Ross Levinsohn during his time at Yahoo. Ross Levinsohn during his time at Yahoo.

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks for Sports Illustrated. The magazine took huge amounts of flak over a Futurism article in late November that stated they’d published multiple AI-generated articles under fake bylines. And their response that this was only a third-party effort with actual authors who just didn’t use their names provoked lots of skepticism.

Since that Futurism article and the fallout it spawned, there have been major changes at The Arena Group (the parent company that has the rights to publish SI under a deal with Authentic Brands Group, which actually owns SI). Arena COO Andrew Kraft, president of media Rob Barrett, and corporate counsel Julie Fenster exited last week. And that came around 5-Hour Energy owner Manoj Bhargava (who bought a majority stake in Arena in August) conducting a call with SI employees, where he said things like “Stop doing dumb stuff.”

At that time, there was some discussion that the changes weren’t specifically related to the AI controversy. But those kinds of major changes still sparked a lot of comment, regardless of what specifically led to them. And now, Arena has made another big move, with the termination of CEO Ross Levinsohn and Bhargava taking over as interim CEO. Here’s more on that from Maggie Harrison at Futurism:

“Effective immediately, Ross Levinsohn will be leaving the company and his role as CEO,” wrote Grady Tripp, the company’s senior vice president of people, in an email to staff. “This follows the recent departure of three senior executives last week.” A press release also went out to business news wires — discrete with this news, they are not.

Manoj Bharga, the founder of the energy drink brand 5-hour Energy and majority investor of The Arena Group, will be joining as a temporary CEO. During a meeting about the termination of the execs last week, Bharga made headlines for lecturing staff to “stop doing dumb stuff” and saying the “amount of useless stuff you guys do is staggering.” He also outlawed Powerpoint presentations.

…Neither Tripp’s email nor a press release mentioned the AI scandal. An Arena Group representative declined to say whether the firing had anything to do with the AI story, saying in an email that the company had “nothing further to add to the company’s prior statements regarding AI or terminations.”

Levinsohn is a prominent figure who’s had a long media career. That includes time in senior roles at Yahoo, NewsCorp, Fox Sports, and more. He notably took an unpaid leave of absence from his publisher and CEO role at The Los Angeles Times (which he was appointed to in August 2017 after then-parent company Tronc fired editor and publisher Davan Maharaj and three other senior editors) in January 2018 following accusations of past sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior, and eventually parted ways with that company.

Levinsohn then joined Arena predecessor TheMaven in 2019 as CEO of the SI media line. That move saw him reunite with TheMaven CEO Jim Heckman, who he’d previously worked with at Yahoo and Rivals. In August 2020, Heckman stepped down as CEO of the-then Maven, with Levinsohn taking over that role. And now, Levinsohn himself is leaving, and Bhargava is in. Here’s more from that Arena press release on that decision, which they attribute as a move to “improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company”:

Today, the board of directors of The Arena Group Holdings, Inc. (NYSE American: AREN) met and took actions to improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company. The board terminated the employment of CEO Ross Levinsohn, and named Manoj Bhargava as interim Chief Executive Officer, both effective today.

This follows actions last week, in which the company terminated the employment of operations president and COO Andrew Kraft, media president Rob Barrett, and corporate counsel Julie Fenster.

Again, it’s far from clear if this is specifically linked to the SI AI controversy. And that’s also true with the discussion of Bhargava’s remarks on that call last week. The “dumb stuff” there wasn’t necessarily about the AI issue, with specific reports tying it to other things like PowerPoint presentations and meetings.

But what is obvious is that Bhargava is looking to make major changes at Arena and SI now that he has majority control of the company. And that’s included a lot of executive shakeups, including this termination of Levinsohn and Bhargava himself stepping in as interim CEO. It will be interesting to see what changes he makes, and who he brings in as full-time CEO.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.