The Civil War Tearing Sports Illustrated Apart
Staffers at the iconic sports mag feel caught in the middle of a war between the brand’s owner and its publisher—leaving them increasingly demoralized and dispirited.
A narrowly avoided legal war, accusations of unpaid bills, a former high-school teacher on the payroll who once pleaded guilty to having “an improper relationship with a student.” The company that runs Sports Illustrated has in recent months made a series of moves that have left staffers more demoralized and dejected than ever—and worried about the financial health of the company.
The Maven, the digital-media organization which has controlled Sports Illustrated since last fall, has been a controversial steward of the iconic sports magazine since nearly day one: The company laid off nearly half of SI’s staff immediately after taking over; numerous other staffers left following those slashes; editorial employees chafed at the rollout of Maven’s plans to establish hundreds of traffic-chasing digital sites covering pro and college sports teams, à la SB Nation; and, following the police killing of George Floyd, staffers revolted over Maven’s platforming of a “disgraceful” Blue Lives Matter website full of misinformation and racist comments.
The Maven came to control Sports Illustrated after magazine publisher Meredith sold the magazine to Authentic Brands Group (ABG), which, in an unusual arrangement, then handed over the management rights of the publication to Maven, a controversial tech and media company.
“The staff feels abandoned by ABG and is deeply concerned about the possibility of [Maven CEO Jim] Heckman making things worse,” one insider said. “It seemed as if Sports Illustrated was caught in a custody battle and neither parent had the child’s best interests in mind.”
Maven has touted its initiatives including focusing on short-form video and local team coverage. It has also claimed the publication’s increased pageviews and traffic are a sign of its success in running SI, and has told staff in recent weeks that other big partnerships are on the horizon. But in July, The Daily Beast reported that ABG was preparing to go to war with Maven over its stewardship of SI. ABG’s CEO Jamie Salter told The Washington Post in 2019 that the company could revoke Maven’s right to run Sports Illustrated, and higher-ups at ABG continued to have private, independent communication with some SI staff about their displeasure with Maven even after the Post reported on such back-channel communications.
Maven took notice of ABG’s incursion, of course: During a meeting, following The Daily Beast’s report on the looming legal battle, Sports Illustrated staffers were informed that speaking with ABG could now be considered a fireable offense. And in July, magazine staffers received a note from the Maven’s general counsel Robert Scott requesting they retain and preserve all documents related to Maven, SI, and ABG—revealing to employees the seriousness of ongoing legal threats between the organizations.
Additionally, some magazine staffers have been furious after learning months ago that Maven had hired a Texas sports blogger who more than a decade ago pleaded guilty to the second-degree felony of having an improper relationship with a student while he was a high-school teacher. According to an email shared with The Daily Beast, Maven executive Glenn Nelson was aware in April that blogger Patrick Colon (who writes under the byline Patrick Starr) had entered a plea agreement for the improper relationship with a student—for which he served probation. Starr continued to have stories published by Maven under his byline until June, while his name appeared on a blurb for Maven/SI story as recently as Friday.
Starr declined to comment. In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Maven spokesperson said the company “began investigating as soon as we became aware of a question around him.” The organization did not answer follow up questions about whether he would continue to write under the Maven and SI banner.
The writer’s past has also alarmed at least one team that he covers for the NFL. “I was recently made aware of a disturbing report about a member of the media who covers our team,” Houston Texans VP of communications Amy Palcic said in an email. “We are in the process of confirming the validity of this report and gathering all pertinent information.”
Elsewhere, staffers have passed around a social-media post in which Heckman expressed skepticism of the public-health consensus on lockdown policies fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
In a lengthy Facebook post last week, Heckman shared an article from a libertarian organization arguing that “based on the data, there seems to be no relationship between lockdowns and lives saved.” Numerous studies have suggested that lockdowns have slowed the spread of the virus and have saved lives, and one of the studies cited by the author directly contradicted his own argument that lockdowns did not result in patient recoveries. Nevertheless, the CEO suggested in his comment on the article that the U.S. should simply lock down the elderly and at-risk individuals while allowing the virus to “churn through” younger, healthier people—“using our collective immune systems”—so that more people can return to their normal, pre-lockdown lives.
“Let’s put down the political-laced arguments and start thinking, without any ties to our political sides,” Heckman wrote. “The current policy has literally, permanently, ruined millions of lives and small businesses that families nurtured for decades. Our country is being destroyed right now, actual human beings affected and deaths created by our policy—while billionaires and trillion dollar market cap companies benefit (Amazon, Apple, etc.)—to save a micro-percent of the population.”
The social-media post troubled some staffers, who expressed fears of how Heckman’s skepticism might one day be reflected in decisions about returning to public office spaces amid the ongoing pandemic.
Employees who spoke with The Daily Beast over the past week have spotted other signs that an already tenuous situation involving Maven is about to get worse.
