Sports Illustrated, which was the gold standard for in-depth sports stories, plunged into turmoil Thursday as the magazine’s new management began laying off staff members in a plan to heavily rely on freelancers.
Dozens of staff members are expected to be laid off. The cuts began nearly five months after Iowa publishing giant Meredith Corp. sold the 65-year-old publication to Authentic Brands Group for $110 million. Authentic Brands then assigned licensing rights to a third-party firm, Maven Inc., which now runs the magazine.
Maven’s plan to dramatically reduce the magazine’s staff provoked an immediate backlash.
“Sports Illustrated has been an iconic brand for 65 years, defined by high-quality storytelling with global recognition,” Sports Illustrated employees posted on Twitter. “As the people who have made this publication what it is, we are writing to call on ABG and Meredith to save the future of this storied title.”
The upheaval at the legendary magazine illustrates the difficulties facing print publications that have long relied on advertising and subscriptions. Sports Illustrated was once the dominant sports-themed publication in the U.S. and a marquee title within the Time Inc. magazine portfolio. Magazine magnate Henry Luce, co-founder of Time, brought Sports Illustrated to life in 1954.
But Time Inc. was dismantled in 2018 after Meredith purchased the company. It sold several of the titles, including Time, Fortune and then Sports Illustrated. Meredith Corp., which publishes Better Homes and Gardens and Real Simple magazine, wanted to bolster its female-skewing titles so it retained such Time Inc. properties as People magazine.
Authentic Brands is a New York brand management firm with rights to big-name celebrities Muhammad Ali, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, and brands including Thomasville furniture, Frye boots and Frederick’s of Hollywood. In August, private equity giant BlackRock bought a 30% stake in Authentic Brands for $875 million.
Authentic Brands retained ownership of Sports Illustrated but assigned licensing rights to Seattle-based Maven. That group paid Authentic Brands $45 million in advance royalties as part of the 10-year deal for use of the Sports Illustrated properties, including the swimsuit edition, in seven countries. Maven assumed responsibility for operating the digital and print editions of Sports Illustrated, which is based in New York and reaches an estimated 2.7 million subscribers.
Maven is owned by longtime media executives Ross Levinsohn, who briefly served as publisher of the the Los Angeles Times, and Jim Heckman. Levinsohn, a former Yahoo and Fox Sports executive, was publisher of The Times for just five months. He was pushed out amid a newsroom revolt that hastened the sale of the paper to Los Angeles biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong in June 2018.
Levinsohn left the paper’s then-parent Tribune Publishing (previously known as Tronc) last year when his job was eliminated. He wasn’t immediately available for comment.
It was not clear Thursday how many people are currently employed at Sports Illustrated. Staff members expressed dismay on Twitter, including over the manner in which employees learned that they were no longer employed.
“As the new licensor of Sports Illustrated, Maven made the Sports Illustrated personnel decisions that Meredith communicated to the Sports Illustrated employees today,” Meredith said in a statement. “Going forward, the remaining Sports Illustrated employees will work at the direction and at the pleasure of Maven.”
In the unsigned letter, the Sports Illustrated employees pleaded for help.
“The Maven wants to replace top journalists in the industry with a network of Maven freelancers and bloggers, while reducing or eliminating departments that have ensured that the stories we publish and produce meet the highest standards,” the Sports Illustrated employees wrote. “We call on Meredith and ABG to drop the Maven and save Sports Illustrated.”