Following through on a warning earlier this month, Authentic Brands Group has revoked Sports Illustrated‘s license to publish due to a missed payment.
As a result of the move, the entire staff of the 70-year-old print and online publication was notified on Friday that their jobs were being eliminated.
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“We appreciate the work and efforts of everyone who has contributed to the SI brand and business,” SI operator The Arena Group wrote in a memo to employees that prompted outrage and lamentation on social media.
In a statement, Sports Illustrated Union and The NewsGuild of New York vowed to “fight for every one of our colleagues.”
The Arena Group, which has operated the venerable brand under a license agreement since 2019, said in an SEC filing this month that it did not make a quarterly payment of about $3.75 million.
Authentic “issued the company a notice of breach with the intent to exercise its right of termination,” Arena said in the filing, adding that they are “in discussion” with the licensor.
In a statement provided to Deadline, Authentic Brands said it had given the Arena Group a chance to come up with the quarterly license payment, terminating the license. Despite that action, the statement continued, “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.”
The internal memo from Arena said some workers would be terminated immediately, while others were to continue working during the 90-day notice period employers are legally required to give employees under the WARN Act. All affected employees will get severance pay, the memo said.
It has been a bumpy ride for Sports Illustrated in the years since it left Time Inc., its comfortable home for decades. Time Warner sold Time Inc. to Meredith in 2017 in a deal worth nearly $3 billion, with tentpole properties Time, Sports Illustrated and Fortune leaving the fold under separate divestitures orchestrated by Meredith as it focused on female-skewing titles like People and InStyle.
SI‘s fabled roster of contributors, from sportswriting immortals including Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins to the literary likes of William Faulkner, kept the magazine on the top shelf of media in the latter part of the 20th century. Its photography was the stuff of museum exhibits, dramatically expanding the sports fan’s previous media diet of box scores and wire-service-style game stories.
Transitioning to the digital age, however, has been challenging for SI. As with all print-dominated businesses, Sports Illustrated was beset by online upstarts like Deadspin, Bleacher Report and many others, not to mention social media, and found itself having to play catch-up.
Ross Levinsohn, the veteran media exec who was CEO of The Arena Group, was ousted in December in the wake of the embarrassing revelation that SI had relied on AI-generated contributors who were not, in fact, actual human writers. (The exit of Levinsohn and other senior execs was never publicly tied to the AI scandal.) Less egregious, but still troubling to many media watchers and longtime readers of its high-end writing over the years, the SI website came to rely on a network of poorly compensated, little-known freelance contributors instead of the stable of long-form specialists who long defined the magazine.
In a LinkedIn post, Levinsohn joined the multitudes online reacting to the news at his former company, saying he had resigned from its board of directors. “The actions of this board and the actions against Sports Illustrated’s storied brand and newsroom are the last straw,” he wrote. “An incredible team spent years rebuilding great brands like SI through very challenging times. To watch in horror what is transpiring now is one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever witnessed in my professional life.”
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