Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Inside TheMaven's Plan To Turn Sports Illustrated Into A Rickety Content Mill

Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)

Now that Sports Illustrated’s three owners, Meredith Corp., Authentic Brands Group, and TheMaven, have completed the callous layoff of half of Sports Illustrated’s newsroom and finalized a deal that gives control of the publication to TheMaven, a wannabe tech company helmed by notorious scumbags Ross Levinsohn and James Heckman, the future of Sports Illustrated is coming into focus. It’s not pretty.

TheMaven, which instigated the tortured layoffs of dozens of people on Thursday, claims it will continue to carry on Sports Illustrated’s tradition of high-quality journalism while simultaneously launching hundreds of content farms to churn out “local sports news.” It will use a model similar to that of the SB Nation team sites, now the subject of two federal collective action lawsuits; FanSided, Sports Illustrated’s last exploitative appendage; and Rivals.com and Scout.com, irrelevant and failed ventures, respectively, that were both championed by Levinsohn and Heckman in the early 2000s.

Advertisement

As foolish as it may seem, the broverlords in charge of the venerated Sports Illustrated brand are dusting off the same bad idea yet again: TheMaven wants to build out a network of SI-branded Maven “team communities” that will drive traffic through a combination of cynical SEO ploys, news aggregation, and low-paid and unpaid labor.

This isn’t the first time that Levinsohn, now the CEO of Sports Illustrated, has tried to impose this particular terrible and exploitative idea on a newsroom. Back in 2017, as the newly installed publisher of the 138-year-old Los Angeles Times, Levinsohn attempted to turn the paper into a contributor network, but his plan was ultimately nixed after he was placed on administrative leave due to allegations of sexual harassment. Two years later with Sports Illustrated, Levinsohn is getting a second chance at ruining a prestigious publication.

In conversations with Deadspin, several sources who were pitched jobs running Maven team sites under Sports Illustrated branding described a bleak scenario. They said they were told they would earn between $25,000 and $30,000 per year, with vague opportunities to make extra money by hitting “traffic bonuses.” They would be expected to post three “news videos” per day to their site—they were to wear Maven polo shirts in these videos—as well as hundreds of posts per month. The message was clear: Quantity over quality. Prospective Maven “partners” were told by company execs that if they had trouble creating enough content, they should go to the nearest college and find eager young students who would write for free. These Maven partners would also be required to register themselves as an LLC, presumably so TheMaven would avoid any SB Nation–like legal liability for misclassifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees. Multiple sportswriters, all of whom spoke to Deadspin about their experiences with TheMaven on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, compared the company’s executives to “snake oil salesmen.”

The situation described by these sources is further fleshed out by a 60-minute video and slideshow presentation and a “Maven coalition partner contract” that have been obtained by Deadspin. This presentation was shown to potential recruits for the new Maven SI venture, and it details exactly how the people now in charge of Sports Illustrated plan on turning it into the sort of volume-driven content farm that ruled the web a dozen or so tweaks of the Google algorithm ago.

Advertisement

The executives now in charge of Sports Illustrated don’t see any problem with gutting and reinventing a revered publication because they don’t believe anyone is actually a fan of the magazine. Here’s what TheMaven COO Bill Sornsin said in the hour-long presentation on the company’s plan:

“Sports Illustrated is known for its iconic brand, award-winning journalists, amazing longform stories, great videos, and apparently there’s something to do with swimsuits that I don’t fully understand. [...] What’s new, though, is the recognition—and, you know, we kind of pioneered this with the original Rival and Scout networks—is that nobody is actually a fan of ESPN or Sports Illustrated. They’re a fan of the New York Giants, or the Iowa Hawkeyes or what have you. They’re a fan of their team. And therefore it’s, you know, their interest is intense and it’s not actually possible, as ESPN has discovered and adjusted to recently, its not actually possible to cover the Iowa Hawkeyes in depth unless you’ve got an entrepreneur on the ground in Iowa City covering it intensely. Same is true for the Arizona Cardinals, the Washington Huskies, you name it. What fans want is way deeper than what any national site will ever provide with a centralized staff. So our vision, and this is where you come in, is that entrepreneurs run these team-specific sites. People who are all Hawkeyes all the time or all Jets all the time. And are covering their team on an intense basis, and equally importantly are fostering an intense community of fans who come back to the site everyday.”

