Famed magazine Sports Illustrated, or at least the rights to publish it, could be changing hands again. As per a Wall Street Journal report Monday evening from Alexandra Bruell and Jessica Toonkel, advertising conglomerate Group Black is in discussions with Arena Group (which has 100-year rights to publish SI and its associated digital properties under a licensing agreement with Authentic Brands Group, which actually owns SI) about an acquisition:
— Jessica Toonkel (@jtoonkel) June 26, 2023
Group Black was founded by Black entrepreneurs Travis Montaque, Richelieu Dennis, and Bonin Bough in 2021, and was launched with a commitment from ad buyer WPP to spend $75 million of its clients’ budgets with Group Black member companies. Group Black doesn’t actually have majority control of any publications at the moment and calls itself a collective, working with Black-owned traditional publications, digital media outlets, festivals, and more on ad commitments, membership, and more. Members of their collective include Essence (owned by Dennis), Pod Digital, Shade Room, Players TV, Afropunk, and more. But Toonkel and Bruell note that they’ve been mentioned in discussions of buying big media brands (including BET, Vice Media and Bustle Digital Group), although none of those transactions have materialized to date. Here’s more from that WSJ article:
Group Black is in talks to buy a majority stake in the publisher of Sports Illustrated, according to people familiar with the matter, its latest attempt to expand the ad inventory it can sell to marketers interested in Black-owned media.
The discussions with the Arena Group are part of a continuing effort by Group Black to forge fresh deals that allow the Black-owned media company to sell its advertising space. Arena owns more than 50 publications including Men’s Journal, Parade Media and TheStreet, and has a 100-year license from Authentic Brands Group to publish Sports Illustrated.
Several marketers have committed to spending a certain portion of their advertising budgets with Black- and minority-owned media companies in recent years, but have said they struggle to find ad space that fits the bill. Group Black has tried to address that issue by accumulating ad inventory that it can sell to marketers to fulfill those goals.
Discussions between Group Black and the Arena Group are ongoing, and a deal may not materialize, the people said. Representatives for Group Black didn’t respond to requests for comment, and an Arena Group spokeswoman declined to comment.
This would be just the latest ownership transition for Sports Illustrated. In 2017, magazine conglomerate Meredith bought all of Time Inc., which included SI. They then sold off various titles, including Time (to Salesforce’s Marc Benioff in 2018) and SI (to Authentic Brands Group in 2019). ABG then turned around and licensed the SI publishing rights to Arena, which was known as The Maven at the time, keeping the larger SI brand for themselves.
Both Maven/Arena and ABG (which maintains the right to use SI branding on everything from supplements to resorts) have been controversial for their stewardship of the SI brand (and beyond) at times. And that’s led to lots of questions about what’s ahead for the publication, especially around the discussion of Arena’s finances. And another ownership transition on the publishing side might lead to further changes at SI, which is one of the most notable brands in Arena’s overall portfolio. But there’s definitely some logic to a bid for Arena (and specifically the publishing rights SI) from Group Black, which has drawn around $500 million in ad-spending commitments to date. Arena, and SI in particular, would give them a lot of notable places to put those ads.