For example, sources said, the magazine has now found itself fighting to uphold the “illustrated” part of Sports Illustrated. In recent weeks, Meredith has deliberately blocked Maven’s access to the magazine’s iconic photo library. In a byzantine arrangement, the ex-owner is slowly transferring the massive digital trove of photos over to SI, but has allowed Maven to access Meredith’s photo hosting service in the meantime. But in recent weeks, Meredith has barred Maven from accessing its photo hosting system, saying that Maven still owes Meredith money.
And so instead of using photos from its massive archive spanning 65 years, for the moment Sports Illustrated has been forced to primarily use images provided by wire services or shot after the magazine’s sale. This latest Maven-related problem has proven especially embarrassing and depressing for some staffers, who pointed out that Sports Illustrated’s original innovation was to print strikingly colorful sports photographs starting in the 1960s.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Maven spokesperson did not address the payments to Meredith, but claimed “the entirety of SI’s photo library is secure and in Maven’s control.”
After Maven took over in fall 2019 and made dramatic cuts, staffers described the work environment as “somber, depressing and hostile,” and the Post noted how such turmoil led to employees to do some serious digging on their new bosses.
Such digging has not stopped. In the intervening months, SI staffers have uncovered and passed around other eyebrow-raising decisions and statements from Maven and its executives.
For example, staffers have noted how Maven CEO James Heckman has brought on a number of his own family members. One of his sons is now a video producer for SI, another was an intern, and a third son claims on his Instagram profile that he is an “analyst” for Sports Illustrated. Furthermore, Heckman’s wife has worked as a Maven higher-up.
The CEO’s family isn’t alone in facing accusations of favoritism: Former Maven executive and current Sports Illustrated business-development SVP Mark Pattison’s daughter also lists herself on Instagram as an SI reporter.
Staffers have also noticed troubling signs that all may not be well with the Maven’s financials, despite the company’s efforts to slim down the sports magazine through drastic cuts and a new network of hyper-local blogs with low-paid contributors.
Normally SI would send out a regular magazine edition along with its famous annual Swimsuit Issue. But as a cost-saving measure this year, the magazine never sent out its July print edition.
And in addition to instituting pay cuts and negotiating buyouts with the publication’s union, Maven has largely halted freelance agreements, which now need to run through COO Bill Sornsin. Magazine higher-ups also informed staff that SI no longer has control of its own budget, which is now entirely controlled by Maven executives.
In a statement to The Daily Beast, a Maven spokesperson said “the budget for SI media operations has been centralized under Maven since Maven assumed leadership last October.”
The coronavirus pandemic and a resultant economic slowdown have forced media companies of all stripes to make uncomfortable compromises—from layoffs to furloughs to reorganization. But while Maven editorial staffers have been asked to take pay cuts, the company has continued to hire new fantasy sports-focused employees, who are technically part of Sports Illustrated but do not report to the publication’s top editors.
Employees have been irked by such an arrangement, which co-editor-in-chief Steve Cannella said “concerned” him too. “I want more help, I wish we had more help, we’ve been asking for more help,” he said during a meeting with magazine staff last week. “Unfortunately, Ryan [Hunt, co-editor-in-chief] and I can’t control the decisions that are made in other parts of the company.”
Sports Illustrated staffers privately believed a legal fight would ultimately wrest control of the magazine away from Maven. But instead, the narrowly avoided battle seems to somehow have given Maven more influence over the magazine.
During a July 31 staff meeting, ABG and Maven bosses told employees that the two companies had resolved their issues by amending the management agreement to remove “uncertainty around structure, protocols and operational support.” The companies also announced the formation of an editorial board staffed by a Maven employee, an ABG employee, and an outside specialist.
“Every relationship experiences transitional growing pains—particularly as the parties get to know each other—and the best way to clear them up is to talk through the issues,” ABG CEO Salter said in a statement shared with staff. “That’s what we’ve all done. With the parties re-focused on collaborating, I’m extremely optimistic about the future for Sports Illustrated, a brand we all love and cherish.”
But the reaffirmed alliance between Maven and ABG hasn’t sat well with everyone on staff either.
Employees pressed top management about why the storied magazine does not have a seat on the newly-created three-person board that will oversee editorial issues at Sports Illustrated. Indeed, in a meeting last Tuesday, the editors-in-chief acknowledged that they would not have a seat on the new editorial board, and that their interests would theoretically be represented by Maven executive Ross Levinsohn.
“Would I like that board to be me and Ryan and others? Yes. But that’s not the way it’s going to be right now,” Cannella said, adding: “I do have a level of comfort that we will be able to make our opinions heard to that group.”
And as their cold war has seemingly reached a tenuous détente, Maven and ABG companies are keenly aware of brewing staff dissatisfaction, and are working to try and keep any concerns from reaching the press. During the July 31 meeting, Salter encouraged SI employees to not share any sensitive information with outside media.
“If you’ve got a problem, please don’t call the Washington Post, please don’t call the New York Post,” Salter said. “Let’s talk it through, let’s figure it out, let’s fix it. Our business is our business. There’s no need for us to allow others from outside to know what we are doing inside, either good or bad.”