Advertisement

These are high expectations for people being paid less than $15 per hour, who have no benefits or security, and who don’t get additional money to travel with the teams they cover. Still, some aspiring writers and established journalists with other gigs were curious about the opportunity. That curiosity didn’t last long.

“They were selling a content mill,” said one source who spoke to TheMaven about running a team site. “It was pretty obvious.”

Advertisement

When another source was first contacted by an editor from Sports Illustrated about becoming a beat writer for an NBA team, he was interested. Then he spoke to TheMaven SVP of business development Mark Pattison and watched a version of the presentation obtained by Deadspin.

Advertisement

“I watched the presentation and it became clear that they’re all about volume and pumping out cheap click-bait stuff,” he said. “I don’t think it was Mark, but another Maven guy [on the call] was like, ‘Yeah if you need help with volume you could go on college campuses and solicit free help.’” Another source confirmed that this advice was given during the presentation he watched.

All the sources said that it was clear that “beat writer” was not the appropriate description for the job they were being asked to do, which also included moderating comments on the site, selling advertisements, and managing and promoting “premium subscriptions” for their site. The emphasis on video was also a turn-off for some writers; TheMaven executives, parroting one of the most frequently repeated canards in media, claimed that video should be a high priority because “video monetizes at a much higher rate.” For one source, the final straw came when they were told they would have to register as an LLC.

Advertisement

“This is not as simple as being an independent contractor,” the person said. “It’s a requirement to be an LLC.”

A different source confirmed the LLC requirement, saying that the exec he talked to slipped it in as a “side note.”

Advertisement

“He was like, ‘Yeah, so if you’re ready to go we’ll have you set up an LLC,’” the source said, adding that the offer came with no benefits. “And no outside financial editorial support. No money to travel with the team or anything.”

Curiously, the LLC registration was not always a part of the pitch Maven “partners” received. One source who spoke to Deadspin said he was approached by Pattison in April 2019, before the Sports Illustrated sale was part of the conversation, at least publicly (Meredith entertained an offer from TheMaven and Junior Bridgeman before selling to ABG). This person said he was offered only $12,000 per year, and that Pattison said nothing about an LLC. The source also noted that at that time, TheMaven was touting its Blue Lives Matter site as an example of success.

Advertisement

It’s unclear whether the increased pay and LLC requirement made their way into later versions of the presentation as a result of ABG and SI’s involvement with TheMaven.

Sornsin said in the 60-minute pitch that sometimes Sports Illustrated national staff would “pick up a story” and put a “national spin on it,” but that they would link back to the team sites in those cases. He said this “technique” worked really well for Fox Sports and Scout, which elides the fact that Scout was a failure and that Fox Sports gave up on its digital presence years ago. Sornsin said that this is “great for everybody” because “it gives SI more depth and it gives YOU more exposure and more traffic, and to the user it gives them that really in-depth team coverage that they’re never going to get from a national site.”

Advertisement

From here, Sornsin delved into his explanation of the soon-to-be-launched “contributor flow,” a casually dystopian wrinkle that amounts to random internet commenters and SEO robots writing stories for Sports Illustrated:

“There’s another site you’ve never heard of that’s huge, in the 50 million monthly unique range, called HubPages. And their model is a contributor model where anyone can submit a story and they have a small team of editors and SEO experts that will run your story through some automation, make some human edits, and they’ll put it out on one of their sites and if it picks up significant traffic from Google, you’ll actually get paid. But you can do it on a piecework basis. You’re not running a site, you’re just submitting stories. You can do one a year or you can do, you know, seven stories a week. People make real money on HubPages. They have this technology and protocol that make stories absolute gold to Google on SEO.

Advertisement

Sornsin gestured at explaining the strategy, saying that they would be “pointing that HubPages pipeline towards the sports network.” He characterized this as a benefit of joining TheMaven, telling the prospective writers that these “finely curated stories” were a boon that would count towards their site’s traffic, and that they would get this perk for free as part of TheMaven.

