Sports Illustrated cut more than 40 members of its staff on Thursday as part of a restructuring plan.
The layoffs were haphazardly executed, with management scheduling meetings Wednesday evening, only to cancel them the next day about 10 minutes before the planned start time. The meetings ended up taking place four hours later, with one scheduled for staffers who were getting laid off and a separate meeting for those who were not, according to a source.
theMaven, which licensed the rights to Sports Illustrated’s print and digital publications in June, is behind the decision as it takes full ownership of the company from Meredith Corporation. Meredith sold the Sports Illustrated brand and intellectual property to marketing company Athletic Brands Group earlier this year but had agreed to manage the media business for up to two years.
Rumors about impending changes and layoffs have loomed over the company ever since theMaven took over. The Seattle-based startup also announced in June that Ross Levinsohn has agreed to serve as CEO of the new company, which will be named Sports Illustrated Media. Levinsohn had a short stint as publisher and CEO of the Los Angeles Times, but was put on unpaid leave in 2018 over “questionable behavior” in his past, which he denied.
theMaven plans to hire about 200 contractors to increase Sports Illustrated’s local sports coverage, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Sports Illustrated editor-in-chief Christian Stone is stepping away from his post after seven years in the role, the company announced in internal memos earlier this week. Ryan Hunt and Steve Cannella are replacing him as co-editors.
The Wall Street Journal first reported the layoffs on Thursday.
Before the meetings took place, Sports Illustrated staffers pleaded with their employer to save the brand.
A memo tweeted on Thursday from a newly-created account @SIUnited54 reads, “Sports Illustrated has been an iconic brand for 65 years, defined by high-quality storytelling with global recognition. As the people who have made this publication what it is, we are writing to call on ABG and Meredith to save the future of this storied title.”
Sports Illustrated employees are concerned about the future of the historic brand.
— Sports Illustrated Union (@si_union) October 3, 2019
CNN Business’ sources say the memo is backed by the majority of the staff. The authenticity of the Twitter account has also been verified by CNN Business.
When asked about the memo, a Meredith spokesperson referred CNN Business to Athletic Brands Group and theMaven.
“ABG as the owner of SI has had — since the June closing — sole control over the SI business and responsibility for managing SI’s business and employee base,” a Meredith spokesperson said in an email.
Sports Illustrated has been subjected to some major changes in the last few years. After being sold to Meredith Corporation by Time Inc. in 2018, ABG bought the brand and intellectual property in May for $110 million. Meredith continued to publish the magazine and website.
The unusual structure of that deal suggested that the Sports Illustrated brand is much more valuable than the magazine.
Sports Illustrated was launched in 1954 by Time magazine creator Henry Luce. Since then, it has grown into one of the most-read sports magazines and a behemoth media company with products that include Sports Illustrated Films, TheMMQB.com, the FanSided Network, Sportsperson of the Year and Sports Illustrated Kids. Its annual swimsuit issue features models whose careers were forged after being featured on the cover. The swimsuit edition boasts a higher circulation than the issues from the rest of the year.
These decisions come as sports media — and the media industry at large — is becoming more steeped in a digital strategy while eschewing the traditional print medium. ESPN announced in April it will no longer publish its magazine, instead investing in its mobile app, digital video and its subscription service ESPN+. Subscription-only digital media upstart The Athletic, supported by more than $90 million in venture capital, has thrived by promoting original sports reporting from more than 400 reporters and editors.