“The Worst That It’s Ever Been”: Inside Sports Illustrated’s Winter of Discontent

Staffers are eyeing the exits after a year that began with layoffs and is closing with an AI scandal and the firing of top executives. Can the iconic magazine regain its footing?
“The Worst That Its Ever Been” Inside Sports Illustrateds Winter of Discontent

S.L. Price was a newspaper guy, making his bones as a young reporter at the Sacramento Bee and Miami Herald in the ’80s and ’90s. He covered sports, but those publications also allowed him to dip in on other beats; one day he might be reporting from the Olympics, the next he would be in thick of hurricane coverage. “I loved working for newspapers so much,” Price said.

But in 1994, enticed by a significant salary bump, he left the world of dailies for a job at Sports Illustrated. It didn’t take long for Price to realize that he had reached a promised land. “It was the gold standard,” he recalled. Price spent the next 26 years at Sports Illustrated, authoring 47 cover stories and profiling the likes of Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, and even Barack Obama. For much of that time, the magazine hummed with all of its editorial horsepower.

“Everybody in the building was smarter than you, and they made you look better,” he said of Sports Illustrated’s salad days, when the magazine was still flush with advertising revenue, and its pages rich with high-quality journalism. Price and his colleagues were supported by a deep newsroom infrastructure and empowered by the financial strength of the magazine, allowing it to become “a hub of great ideas and daring journalism.” Whereas “the problem with journalism today,” he added, is that “so much of it is undermined subtly by this lack of confidence, fueled by a lack of money.”

There is little of that confidence remaining at the current iteration of Sports Illustrated, where morale among editorial staffers is low and disillusionment with management is reaching new heights. Like much of the print media industry, SI’s budget and ambitions have been casualties of the digital era. Its publishing frequency has dropped steadily since 2015, going from 50 issues annually to now just 12. Layoffs under former parent company Time Inc. depleted the masthead, ultimately leaving it with no full-time staff photographers. The decline has accelerated since 2019, when previous owner Meredith sold SI’s intellectual property to Authentic Brands Group. Weeks after the sale, Authentic Brands licensed the magazine’s publishing rights to Maven, a digital media company that later changed its name to the Arena Group.

Under Arena’s stewardship, SI has endured several rounds of painful layoffs and drifted further from its founding ethos. Once a bastion of long-form journalism, SI writers are now under increasing pressure to chase clicks. The magazine hit its nadir in the last month following a bombshell revelation about AI-generated content published on SI’s website, as well as a shake-up at the executive level that brought uncertainty about its future. No longer one of the premier destinations in media, current staffers are seeking greener pastures. “It feels like the worst that it’s ever been,” one staffer told me. “I don’t know a single person who isn’t trying to get out. When you read our press clippings, why would you want to work here?”

Patti McConville / Alamy.

Winter has traditionally been Sports Illustrated’s time to shine. From December, when the magazine unveils its Sportsperson of the Year, to February, when it used to release its annual swimsuit issue, the cold-weather season was when SI showcased its influence on the zeitgeist.

This past year has been anything but celebratory, with 2023 bookended by periods of tension. In February, the magazine laid off 17 employees, including top editors, further depleting a staff that was already stretched thin. And just after Thanksgiving weekend, SI suffered a considerable blow to its once-sterling reputation. Futurism reported that Sports Illustrated published product reviews under spurious bylines. The outlet said that it could not identify the authors who purportedly wrote the reviews, and that one of the author’s photos was available on a website that sells AI-generated headshots.

A spokesperson for the Arena Group blamed the reviews on a third-party company called AdVon Commerce. The spokesperson said that AdVon “assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans.” AdVon, they said, had provided assurances that the material was written and edited entirely by humans, and that the writers had used pseudonyms. The Arena Group ended its partnership with AdVon and removed the content from SI’s website. AdVon did not respond to a request for comment.

SI’s writers and editors had misgivings with the Arena Group from the beginning, when the company was still called Maven. Following the 2019 takeover, the company laid off one fourth of the magazine’s staff, and Maven unveiled an aggressive plan to broaden Sports Illustrated’s digital footprint with a network of sites covering professional and collegiate teams to be run by low-paid contributors with little editorial oversight. (Deadspin described management as planning “to turn Sports Illustrated into a rickety content mill.”) James Heckman, Maven’s founder and chief executive, brought in Ross Levinsohn, a media executive who had a stormy tenure at the Los Angeles Times, as CEO.

