Sports Illustrated's future looked bleak Friday after the downsized publisher's publisher announced mass layoffs as it lost its license to use the iconic brand's name in print and digital.
Arena Group – rocked by reports that the iconic magazine was publishing AI-generated content – admitted it missed a $3.75 million quarterly royalty payment due this week to Authentic Brands Group to have accomplished.
As a result, the publicly traded arena announced Thursday that it would “significantly reduce” its workforce of more than 100 journalists.
SI's unionized workers received a memo Friday informing them that “some employees will be immediately terminated and paid in lieu of the applicable 60-day notice period.” [union contract].”
“Employees with a final day of work today will be contacted by the People team shortly. Other employees are expected to work until the end of the notice period and will receive further information shortly,” said the memo, obtained by The Post.
A George Mason fan holds up a Sports Illustrated magazine in 2006. AP
An Arena spokesperson added that the company is negotiating with Authentic Brands to regain the license. Once a weekly publication, SI was reduced to a bi-weekly publication in 2018 and became a monthly publication in 2020.
“Even though the publishing license has been revoked, we will continue to produce Sports Illustrated until the issue is resolved,” the representative said.
“We hope to be the company that takes SI forward, but if not, we are confident someone will. If it's another company, we will support the transition so that Sports Illustrated's legacy doesn't suffer.
There were a few new reports on the outlet's website Friday that suggested a skeleton crew was still employed.
Meanwhile, SI's annual Swimsuit Issue — which launched the careers of supermodels from Cheryl Tiegs to Tyra Banks — is finished and will be published in the spring, a source familiar with the situation told The Post.
Authentic Brands, owned by Canadian billionaire Jamie Salter, insisted SI “will continue” but did not say who would be at the helm.
The company has received interest in a licensing deal for SI from Vox, Essence, Penske Media and former NBA star and former NBA executive Junior Bridgeman, another source with knowledge told the Post.
“Authentic is here to ensure that the Sports Illustrated brand, which includes its editorial arm, continues to thrive as it has for the past nearly 70 years,” the company said in a statement.
“We are confident that the brand will continue to evolve and grow to serve sports news readers, sports fans and consumers. We are committed to ensuring that the traditional advertising-supported media pillar, Sports Illustrated, receives world-class management to maintain the full integrity of the brand legacy.”
The magazine's union members also called on Authentic to “ensure the continued publication of SI.”
“We have fought together as a union to maintain the standards of this storied publication we love and to ensure that our employees are treated fairly for the value they bring to this company. It is a fight we will continue,” wrote Mitch Goldich, NFL editor and union leader, on X.
First published in 1954, the magazine was owned by Time Inc. until it was acquired by publishing giant Meredith in 2018. It quickly turned around and sold SI to Authentic for $110 million.
Sports Illustrated covered many of the world's biggest events and made headlines every year with its Swimsuit Issue. Michael Jordan was the athlete featured most often on the cover.
It has long been considered the benchmark for excellence in sports journalism, employing legendary sportswriters such as Frank Deford, Dan Jenkins, Peter Gammons, Sally Jenkins, Leigh Montville and Jim Murray.
Its iconic covers – which Michael Jordan has graced a record 50 times – depicted defining moments in sports history, from the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980 to the dubbing of a 17-year-old high school student named LeBron James as “The Chosen One” in 2002 .
“Very sad for my Sports Illustrated friends today and for all of us who loved everything it used to be,” Rachel Nichols wrote in a post on X.
“A Sports Illustrated cover has been the primary vehicle for star-making in sports for decades,” ESPN’s Kevin Clark added in a post. “It was what Carson was to a comedian or what SNL was to a band. Without these things the *sport* is worse off. The fact that it got so bad so quickly is unimaginable and completely avoidable.”
If you're older, you knew exactly what day Sports Illustrated showed up in the mailbox. I just found this last week and it took me back to a time where the team was great, they were called something different, and if your team made the cover it was the greatest thing ever. RIP SI. pic.twitter.com/z4li784b8x
— Scott Van Pelt (@notthefakeSVP) January 19, 2024
SI has been virtually adrift since Arena Group fired CEO Ross Levinsohn last month.
Levinsohn, who has held the role since 2020, came under fire after tech site Futurism reported it found AI-generated content that included bylines and photos from fake authors.
Arena Group's controlling shareholder, 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava, took over as CEO but abruptly resigned on Jan. 5 after citing a “conflict of interest,” according to an SEC filing.
FTI Consulting's Jason Frankl was named Arena's chief business transformation officer on the day of Bhargava's resignation.