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Sports Illustrated’s Deaths by a Thousand Cuts

How many times can you kill an iconic sports publication?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

How many times can Sports Illustrated die? Or nearly die? At this point, even one of SI’s AI-generated authors could probably write the magazine’s obituary. Name-check a few longform gods who once lived in SI’s pages. Evoke the pleasure of getting SI in the mail each week. Then, having reminded readers that SI is “storied,” describe something terrible that has been done to the current staff. Again.

On Friday, SI suffered another semi-death. To understand how it happened requires understanding that SI is no longer a publication per se, at least to its owners.

SI is owned by something called the Authentic Brands Group. SI is one of the brands it manages, along with Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley, and Billabong. A second company, the Arena Group, published SI after licensing the brand from Authentic Brands. If you can follow all that, you’re a better media critic than I am.

As Front Office Sports’ A.J. Perez reported, the Arena Group missed a payment to Authentic Brands, meaning the licensing agreement is kaput. On Friday, the Arena Group sent an email to employees saying, “we will be laying off staff that work on the SI brand.” That sounded like an extinction-level event, the “big one” the L.A. Times Guild warns is about to visit its own publication.

Later, an Arena Group statement, which should probably be treated with skepticism, said that, despite the layoffs, some form of SI and its staff would stumble into the future. “Employees with a last working day of today will be contacted by the People team soon,” the Arena Group’s email read. One feature of the age of media annihilation is that the emails announcing layoffs don’t sound like they were written by People.

SI has been feasted upon so many times that, like ESPN, it can be hard to remember which round of layoffs a former employee fell victim to. In 2019, as SI came under control of Maven (which became the Arena Group), it laid off more than one-third of its staff. Maven’s plan was to create an SEO content farm to exist alongside classic SI, or what remained of it. In one case, Maven solicited articles about the Bengals from a contributor it discovered was a senior in high school. Around this time, a company memo said SI was being “built for success in the 21st century and beyond.”

Those rosy projections bit the dust somewhat short of the 22nd century. The next year, SI cut another 6 percent of the editorial department. A now-forgotten detail: After the late, great soccer writer Grant Wahl was fired, James Heckman, the CEO of Maven, claimed Wahl didn’t file enough copy! That year, Heckman crowed that SI foresaw a “profitable year.”

In December, SI suffered yet another semi-death when the website Futurism revealed that AI-generated writers had bylines on SI’s website. (Previously, it was assumed that SI contained only carbon-based bylines.) Ross Levinsohn, who left his post as CEO of the Arena Group after the AI controversy, said the “company is positioned well for the future.”

On the contrary, it took a darkly comic series of management errors to bring SI to its latest semi-death. SI was not the first fat magazine to come unbound in the internet age. But at the turn of the century, SI’s name (I resist saying “brand”) was still extremely powerful.

Moreover, SI had a stable of writers—Peter King, Wahl, the late Paul Zimmerman, Stewart Mandel and Richard Deitsch (both now of The Athletic)—that leapt from the magazine’s pages to its website. They showed that SI could be a good and distinct online publication, too. SI’s recent stewards did something amazing: They made people forget that SI was a pioneer of online sportswriting.

The Maven’s strategy of winning the internet was to publish writing that could be found anywhere on the internet. On Friday, Levinsohn resigned his seat on the Arena Group board and bemoaned the “destruction of Sports Illustrated’s storied brand and newsroom.” A lot of people would backdate that destruction considerably.

I have two bigger thoughts here. First, as awful it may sound, SI is probably fated to suffer another semi-death. Or maybe several. “We expect that the great institution of Sports Illustrated will continue, survive, and grow,” Axios reported one company saying. The company is Bridge Media, “the subsidiary of the group that is planned to merge with Arena.” If you can follow all that, again, you’re a better media critic than I am.

Second, I ask anyone writing a tribute to SI to sever Friday’s atrocities from the magazine’s distant past. The employees who just lost their jobs under the Arena Group’s stewardship didn’t avail themselves of the Time Life drinks cart. They didn’t run quotes for Dan Jenkins. The fact that an entity known as Sports Illustrated has a long and lustrous history doesn’t make their predicament better or worse. “Storied” is just a word you use in a magazine’s obituary. Again.