Sports Illustrated TV in 2018. Sports Illustrated TV in 2018.

There’s still a lot of uncertainty on what’s ahead for Sports Illustrated. In January, SI owner Authentic Brands Group revoked publisher The Arena Group’s license to publish the magazine and its associated digital properties over a missed payment. And that led to Arena issuing either immediate or delayed layoff notices to many staffers, and to a lot of drama around where the SI brand will go.

But a new The New York Post report from Josh Kosman has quite an interesting focus. That report Monday night says that Arena Group’s previously reported bid to regain the publishing license at a lower rate is centered around a video-heavy strategy and one amazingly involving a linear multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) component. And, apart from that last element, it sounds very familiar to those who have covered SI over the years. Here’s more from Kosman’s piece:

The Sports Illustrated publisher whose license was revoked last month has made a pitch to revive the iconic brand even as he continues to gut its magazine — and his plan includes the creation of an SI-branded TV channel, The Post has learned.

…Arena also owns Bridge Media Networks, which includes a 24/7 network called Sports News Highlights, a low-budget, mostly digital channel that plays a 30-minute loop in midsize and a few major markets like Detroit and Los Angeles.

SNH currently plays on SI’s website, but Bhargava wants to rebrand the channel as SITV and hire on-air talent to improve the broadcasts, sources said. The goal would be to find a home for SITV with cable operators as major sports networks like ESPN move toward a standalone app model, the insider added.

“Pivot to video” has been an ongoing (and muchmocked) idea for media brands over the last decade. But what’s particularly interesting with SI is that much of this concept (apart from the supremely flawed idea of trying to launch a new MVPD-bundle channel in 2024) has already been tried, and under a much more traditional owner in Time Inc., not their successors in Meredith or Authentic.

Back in November 2017, SI launched a subscription streaming service, SI TV, for a $4.99/month fee on Amazon Channels. SI tried many ambitious projects under that banner, including documentaries from the likes of Mike Tollin (at that time known for the likes of Arli$$, Radio, and 30 for 30 installment Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL, now known for The Last Dance and more), betting and sports shows, and more.

SI TV also quickly pivoted to at least a partially free advertising-supported streaming television (FAST) model) and put their content with a variety of streaming providers. Oh, and as a then-executive producer of sports video Josh Oshinsky (now vice president, global content and digital, PepsiCo) told AA in early 2018, they saw value in competing with ESPN’s 30 for 30 brands in the sports documentary space. That’s a role that has now been well-assumed by other entities, including Netflix’s Untold series. Here’s some of what Oshinsky said then:

“We need to be that legitimate 30 for 30 alternative, where folks can come to SI and associate SI with that level of high-impact, high-end storytelling that maybe they see from some other brands. It’s what SI on the print side has been known for for many, many years. We’re now taking that to the video side.”

Of course, there have been many attempts to do something along those lines. But SI TV stands out. Its initial efforts saw varying degrees of critical praise and commercial adoption, but they certainly weren’t highly panned. And many of them hold up well compared to much of what’s come since.

And the moves away from SI TV, from the outside at least, have appeared to be much more about SI ownership changes (Time Inc. to Meredith in late 2017, Meredith to Authentic in May 2019, Authentic sublicensing publishing rights to Arena Group predecessor The Maven in June 2019) than about anything with the video strategy.

Also, the Authentic strategy of making money off SI-licensed things beyond the actual journalism has long been in evidence. And that was notable on a lot of fronts, including with the Time Inc. summer 2017 launch of a SI-branded swimsuit line. And that came up with a Ben Strauss Washington Post piece Tuesday, too, including a discussion of the SI party (in partnership with Medium Rare) at the Super Bowl and the revenue that brings in.

What’s perhaps remarkable there is that these SI-branded Super Bowl parties have been well reported on for years, albeit perhaps without those who work for The Washington Post deigning to take notice. And they’re part of the value that Authentic gets from their overall ownership of SI.

It’s also perhaps notable that the video-focused bid here from Arena for SI publishing is not the only one out there. Kosman mentions that there’s also a more standard bid on the table from Minute Media (publishers of The Big Lead, The Players’ Tribune, and more). Here’s more on that, including Arena majority owner Manoj Bhargava saying his bid would not include retaining prominent SI journalists:

Salter has also been in talks about licensing the rights to Minute Media, owner of the Derek Jeter-founded blog Player’s Tribune — which is offering less money but would more likely maintain the 70-year-old magazine’s traditional model and many of its writers, a source familiar with the negotiations said.

Salter is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks, the source added.

…“The contract will be for different things,” Bhargava said in the Feb. 16 interview. “Jamie is going to come out better than he was but then again so will we.”

Bhargava hinted that he would retain some of the 82 unionized workers that are about to lose their jobs but that there isn’t enough money to keep marquee writers like Tom Verducci, Jon Wertheim, Chris Mannix, Greg Bishop and Pat Forde.

“We looked at a different path and we looked at the cost structure. We just couldn’t afford these great journalists,” Bhargava told TheStreet.

“Those days when people are paying for those [great articles] are not here anymore.”

As expected, the SI Union denounced both Bhargava’s comments and some of the WaPo discussion about the SI Super Bowl party:

It’s far from clear what’s actually ahead for SI. This offer from Arena and the also-reported one from Minute Media both would likely lead to significant changes. There also could be other offers or models out there that allow Authentic to keep the SI-branded value they get from things like the Super Bowl party while maintaining the publication (which does remain important, despite suggestions from people like Rick Reilly, who haven’t worked there in decades).

But it is particularly interesting to see coverage of a “bold” plan to revitalize SI with a linear-bundled TV channel (at a time when linear bundles are under massive challenges and facing countless carriage disputes). And it’s also interesting to see that with no acknowledgment of the past video efforts SI tried that were scuppered by ownership changes. We’ll see how this winds up.

[The New York Post]

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.