This is the part of the presentation where TheMaven unveiled a pyramid diagram of the three levels of contributors. At the very top, sits the small (and thanks to this week’s layoffs, much smaller) staff of Sports Illustrated proper. In the middle are the people making $25,000 a year to do a full-time reporting job, plus a full-time editing job plus a full-time sales job, and run a website. At the very bottom, doing the largest portion of the traffic-generating work, is anyone with internet access who can submit “stories” to HubPages, where they will be mangled into an SEO wet dream.

Advertisement

For some of the writers that bought the pitch and believed they were signing on at Sports Illustrated, Thursday’s news about the layoffs was both puzzling and painful. They’d believed they were signing on with one of the most respected sports journalism outfits in the industry, and many had proudly updated their LinkedIn accounts and Twitter bios to reflect that; to work for Sports Illustrated, even on the website, is to have worked for the same magazine that paid not just contemporary heavy-hitters like S.L. Price and Rohan Nadkarni, but also William Faulkner, Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac. They found out that they were not joining up to advance Sports Illustrated’s tradition halfway through its seventh decade, but instead becoming foot soldiers in TheMaven’s campaign to turn a prestigious magazine into a spam-swamp. For some, what had been a moment of professional pride slid quickly into something much more like guilt.

Advertisement

“My intention was growth, being someone who has just contributed to his personal blog and a few minor sites over the past [few] years,” one newly hired TheMaven contributor said. “I would never want to step in place of someone that was done wrong… [I] hope everyone is able to find work quickly, and would trade spots with them immediately if I could. Especially if it meant to give them back what they had.”


The strategy Ross Levinsohn brings to Sports Illustrated already failed once. In August of 2017, Levinsohn was installed as the publisher of The Los Angeles Times. Sources who were employed there at the time say they were optimistic. He didn’t seem like a real news aficionado, and they were skeptical of exactly how he’d ended up as publisher, but he’d done a stint at Yahoo. They wanted to believe things would get better. Almost immediately, their optimism was challenged. Levinsohn’s first major hire was Lewis D’vorkin.

Advertisement

Before being hired as Editor-in-Chief of the LA Times by Levinsohn, D’vorkin had worked at Forbes, where he famously cowed to pressure from Google and required now New York Times reporter Kashmir Hill to pull an article that the tech giant deemed “problematic.” Immediately upon landing at the LA Times, sources tell Deadspin, it became obvious D’Vorkin would continue the same behavior. He held an all-hands meeting to scold the staff for a series about Disney’s domination of the city of Anaheim and then, when that meeting inevitably leaked to the New York Times, held another one at which he called whoever had recorded the previous meeting “morally bankrupt.” Both D’vorkin and Levinsohn, within a month, had completely lost the support and faith of their newsroom. Employees continued their efforts to unionize.

By the time the union vote began, Levinsohn’s plan had imploded. In early January 2018, he gave a speech at a financial conference outlining his plans for the newsroom. In it, he used the same version of a pyramid seen in TheMaven presentation. He intended to shift the company to a contributor network program:

Advertisement

That same week, Huffington Post disassembled their contributor network, stating that the construction “now threatens, with the tsunami of false information we all face daily, to undermine democracy.” Sources from the Los Angeles Times say that they remained open-minded, because they wanted the newsroom to be profitable. They also understood, however, that Levinsohn’s plan was not only outdated, but had already proven ineffective and irresponsible.

Levinsohn was placed on administrative leave on January 19, 2018, the day before the Los Angeles Times newsroom unionized. He never got around to implementing his contributor network scheme because of an NPR report outlining his past sexual harassment allegations, which someone put a great deal of effort into scrubbing from his Wikipedia page. NPR’s report also links him directly to his new business partner at Sports Illustrated: James Heckman, the CEO of TheMaven.

Advertisement

What’s most telling about that presentation pyramid is the phrase in bold lettering at the top: “Gravitas with Scale.” Levinsohn was heard by several LA Times employees using this phrase in the newsroom, and it provides some insight to his strategy. Levinsohn wants a brand that has established itself already (like Sports Illustrated) with a built-in readership. With a publication like that in hand, he can then start throwing around the word “scale,” a maneuver beloved by Silicon Valley types who want VC investors to come running.

