The publishing company behind Sports Illustrated laid off 35-40% of the publication’s editorial staff Thursday, according to people familiar with the personnel moves, cuts that could decimate what was once the standard-bearer of American sports journalism.
Staffers speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for reprisal said the job losses are worse than most inside the magazine expected. Even die-hard optimists said morale was at an all-time low given the magazine’s recent struggles, and key managers were not given the opportunity to fight to save some of the organization’s most prized writers.
Sports Illustrated employees were invited to two separate “transition meetings” Thursday, gatherings that were feared to split the magazine into one group that would lose its jobs and another that would not, at noon and 12:30 p.m. But those meetings were canceled moments before they were set to begin, thrusting the 63-year-old publication into even more uncertainty.
Hours later, though, the meetings were back on for 4:15 and 4:30 p.m. Staff at the early meeting were dismissed. Those at the later meeting were retained. Many staffers attended the 4:15 meeting in solidarity.
Thirty former employees on the print side of the publication will receive severance protection guaranteed through SI’s collective bargaining agreement with the NewsGuild of New York. Guild members are negotiating to extend those benefits to other laid-off staffers, including full-time contractors.
Sports Illustrated has been in a state of uncertainty for years after two corporate sales. Publishing conglomerate Meredith bought it from Time Inc., for $1.8 billion in 2017, then immediately put the title back on the market. Authentic Brands Group purchased Sports Illustrated in May for $110 million, a price considered a bargain.
ABG is a marketing and brand development company that predominantly licenses brand and trademarks of celebrities such as Marylin Monroe. Because of ABG’s lack of experience running a media company, the deal included a provision that Meredith would continue to run the editorial side of the magazine for two years.
But less than a month later, ABG cut off that part of the deal and leased Sports Illustrated’s media operations to Seattle-based startup Maven, a move staffers saw as an immediate threat to the magazine’s future.
Maven almost immediately began staffing changes at Sports Illustrated. Christian Stone, the magazine’s editor in chief of seven years, is leaving, according to a memo released this week. Stone was viewed as an obstacle between widespread cuts due to his long tenure at SI, and his departure earlier this week was greeted by fear and apprehension.
Before Thursday afternoon’s meetings, a group of Sports Illustrated staffers launched a last-ditch effort calling for Meredith to step back in to halt or ease the layoffs and decrying Maven’s content plans after the staffing changes.
“The Maven wants to replace top journalists in the industry with a network of Maven freelancers and bloggers, while reducing or eliminating department that have ensured that the stories we publish and produce meet the highest standards,” the group wrote in a statement. “...These plans significantly undermine our journalistic integrity, damage the reputation of this long-standing brand and negatively affect the economic stability of this publication.”
Reached by phone Thursday and asked about the turmoil at SI, ABG chief executive Jamie Salter described the situation at the magazine as “awesome.”
“I can only tell you that we buy troubled companies that we think there’s enormous amount of value in the intellectual property in,” he said. “We’re also living in a digital world, and I don’t want to blame anyone because it takes a lot of people to run a business. But it takes a leader to build a business. And at the end of the day whoever has been leading this company for the last seven years, in my opinion, they fell behind.
“ABG has been successful because we’re laser-focused on social media, on influencers, on product and design. And we’re laser-focused on localizing product for each market, and we’ve invested the money and resources in those people for those markets.”
Asked about layoffs, he said, “We have to be smart about it. We have to change some of the soldiers. You need different skill-sets.”
Maven executives have begun recruiting an army of freelancers to replace salaried Sports Illustrated writers, according to multiple people who were contacted and interviewed for the positions.
The work would be largely devoid of the original reporting that made Sports Illustrated an icon in the American media landscape, those people said, and would use the magazine’s loyal audience to boost Maven’s content.
“We made a deal,” Salter said. “They paid their money. Last time I checked, we asked for three years up front, they paid $45 million. I don’t know too many people who will throw $45 million in the garbage.”
Some current Sports Illustrated staffers were unaware of Maven’s content plans and stunned to hear of the specifics second hand from colleagues. Maven recently posted generic job listings, including “managing editor,” “pre-editor,” “editorial lead,” “insider (reporter),” “sport editor” and “expert writer,” to the surprise of some Sports Illustrated staffers.