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Sports Illustrated Hit With “Mass Layoffs,” Union Says

On Friday the storied publication Sports Illustrated began laying off staffers en masse as the outlet’s union warned that “possibly all” of its guild-represented staffers could be affected.

“Earlier today the workers of Sports Illustrated were notified that 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,” the NewGuild of New York, which represents about 80 editorial workers at the magazine, and the Sports Illustrated Union said in a statement early on Friday. “This is another difficult day in what has been a difficult four years for Sports Illustrated under Arena Group (previously The Maven) stewardship.”

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The layoffs come after Arena Group Holdings failed to make a $3.75 million quarterly licensing payment to Authentic Brands Group, according to a securities filing.

Under the terms of the licensing deal (ABG acquired SI from Meredith Corp. In 2019, and in turn licensed the magazine and news brand to Arena), ABG has the right to terminate the deal if Arena failed to make payments.

“On January 18, 2024, ABG notified the Company of its intention to terminate the Licensing Agreement, effective immediately,” Arena Group wrote in the filing, adding that it was still in discussions with ABG, and that the termination triggered a $45 million payment.

The company also said that it would be cutting a third of its staff (including those at SI), and that it will incur severance charges of $5 million to $7 million.

It is not immediately clear what will happen to the magazine if ABG takes back control of the publication. ABG had licensed the SI brand for other commercial ventures (including an SI-branded online sportsbook and a group of resort hotels), but indicated back in 2019 that it was not interested in operating a news publication when it licensed the publication rights to Arena (which at the time was called Maven).

In a statement Friday afternoon, ABG said that the publication “will continue.”

“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,” the company said in the statement. “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.”

In a statement of its own, Arena Group said that “we are in active discussions with Authentic Brands Group (‘Authentic’) – but we understand we aren’t the only ones.”

“Even though the publishing license has been revoked we will continue to produce Sports Illustrated until this is resolved,” it added. “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.”

A union representative says that the NewsGuild is holding meetings today to discuss next steps. “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,” the Sports Illustrated Union and the NewsGuild of New York said in their statement Friday. “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.”

The layoffs at Sports Illustrated are just the latest in a round of major cuts happening at significant publications. On Thursday the Los Angeles Times confirmed that it is planning a new round of layoffs, which its union’s president called “the Big One,” and on Wednesday Condé Nast announced that it would be folding the music publication Pitchfork into the magazine GQ and laying off Pitchfork staffers as a result.

SI, which was first published in 1954, has had a tumultuous few years. Created by Time founder Henry Luce, SI was a part of the Time Inc. portfolio for decades. In 2018, Meredith Corp. acquired Time and its publications, including SI, but would go on to sell many of them, including the company namesake (Time is now owned by Salesforce founder Marc Benioff), and SI, which was sold to ABG.

In 2020, Sports Illustrated digital editorial staffers unionized, joining their print magazine counterparts as members of the NewsGuild of New York, after management voluntarily recognized the bargaining unit. The organizing drive was sparked, at least in part, by a wave of major layoffs that had hit the publication the previous year after The Arena Group — then called Maven — took control.

In December, the publication came under fire for allegedly using artificial intelligence to produce stories. A Nov. 27 article in Futurism reported that the company had published the work of fake, AI-generated writers. At the time, the company said in a statement that it had licensed this content from a third party, AdVon Commerce, and “AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans,” but some were penned under pseudonyms. Amid the controversy, Sports Illustrated ended its work with AdVon Commerce and fired its CEO.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. with ABG statement

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