In the presentation to TheMaven contributors, Bill Sornsin said:

“So if you’ve got the scale and you’ve got the tech you still gotta get the deal done, and to get the deal done you have to have the contacts and know who’s who and who the decision maker is at a given advertiser or agency. So between James Heckman, Ross Levinsohn, Andrew Kraft, and some others who you saw in the mug shot lineup, none of whom are actually in jail now by the way, the head of each agency has ether worked for one of those people or vice versa, or were in each other weddings at some point. And relationships still matter and our team knows everybody so we can get those deals done and we are getting those deals done.”

Advertisement

It has been previously reported that most of Ross Levinsohn’s “dealmaking” at Yahoo took the form of extravagant parties. He rented yachts and filled them with bikini-clad women to woo investors. Yahoo paid for a vacation home for Heckman and Levinsohn in the Hamptons to entertain clients. Yahoo purchased a digital advertising network that Heckman and Levinsohn founded for $28 million dollars.

Heckman and Levinsohn have been linked for most of their careers. They’ve bought companies from each other for large sums and then paid each other for the favor. Together, they wooed Tronc, where Levinsohn was still being paid as a consultant after his leave of absence for sexual harassment allegations from the Los Angeles Times, to invest in TheMaven. 

Advertisement

These are the men who now run Sports Illustrated—dealmasters who call their site managers “entrepreneurs,” and who have built their site design around some bastardized version of Facebook. “It sucks to be laid off, but it happens in this industry to almost everyone,” a now-former Sports Illustrated employee says. “But it’s one thing to be laid off because you aren’t profitable or whatever. It’s way, way worse to know that you were laid off and the people who run this place you love are going to ruin it.”

Advertisement

In June, a financial services company called B. Riley Financial provided TheMaven with a $20 million term loan. When asked if he was aware of Levinsohn and Heckman’s past business dealings and personal conduct before providing the loan, B. Riley CEO Andy Moore declined to comment.

Deadspin messaged Ross Levinsohn, James Heckman, and Mark Pattison with several questions about their plan for SI. They included: Why are the “entrepreneurs” required to register as LLCs? Who will edit the posts on the Maven team sites? Will the work there be held to SI’s standard? Is $25,000 per year, or about $13 an hour, fair pay for the job described to potential Maven “entrepreneurs”? How is the strategy being implemented at SI different from the strategy presented and planned for the Los Angeles Times? Deadspin also gave TheMaven the chance to respond to sources’ claims that they are building a “content mill” with a focus on “quantity over quality,” using “snake oil salesmen” techniques. Levinsohn asked for more time to answer the questions and Deadspin granted him another hour. However, before the hour was even up, Deadspin received an email from TheMaven’s spokesman Greg Witter saying they would not be able to meet the deadline and will be releasing a statement later.

Advertisement

When reporters from the Washington Post called Jamie Salter, the head of the Authentic Brands Group and owner of Sports Illustrated, on Thursday afternoon, “he described the situation at the magazine as ‘awesome.’” There were some obvious reasons to take issue with this answer, since he gave it mere hours after a day full of head-fakes and delays to the “transition meetings” where half of the organization’s newsroom was laid off.

Advertisement

The Authentic Brands Group, which generally licenses things like Muhammad Ali’s face and autograph, had purchased Sports Illustrated as a distressed asset in May for $110 million; neither ABG executives nor executives from TheMaven were present for the layoffs. That unpleasant job fell to the bosses at Meredith Corp., the august publishing concern that sold Sports Illustrated to ABG. Salter and the people behind TheMaven stayed focused on what they have been focused on—the awesome stuff, mostly, and what lies ahead in the future. In Salter’s estimation, that future is bright. “I can only tell you that we buy troubled companies that we think there’s enormous amount of value in the intellectual property in,” Salter told the Post, articulately. Salter, who giddily dreamed about SI-branded medical clinics just months ago, went on:

“We’re also living in a digital world, and I don’t want to blame anyone because it takes a lot of people to run a business. But it takes a leader to build a business. And at the end of the day whoever has been leading this company for the last seven years, in my opinion, they fell behind. ABG has been successful because we’re laser-focused on social media, on influencers, on product and design. And we’re laser-focused on localizing product for each market, and we’ve invested the money and resources in those people for those markets.”

Advertisement

This approach, which we might call The Extremely Wide Laser, is not done any favors by Salter’s inability to speak clearly, but the general idea is visible somewhere under or within all that C-suite patois and business-boy blustering. If you were on the internet in 2011, or 2009, it will be familiar. The jargon changes with the times, but the cretinous and exploitative principles stay the same.

