Sat. Mar 2nd, 2024

may not be able to survive the mass layoffs announced Thursday. (Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)Getty Images

First came the news.

Next came the shock.

Finally, came the covers.

The sports media world was rocked Thursday by the news that Sports Illustrated, embroiled in controversy since it was bought in 2019 by Authentic Brands Group, will lay off the majority of its workforce in what many see as the end of the publication.

How the terminations happened is the latest in a series of ongoing embarrassments for Sports Illustrated since its brand was licensed to the Arena Group soon after its $110 million purchase from Meredith Corp.

An announcement came at 1:30 p.m. stating Arena was making “a significant reduction in its workforce of over 100 employees” after the company missed a quarterly payment to ABG on its $15 million annual fee for the rights to publish Sports Illustrated in print and online. That missed payment resulted in a revocation of its license to convey content under the SI brand

Sports Illustrated reporters and editors were informed on a Friday Zoom that brand and online content would continue while the issue was resolved, according to The New York TimesNYT. But many staff members received emails notifying them they were “terminated immediately,” while others were expected to keep working “through the end of the notice period.”

In an email provided Monday to Forbes.com, Authentic Brands Group stated that despite the termination of the Arena Group license to serve as the publisher, “Authentic is here to ensure that the brand of Sports Illustrated, which includes its editorial arm, continues to thrive as it has for the past nearly 70 years.

“We are confident that going forward, the brand will continue to evolve and grow in a way that serves sports news readers, sports fans, and consumers. We are committed to ensuring that the traditional ad-supported Sports Illustrated media pillar has best-in-class stewardship to preserve the complete integrity of the brand’s legacy.”

Longtime SI writer Pat Forde had indicated the same sentiment in a clarification from Arena operations head Matt Lombardi he posted Friday,” but he was also among writers past and present who lamented the struggles of the legendary sports publication. Forde described the layoffs as an “ugly, brutal day.”

Best-selling author Jeff Pearlman posted he was “heartbroken,” while Richard Deitch, now with The Athletic, described it as “Just an awful day in a series of awful days for a place that meant the world to so many.” Writer and editor Mitch Golditch, wrote, “It was a true dream job for me, and I am thankful to have had some amazing opportunities over the past 9+ years.”

while after, Sports Illustrated was an institution.” (Photo by Henry S. Dziekan III/WireImage)WireImage

ESPN’s Adam Schefter noted that, “At its peak and even for a while after, Sports Illustrated was an institution. Its covers, and coverage, were legendary. So much great work was done there. And now, it’s the end.”

Fans shared their sadness by posting on social media their favorite magazine covers, which ranged from the 1980 U.S. Hockey team winning the gold medal to Tom Brady to John F. Kennedy to thoroughbred Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Jake Tapper of CNN provided a stream of social posts that showcased his love of Philadelphia sports, captured in the SI covers of 76er Moses Malone, Phillies legend Mike Schmidt and Villanova’s shocking 1985 NCAA win over Georgetown.

Those images of classic sports triumphs are a stark contrast to the crumbing credibility of a 70-year-old brand that was once a standard-bearer in journalism for its exemplary writing and photography, and meant so much to so many.

May 9, 1983, showcased the greatest moments in sports. (Photo by Andy Hayt /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

The Arena Group fired SI CEO Ross Levinsohn in December after the magazine was exposed by Futurism for posting articles generated by artificial intelligence from fake authors. The current crisis comes with Manoj Bhargava at the helm, having been installed to “improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company.”

Their predecessor, James Heckman, led a 20% layoff of the workforce, replacing staffers with contract workers. More staff cuts and salary reductions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic came in 2020, the same year Heckman fired the late Grant Wahl, America’s top soccer journalist, for criticizing the company’s moves.

The union representing SI staffers released a statement Friday that it expects Arena Group to honor its union contract and it will continue to work to ensure all of its employees will be treated fairly.

“We have fought together as a union to maintain the standard of this storied publication that we love, and to make sure our workers are treated fairly for the value they provide to this company,” Mitch Goldich, the magazine’s NFL editor and unit chair, stated. “It is a fight we will continue.”

The question remains if Sports Illustrated can answer the bell for one more round in what seems to be a losing battle.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. 

I am an associate professor of journalism practice at The Ohio State University, teaching sports journalism and sports media relations, and also director of Ohio State’s Sports & Society Initiative.

In addition, I cover sports for the Associated Press and Columbus Dispatch, and am author of the book “Always Get the Name of the Dog: A Guide to Media Interviewing” and the open-access text book “Writing Fabulous Features.”

I am a member of the Ohio State Athletics Council, chairing the Committee on Facilities and Fees, and serve also as teaching chair of the Sports Communication Interest Group of the Association for Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication.

I earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Temple University, a master’s in communication from The Ohio State University and a doctorate in educational leadership from Lamar University.

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