Sports Illustrated Owner’s CEO Asked Publisher TheMaven to ‘Reverse’ Recent Staffing Cuts (Exclusive)

“I can honestly say some of it we haven’t agreed with as the holder of the license,” Authentic Brands Group CEO Jamie Salter tells TheWrap

The CEO of Authentic Brands Group, the owner of the Sports Illustrated brand, disagreed with recent staffing decisions by the magazine’s new publisher TheMaven and has asked to “reverse” some of its actions.

In an interview with TheWrap, ABG CEO Jamie Salter addressed SI.com’s recent decision to cut 9% of its staff, saying that while TheMaven’s moves have been in line with what other corporations have done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company did not necessarily agree with all of TheMaven’s actions.

“Some of the things that they have done are no different than any other big corporation or small corporation that has done as far as pay cuts and furloughs and reduction of head count,” Salter said. “I can honestly say some of it we haven’t agreed with as the holder of the license, and we sort of expressed our opinion to TheMaven folks and told them that they need to sort of reverse some of their actions of what they had done because we don’t necessarily agree.”

ABG acquired Sports Illustrated from Meredith Corporation last year and shortly thereafter licensed the publishing of the magazine’s website to Maven Media Brands, led by CEO James Heckman and former Los Angeles Times publisher Ross Levinsohn.

In a statement, Levinsohn, who serves as CEO of SI media operations, sidestepped Salter’s criticism and praised TheMaven’s handling of the brand. “In only a few months, Maven turned a struggling print-news-focused business, reaching a fraction of its historic audience, into a thriving digital sports network, with expansive video offerings reaching 35 million fans. This decisive strategy revived the business, resulting in improved income, users, engagement and video views while the magazine’s improved format and long-form feature strategy also helped energize the brand,” he said. “But our hearts go out to those affected by the changes required by the COVID crisis.”

In March, TheMaven laid off 9% of its staff, and Heckman had said in a statement that the company expected to see a $30 million drop in revenue this year. The goal of the layoffs was to “get ahead of the economic tumult triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic and ensure the ongoing strength of the company.” Seattle-based Maven employed 332 people prior to the cuts, Heckman said.

The cuts came after TheMaven last fall signed a $150 million licensing deal with ABG (including $45 million up front) to publish Sports Illustrated and its website. The site laid off 40 employees last October and cut print publication to monthly starting in January. At the time, Maven spokesman Greg Witter said the company planned to hire up to 200 contract and freelance writers to help replace those laid off.

Salter’s comments came as part of an announcement from ABG and 101 Studios on Tuesday about a joint venture to launch Sports Illustrated Studios, a studio arm for the sports site to develop, produce, distribute and finance content based on stories and photos within SI’s archives. Salter said the deal was in discussions well before the coronavirus pandemic began, and he added that the digital side of Sports Illustrated is still experiencing strong growth.

“Now look, COVID-19 has definitely hurt a lot of people, whether it’s Sports Illustrated or ABG or 101, we’ve all felt it,” Salter said. “But I can tell you that financially, we’re incredibly strong at ABG, we have a lot of money on our balance sheet, 101 has a lot of money on their balance sheet, and we intend to continue building the SI brand with great journalism, because that is what has made SI what it is today. So we’re not losing sight of that. And we do know that people are watching closely, and so are we as the brand owner.”

Brian Welk

Brian Welk

Film Reporter • brian.welk@thewrap.com • Twitter: @brianwelk



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