On Thursday night, the SI staffers who had not been laid off attended an hours-long meeting with Levinsohn and Heckman. While staffers pushed the duo for answers about how the contributor network would be expected to meet SI’s standards and questioned their single-minded focus on SEO and cheap work produced at high volume, Levinsohn and Heckman alternately swaggered and dodged. They emphasized that staffers were going to be offered competitive pay and stock options, and Levinsohn did his best to empathize with what was not an especially welcoming room. “I learned from Chris and Mark, who aren’t here any longer, how they’ve navigated with all of you what has been the equivalent of three or four tours of duty in a war,” Levinsohn said. “That’s how tough I know it’s been. Our job is to give you the tools and the opportunity that past management hasn’t.” Levinsohn, who was joined onstage by Heckman and newly promoted co-editors-in-chief Steve Cannella and Ryan Hunt, told the survivors that Sports Illustrated was going to “win,” and did his best to outline the vision he believed would get them there.

Advertisement

“We’ve been working for three months or so to learn from the inside out about this business and match it with the business that Maven has built over the last three years, but that the team that’s together has built for three decades,” he told staffers, according to sources present at the meeting. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, we’ll make a lot of mistakes, we’ve succeeded a lot. We’ll win again. The ability to start a race with a brand like SI puts us in the pole position. The future is not about cutbacks. I can promise you that.”

During the meeting, Heckman took the lead on defending TheMaven’s content-mill model for the company.

Advertisement

“Anybody here who goes out and says we’re going to replace you with a bunch of bloggers and freelancers are harming your fellow journalists. We’re here to empower journalism. We’re so passionate about empowering journalism,” said Heckman, hours after laying off dozens of journalists. “We’ve been doing this for decades, and our goal is that when you work you gain equity, and you build wealth for your children and your children’s children. That’s our goal.”

Creating real generational wealth through a network of team-specific blogs is a big promise, but Heckman was just getting warmed up.

Advertisement

“And we just talk about who we’re bringing on. We’re talking about a couple hundred world class journalists. Now you’re not the only people who’ve had it hard in the past 15 years because of the internet. I’ve been inside the press box since the mid 80s. My friends have all been laid off. AP laid them off. Sports Illustrated laid them off, they’re not talking about it. When I started in journalism they had photographers all over the country. Guess what? They don’t have jobs anymore. The newspapers have shut down. Shut down their sports pages. ESPN has fired $200 million worth of employees. We’re going the other way. We’re investing in journalists.”

Advertisement

Heckman also delivered a truly bizarre monologue about the importance of his work buds. Speaking about his long and often-shady history working with Levinsohn, and other TheMaven execs, Heckman said they were a “family.”

“This family has stuck together through five different companies. Some seven. And there’s a reason why we stick together from start to finish, start to finish, start to finish. We’ll go in, we’ll work for Fox. We’ll go in, we’ll work for Yahoo. We’ll go back to work for Microsoft. We always return, the family members. We started Maven in the living room of our CTO, who’s a senior Google engineer. We literally sat around Indian style and started writing code when we got this company going. The families know each other, the kids know each other, we ski together, we vacation together, we hang out.”

Advertisement

Heckman continued, this time leaning hard on the “cool boss” angle:

“And this is not about, you know, being, you know, some big company where we separate work and executives. That just doesn’t exist at any of the companies we’ve built. And in that vein we believe in ownership. We think indentured servitude is something that, you know, is hundreds of years ago. We think that you need to be owners. Don’t believe in this executive-employee relationship. I think it’s toxic.”

Advertisement

There was supposed to be a big party in the office on Thursday to celebrate the finalization of the deal that transferred control of Sports Illustrated to TheMaven, which also rented a bar near the office to keep the festivities going. SI staffers went somewhere else.

If you know anything about what’s going on at Sports Illustrated or TheMaven, please drop a line here or to a specific person here.

Advertisement

UPDATE (3:27 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to clarify that the LA Times began efforts to unionize their newsroom before Levinsohn’s arrival.

Share This Story

About the author

David Roth

David Roth is an editor at Deadspin.

Kelsey McKinney

Kelsey McKinney is a staff writer for Deadspin.