the powerful figures inside the game itself? Or the teams and players and power-brokers inside the game itself, who can provide the publication brand-boosting opportunities and the seductive allure of access that works only to the benefit of SI and their sporting co-conspirators?
These are some difficult questions, presumably without any easy answers; still, let’s turn to the closing paragraph of Wilder’s article to see if we can find any closure:
All three [hot dogs] will be available at Diamondbacks games at various points during the season and will sell for $30 each.