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Sports Illustrated Makes Mass Layoff of Editorial Staffers, Throwing Its Future Into Question

UPDATED: Sports Illustrated has been hit with mass layoffs — decimating the editorial team of the nearly 70-year-old sports media brand.

The union that reps SI’s editorial workers, which is affiliated with the NewsGuild of New York, said in a post on X that on Friday staff members of Sports Illustrated were notified that its parent company, the Arena Group, “is planning to lay off a significant number, possibly all, of the Guild-represented workers at SI, a result of Authentic Brands Group (ABG) revoking Arena’s license to publish SI.”

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In 2019, brand-management firm Authentic Brands Group purchased Sports Illustrated from Meredith for $110 million (after Meredith had acquired Time Inc. and before Meredith was acquired by IAC’s Dotdash). When ABG bought SI, it laid off more than 30% of the publication’s staff. ABG licensed media and publishing rights for the SI brand to Maven, which changed its name in 2021 to Arena Group. After the Arena Group missed a recent payment for the SI publishing rights, ABG revoked the license.

The Arena Group is “in active discussions with Authentic Brands Group — but we understand we aren’t the only ones,” a spokesperson for Arena Group said in a statement to Variety. “Even though the publishing license has been revoked we will continue to produce Sports Illustrated until this is resolved. We hope to be the company to take SI forward but if not, we are confident that someone will. If it is another business, we will support with the transition so the legacy of Sports Illustrated doesn’t suffer.”

ABG, in its own statement Friday, said it “affirms that Sports Illustrated will continue” but did not address whether SI will continue in partnership with Arena Group.

“Yesterday, The Arena Group’s license to serve as the publisher of Sports Illustrated was terminated as a result of the company’s failure to pay its quarterly license fee despite being given a notice of breach and an opportunity to cure the breach,” ABG said in the statement. “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.”

Sports Illustrated writer Pat Forde, in a post on X, said not everyone on the publication’s staff was laid off. “There still is a website and a magazine,” Forde wrote. “That said: Ugly, brutal day with many layoffs. Nothing quite like hearing colleagues and friends saying they just got termination emails in real time while on a Union zoom call.”

On Jan. 2, 2024, the Arena Group “failed to make a quarterly payment” due to ABG of approximately $3.75 million, Arena Group disclosed in an SEC filing Friday. On Jan. 18, ABG notified Arena Group of its intention to terminate the licensing agreement for Sports Illustrated and SI Swim, effective immediately. With the termination of the agreement, Arena Group was on the hook to pay a fee of $45 million to ABG.

In a press release dated Jan. 18, the Arena Group said it “announced a significant reduction in its workforce of over 100 employees. The company, which has substantial debt and recently missed payments, is completing these cost-cutting measures to initiate a transformative shift towards a streamlined business model.” The company also said it in active negotiations with Bridge Media Networks, a subsidiary of Simplify Inventions, that would include a “substantial investment.” Jason Frankl of FTI Consulting, who was recently appointed chief business transformation officer of the Arena Group, said in a statement, “My immediate focus is to collaboratively design a growth-oriented media company, ensuring the financial stability necessary to cultivate and grow the brands we cherish. While this week’s layoffs were regrettably necessary, I look forward to sharing detailed plans soon.”

According to Arena Group’s SEC filing, the layoff of more than 100 employees represented approximately 33% of its current workforce. The company estimated it will incur $5 million to $7 million in total restructuring charges, substantially all of which are related to employee severance and other termination benefits.

The Sports Illustrated Union said in its statement Friday, “This is another difficult day in what has been a difficult four years for Sports Illustrated under Arena Group (previously The Maven) stewardship. We are calling on ABG to ensure the continued publication of SI and allow it to serve our audience in the way it has for nearly 70 years. We expect The Arena Group to honor all the terms of our union contract and will fight for every one of our colleagues to be treated fairly.”

Mitch Goldich, Sports Illustrated’s NFL editor and unit chair of the SI union, said in a statement, “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 bring to this company. It is a fight we will continue.”

This is the memo that Arena Group sent to Sports Illustrated staff members, according to The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch, who had previously worked at SI for 20 years:

Dear All:

On Thursday, January 18th, we were notified by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) that the license under which the Arena Group operates the Sports Illustrated (SI) brand and SI related properties has been officially revoked by ABG. As a result of this license revocation, we will be laying off staff that work on the SI brand.

All impacted employees will receive severance pay, and will be entitled to any applicable WARN or notice period outlined in the Union agreement (“MOA”). Some employees will be terminated immediately, and paid in lieu of the applicable notice period under the MOA. Employees with a last working day of today will be contacted by the People team soon. Other employees will be expected to work through the end of the notice period, and will receive additional information shortly.

We appreciate the work and efforts of everyone who has contributed to the SI brand and business.

Arena Group’s stewardship of Sports Illustrated recently made headlines after the site published product reviews from apparently nonexistent authors with AI-generated headshots. After news of the fake writers emerged last November, Arena Group said it ended its partnership with AdVon Commerce, the company that supplied the posts.

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