All of the tumult prompted SI staffers to unionize in early 2020. “Decisions made by new management over the last few months have put SI’s reputation and long-term health at risk,” the union said at the time. The union pushed back forcefully against the contributor network later that year, saying that it had already led to “multiple instances of plagiarism, unprofessional behavior, and inaccurate reporting” that marred SI’s image.

The early months of the pandemic brought more layoffs, as well as an acrimonious firing of the late Grant Wahl, one of the magazine’s most high-profile writers. And under Maven, which rebranded to the Arena Group in 2021, SI has continued to stray from its erstwhile editorial mandate. The magazine still employs talented writers and reporters, and it continues to produce strong enterprise journalism. In May, SI published a richly reported investigation examining Brett Favre’s role in a scheme to misuse welfare funds. But the Arena Group has also pushed its staffers to feed the online content maw, placing a premium on quantity at a publication that once only cared about quality. Earlier this year, the company began imposing story quotas on its writers, despite the fact that the union’s contract with management explicitly bars such a requirement. The Arena Group has characterized the quotas, which vary from writer to writer, as “goals.”

“There’s so much pressure from management on page views and clicks,” one former staffer told me.

Upheaval in the C-suite has left the editorial staff in a near constant state of uncertainty. Heckman resigned as CEO of the publisher in 2020 months after he fired Wahl. He was replaced by Levinsohn, who was abruptly terminated by the Arena Group board last week. (Levinsohn, in a LinkedIn post, said he was “grateful for the experience of running and building a public company with such success.”) Levinsohn’s ouster was preceded by the firings of two other top Arena executives: chief operating officer Andrew Kraft and president of media Rob Barrett.

Filling the power vacuum is Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5-Hour Energy whose venture capital company, Simplify Inventions, acquired a majority stake in the Arena Group in August. Last week, Bhargava was appointed as interim CEO of the company following Levinsohn’s departure. Bhargava is still a bit of an enigma inside Sports Illustrated, but the staffers I spoke to are convinced that he cares about little more than the bottom line. Arena Group employees received an email from HR earlier this month informing them that “holiday happy hours” had been canceled. “We will host a party after our company achieves break-even/profitability,” the email said.

The day before that email was sent, Bhargava held a virtual town hall with Arena Group employees during which he admonished them to “stop doing dumb stuff.”

“The amount of useless stuff you guys do is staggering,” Bhargava said during the meeting, which was reported on by Front Office Sports.

SI staffers told me they believed those comments were largely directed at those in executive-level positions. Representatives for Bhargava told Futurism that the departures of Kraft and Barrett were unrelated to the AI-generated content, an explanation that the staffers I spoke to found plausible. In my conversations with them, they expressed doubts that Bhargava has any ethical qualms with the potential use of AI.

In an emailed statement, Bhargava signaled that changes are afoot at the company.

“As we’ve looked into the full picture of the Arena Group, we realize there is a lot to fix—more than we originally thought,” he said. “So, stay tuned.”

Sports Illustrated’s editorial staff was incensed by the AI revelation. In a scathing statement, the magazine’s union said it was “horrified” by Futurism’s report.

“If true, these practices violate everything we believe in about journalism,” read the statement, which was signed by the “Humans of the SI Union.” “We deplore being associated with something so disrespectful to our readers.”

View of Sports Illustrated senior writer S.L. Price in stands during USA Andy Roddick vs Italy Fabio Fognini Men's 3rd Round match at BJK National Tennis Simon Bruty /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images.

Back when Meredith was seeking a buyer for SI, some of the magazine’s writers held out hope that it might get purchased by a wealthy sports fan, perhaps a longtime subscriber who could bankroll it back to its former glory. It’s a familiar story across news media: Publications that once boasted endless influence and bottomless expense accounts now find themselves waiting to be rescued by a Medici-like benefactor. Sports Illustrated’s latest chapter is a grim microcosm of all that plagues its beleaguered industry. Newsrooms across the country are grappling with a relentless bloodletting of staff, a disproportionate emphasis on digital metrics, and the looming specter of artificial intelligence.

But it all feels more pronounced at Sports Illustrated. Perhaps that’s due to its once-towering stature, or maybe it’s because the slide has been, as Price put it, “a Marvel comics version of the decline of American journalism.” He added, “There’s just been a spasm of cartoonish awfulness at Sports Illustrated in the last four years where people can say, ‘Oh, look at this great, revered brand, and look how far it’s fallen.’”