Sports Illustrated Publisher Laying Off Staff After AI Scandal

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The union of Sports Illustrated says that the legendary magazine’s publisher, The Arena Group, is laying off many or perhaps all its staff following a failed payment to the brand’s licensor — leaving the storied leader in sports journalism’s decades-long history on the line.

It released a statement earlier today relaying the shocking claim that “the workers of Sports Illustrated were notified that The Arena Group is planning to lay off a significant number, possibly all” of its writers and editors as a result of the publisher’s failure to remedy a missed $2.8 million bill to Authentic Brands Groups (ABG), the company that owns the Sports Illustrated branding and — until now — had been licensing it to The Arena Group.

That’s supported by a leaked email to magazine staffers, which according to Front Office Sports informed them that the “license under which the Arena Group operates the Sports Illustrated (SI) brand and SI related properties has been officially revoked by ABG.”

“As a result of this license revocation,” the note added, “we will be laying off staff that work on the SI brand.”

The news comes just a day after the Arena Group let go of another 100 employees across non-Sports Illustrated brands — and just a few weeks after a string of high-profile executive departures that included now-former Arena Group CEO Ross Levinsohn, who was fired in December.

And it all comes after a Futurism report revealed that Sports Illustrated had published dozens of articles under the bylines of fake authors with AI-generated headshots. The Arena Group has maintained that the AI incident had nothing to do with executive firings, and though it chalked up its Thursday layoffs to “substantial debt” and “recently missed payments” in its public statement, it offered no inkling at that time that Sports Illustrated‘s entire staff might be on the chopping block.

After all, this is a magazine that’s reigned supreme as the height of American sports journalism for decades. And yet, in just a few short years, ownership changes, a prioritization of SEO clicks over quality journalism, and ill-conceived AI efforts have together eroded a legacy brand that took nearly 70 years to build. Such mismanagement woes were echoed in the union’s statement, which notes that this “is another difficult day in what has been a difficult four years for Sports Illustrated under Arena Group (previously The Maven) stewardship.”

“We have fought together as a union to maintain the standard of this storied publication that we love, and to make sure our workers are treated fairly for the value they bring to this company,” Sports Illustrated NFL editor and union unit chair Mitch Goldich said in a statement. “It is a fight we will continue.”

Sports media figures and netizens alike took to social media to lament the loss, many of them touching on Sports Illustrated’s enduring history.

“If you are older, you knew exactly what day Sports Illustrated showed up in the mailbox,” tweeted commentator Scott Van Pelt, reminiscing that “if your team made the cover, it was the greatest thing ever. RIP SI.”

Sports Illustrated has become a disaster. Private equity purchases, cost-cutting, AI articles, and now the entire team is getting laid off,” added sports personality Joe Pompliano. “SI used to be the gold standard and something I looked forward to every week as a kid. Seventy years of history ruined in just five years. This sucks.”

Without a staff or publishing contract, the publication’s future remains unclear. As The Washington Post reports, ABG has yet to announce whether it’ll seek a new publisher for Sports Illustrated. Ideally, publication could continue elsewhere, and Sports Illustrated staffers could find renewed employment at the magazine’s new home. Indeed, in its statement, the Sports Illustrated union called on ABG to “ensure the continued publication” of the magazine, and “allow it to serve our audience in the way it has for nearly 70 years.”

Stock in The Arena Group plummeted in value in light of the Sports Illustrated revelation, and more chaos will likely follow.

Earlier this month, Arena Group majority owner — and, randomly, the guy who invented 5-hour Energy — Manoj Bhargava resigned from his post as interim CEO, leaving the company without a chief executive for the time being. In a Thursday statement — prior to the Sports Illustrated layoff news — the Arena Group’s freshly-appointed Chief Business Transformation Officer Jason Frankl said that he looks forward to soon “sharing detailed plans” for the Arena Group’s path forward, but it’s hard to see whether there’s a path forward for the beleaguered publisher at all. As Defector deputy editor Barry Petchesky put it: “It takes a special kind of evil morons to screw up Literally Sports Illustrated this badly.”

Much remains to be seen, but in the meantime, we can sadly add the Arena Group and Sports Illustrated to the growing list of media companies that have seen botched AI efforts coincide with widespread layoffs, mismanagement, and broader misfortune — a list that, unfortunately, only continues to grow.

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