There is still hope Sports Illustrated can be saved, even after its owner rescinded a license from its operator on Friday. The corporate structure it sits in, however — combined with a history of mismanagement at the company — don’t inspire optimism. Sports Illustrated is on life support, but it didn’t have to go this way.
The latest news at SI comes with a long, messy history. Back in 2018 when SI was absorbed by Meredith Corp. as part of its purchase of SI publisher Time Inc., the historic sports magazine had a lot going for it. By the time Meredith sold it off a year later to Authentic Brands Group (ABG, who soon tabbed the then-The Maven, now The Arena Group, to publish it), a spokesperson for the conglomerate even told NPR the magazine was profitable. That was just five years ago.
In the time since, ABG systematically ran the once-great publication into creative bankruptcy and financial ruin. Even as its staff continued to produce great journalism and go on to some of the biggest jobs in the business, Sports Illustrated was headed toward trouble.
It would be easy to paint the languishing of SI as yet another data point on the line graph charting the death of legacy media outlets. Yet even into the late 2010s under Time, SI was innovating. It experimented with virtual reality and saw the future when it came to co-producing larger sports projects and using its brand for side businesses.
Instead of capitalizing and becoming a first-mover on these trends, Meredith and ABG did what so many corporations love to do with legacy outlets. They tried to turn it into a high-producing cash cow. Worse yet, they got rid of the digital video and production endeavors that could have helped take SI into the 2020s.
What was left was a monthly print publication, a pared-down website, and a network of local-focused content mills that SI operator Arena dubbed “FanNation.” (Which came with their own controversies.) Now, what survives ABG stripped Arena Group of its license to run SI is anyone’s guess.
While ABG and Arena Group did their best to strip SI of what made it great and could make it successful, other outlets evolved. Social media is filled with eulogies and doomsaying in the aftermath of Arena losing its license. But while nobody should necessarily see the future of journalism as rosy, it wasn’t (and still isn’t) impossible for SI to survive.
The Ringer, launched by Bill Simmons in 2016, became profitable through digital audio and video and turned that success into a sale. Barstool Sports and Jomboy Media combined the online influencer economy with popular digital sports content to get the attention of their own corporate partners. The Action Network went all-in on sports betting early and was sold to Better Collective in 2021.
Snapback Sports used an incredibly popular sports content series on Snapchat to grow into a viable sports media brand across social media and YouTube. Today, the private company has multiple large partnerships across varied industries as well as a membership program and its first athlete-hosted podcast, Punch Line with Marlon Humphrey. Could SI staffers not make a Snapchat series or populate a membership program with great content and interactivity?
Business-to-business publications focused on sports like Front Office Sports and Sportico have used paywalled seminars and lessons to fund digital presences while also monetizing live events and digital audio and video through sponsorship and ad sales.
Take Defector, the subscription site formed by former Deadspin staffers in 2021. The independent co-op business model may not be replicable in a corporate environment, but the company has managed to stay afloat off of subscriptions when many analysts would tell you that is not possible. Subscriptions have funded smaller networks like FanGraphs or The Fantasy Footballers. Sport-focused Substackers like Tyler Dunne, Craig Calcaterra, Marc Stein and Tom Ziller have thrived.
Creating a successful business around sports content in 2024 is not impossible. It just requires throwing out the playbook from a generation ago.
SI was not put in a great position to follow these other companies’ leads because of its corporate overlords. Meredith was likely too old-school to go all-in on sports betting, fantasy sports or digital video. ABG was too focused on the SI brand to do the dirty work of building out content hubs worth paying for (though they had one in MMQB staring them in the face!).
But any new operator bidding for SI’s license does have a path forward. Create great, modernized content people will pay for. Don’t be afraid to chase niches that have a loyal audience. And expand the definition of what content can be in the first place. If SI hotels and concerts sell, certainly SI conferences or educational series could as well. Perhaps that means a smaller staff, or one with less journalists and a bigger production team and sales staff. Clearly SI can’t be the behemoth it was even a decade ago, let alone in its heyday.
But with some new revenue streams, it’s easier to publish the great reporting of Pat Forde or Tom Verducci, or the next great feature writer. Their work doesn’t need to be subsidized by an endless churn of FanNation articles nobody asked for.
Corporations have decided the only use for outlets creating great work is milking them for their names and infrastructure. Instead, they should get out of their own way and allow the impressive staff to develop content that can stand on its own.