Minute Media, Authentic Brands Group, and the 2023 SI Swimsuit issue. Minute Media, Authentic Brands Group, and the 2023 SI Swimsuit issue.

Following Sports Illustrated owner Authentic Brands Group’s January decision to revoke that brand’s publication license from operator The Arena Group, there’s been a lot of discussion of what’s ahead for the company. Some of that has included talk of Authentic either again licensing SI to Arena (under a revised deal) or striking a publishing deal with another party, with Minute Media (whose current brands include Fansided, formerly at SI, plus The Players’ Tribune, The Big Lead, 90min, and Mental Floss) often mentioned there. And a report from A.J. Perez of Front Office Sports Wednesday cites Minute as the current clubhouse leader:

Here’s the part of Perez’s piece (which also heavily covers a potential spinoff of the Swimsuit Edition part of the SI brand) on Minute Media:

Minute Media—the parent company of The Players’ Tribune and The Big Lead—is considered the front-runner to take over SI’s operations, two sources with knowledge of the negotiations said. One of those sources said Authentic is expected to make a decision on who operates SI going forward over the next month.

It’s certainly notable to hear Minute Media discussed as ahead in that race. And a change to them may be beneficial for Authentic. For starters, there’s tremendous bad press over their past relationship with Arena, from several past rounds of layoffs through AI controversies last fall through the layoffs (immediate or delayed) of every union employee this January around the license revocation.

And, beyond that, Arena currently owes Authentic a $45 million termination fee, as per multiple reports. A new deal with Arena might have reduced that, and might have come in with a licensing fee below the $15 million a year they were paying. That’s particularly true as it was reportedly an attempt to renegotiate those terms that led to the license revocation.

Exit payouts are nice, as Authentic is seeing with the $50 million they’re owed by 888 Holdings over the end of SI Sportsbook. But they’re only achievable if someone else wants the product in question and if you don’t have to agree to terms with the previous party. If there wasn’t an Arena alternative, Authentic might have to bite their tongues to again deal with Arena and either dial back their per-year fees, reduce that termination fee, or both. So if Minute Media wants a SI publishing deal at terms that work for Authentic, that seems quite positive for them.

What that means for SI as a publication is far less clear. There’s nothing yet to indicate if Minute Media would pick up some or all of the SI staffers Arena laid off or try to remake the domain with a new group of writers (a plan seemingly going around recently). And while they do publish many other sports outlets, none of those are that similar to the current form of SI.

One of many immediately notable things after a Minute acquisition might be discussion of what happens if the same company owns Fansided and SI’s sometimescontroversial network of team sites, which are somewhat going for the same market. But there’s a lot to talk about beyond that. Minute Media does not currently appear to publish anything with a significant print product (which does still matter for SI, even in the reduced and changed form their print product currently has). And it would be very interesting to see what focus (and staffing) they apply to longer-form pieces like those traditionally seen in the magazine (whether they’re published in print or not) versus online-only takes on the news of the day.

It’s also worth discussing the potential Swimsuit spinoff Perez mentions. Here are some of his key lines on that:

Authentic—the licensing giant that owns Sports Illustrated and leases it to The Arena Group—is in advanced discussions to split the swimsuit edition lease off from that for SI, a source familiar with the situation tells Front Office Sports. The move is actually welcomed, that source says, by the de facto head of The Arena Group, billionaire 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava.

At first, the swimsuit edition would likely fall back under Authentic’s control, much like other SI intellectual property retained when it entered into a licensing agreement with Arena in 2019 to publish SI’s print and digital properties. Authentic uses the SI name for its annual Super Bowl Party and allowed British bookmaker 888 Holdings to operate an SI-branded sportsbook, a deal that ended a week ago. Another source with knowledge of Authentic’s arrangement with SI says that Authentic would likely then license the swimsuit edition to a new publisher while possibly retaining the ability to hold and sell against events tied to the brand, as it does now with SI. (Representatives from Authentic and Arena declined to comment for this story.)

…The swimsuit edition isn’t the money-maker it was back then, when it accounted for as much as 15% of SI’s revenues. In recent years, the swimsuit edition came close to losing money. 

It’s definitely interesting to read that the Swimsuit Issue (which has long been criticized on a lot of fronts) is nowhere near the profit generator it used to be for SI overall, as that used to be one of the key defenses trotted out for it. But there is certainly some logic to separating it from the magazine’s other offerings; that’s always been a thing on some level, with print subscribers even long offered the ability to decline the Swimsuit Issue and extend their subscription and with largely-separate editorial teams for it (and with countless separate events around Swimsuit), but a fuller separation still might be helpful. And an events-focused approach certainly fits with what Authentic does with its licensees overall, and with what they’ve done with SI: The Party (with Medium Rare) around the Super Bowl in particular, and might be a way for Swimsuit to maintain some relevance.

At any rate, there’s still much to be decided here. We don’t know that Minute will win this bid, and we don’t know if the split of Swimsuit and the rest of SI will happen, and we don’t know what any of that will mean for current SI figures. But Perez’s report here does advance the story on a couple of notable fronts. And we’ll see where it goes from here.

[Front Office Sports]

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.