For 65 years, Sports Illustrated has persisted in narrowly covering sports, neglecting those who would like to, say, have their prostates examined in SI-branded medical clinics by doctors wearing SI-branded lab coats, or drape themselves in SI-branded bikinis, or eat an SI-branded hot dog at their kids’ SI-branded sports camp. For all of these people there is, at long last, good news.
Last night, Variety reported that the brand of the once-proud magazine had been sold for $110 million to Authentic Brands Group, an oxymoronically named company that manages such vaunted companies as Juicy Couture and Aeropostale, as well as the “brands” of such celebrities as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, whose nostalgic appeal is aimed at the same demographic that still buys SI’s print offering, at least going by the ads that run in it. As for how it plans to specifically leverage SI’s brand, ABG has some ambitious projects in mind:
In a wide-ranging discussion, [ABG founder and CEO Jamie] Salter envisioned possibilities ranging from Sports Illustrated medical clinics and sports-skills training classes to a gambling business and better use of the magazine’s vast photo library. “We always stay close to the DNA and the heritage of the brand,” he says. “Granted, we will go beyond, but we will always remember sort of how we go there.”
This morning, in an all-hands meeting, SI leadership assured staffers that having been sold to a brand-humping wannabe media company is a positive development.
“The headline for me is [...] somebody now owns the brand who really is excited about possibilities for the brand and the future and not sort of in maintenance mode,” digital editor Mark McClusky said early in the meeting. McClusky’s optimism echoed that of SI editor Chris Stone, who sent a memo to staff after the sale was announced lauding the deal, praising ABG founder and CEO Jamie Salter and his “big ideas,” and promising that ABG was committed to editorial independence. (Disclosure: I live with someone who works at SI; I did not talk to this person for this story.)
Under the terms of the deal, ABG bought Sports Illustrated’s brand from Meredith Corp., but Meredith will continue to run SI’s publishing operations for up to two years. At the end of the two-year window—which could be shortened, according to what SI highers-up said during the all-hands meeting—Meredith may renegotiate the deal to run publishing, or ABG may take it over. SI leadership explained during the meeting that the two-year period is seen as a time for ABG to “learn how to be a media company.” In the meantime, ABG plans to do what it already knows how to do, which is to sell stuff. Per Variety, ABG plans to use the Sports Illustrated name, kids’ edition, swimsuit franchise, “Sports Person Of The Year” franchise, and photo archive for marketing projects, “medical clinics,” and other opportunities.
During the all-hands meeting, an SI staffer asked what Sports Illustrated medical clinics would look like and the room erupted in laughter. The question was not answered. Another person asked about the fate of FanSided, a slimy SB Nation-like company that relies on unpaid labor and that was formerly partnered with SI and that SI once bragged “deepens Sports Illustrated’s local sports coverage and adds more weight to the brand.” The highers-up explained that FanSided was not part of the deal and that they’d need “a day or two” to sort out the “nuts and bolts” part of the years-long FanSided partnership.
On its website, ABG describes itself as a “curator” and “guardian” of brands, and says it works to “create and activate original marketing strategies that drive the success of our brands across all consumer touchpoints, platforms, and emerging media.” Whatever this means, SI seems ready to embrace this approach to media. In the all-hands meeting, highers-up repeatedly used the word “synergy” to describe how ABG’s business plan would work with Sports Illustrated. Perhaps channeling their new owner’s ethos, SI confirmed the news of the sale on one such popular “consumer touchpoint.”
If there’s one thing that’s certain in media it’s that there are no good owners. Every media company has to deal with the ugly realities of the business, which could mean being sold off to some private equity company that only cares about the bottom line or being sold to a marketing company that is to all appearances less interested in journalism than in branded boner pills or what have you. Perhaps ABG will learn how to be a media company, prioritizing journalistic ethics over partnerships with advertisers and investing in continuing SI’s long history of in-depth investigative journalism in order to guard the credibility for which they just paid nine figures, but early returns aren’t encouraging. From the Washington Post:
Asked specifically whether Sports Illustrated would prioritize investigative stories, Salter wrote: “Sports Illustrated will continue to be a resource for its readers, providing up-to-the-minute sports news and coverage, thoughtful analysis, and entertaining stories. Our partnership with Meredith is key in continuing to re-build Sports Illustrated into a global platform while disseminating information with integrity and respect.”
That’s a lot more words than it would take to say “Yes,” which shouldn’t be surprising.
Where it’s not curating unexceptional mall brands, ABG is guarding nostalgia for icons who, like SI, are most marketable when all the rough edges have been sanded off and the people to whom they’re being sold remember them as being even better than they were at their best. The strategy, as best anyone can tell, seems to be to position SI alongside Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson as something that reminds aging people of an increasingly dimly-remembered past. This iteration of SI will probably thrive, just as Ali does in this online store where you can buy a variety of studiously apolitical t-shirts and a onesie for any babies you know; there is money in selling upper-middlebrow credibility and authenticity to Boomers. The magazine’s ongoing concerns are, in this construction, probably as relevant to the branding operation as Ali’s are to his; what any of this means to the future of the actual ongoing journalism operation at SI has yet to be determined.
If you want a tell as to what might happen, Sports Illustrated has already been added to ABG’s roster of brands. It probably wouldn’t be reading too much into things to draw a conclusion from which SI cover they chose to use here. It nostalgically hearkens back to an era when dads couldn’t get porn on their phones:
While ABG is carrying out its exhumation project, a magazine and a variety of digital content will be produced. Given the new emphasis on “synergy,” there should be ample opportunities for people at all levels of the SI operation, who have proven themselves willing to produce—or perhaps only capable of producing—work dedicated to advancing the the interests of famous leagues and famous brands and famous people to continue doing so. They, and those who would sign up for a Sports Illustrated prostate exam, have reason to think they’re the real winners of the day.