'Sports Illustrated' Is Sold Again, But Publishing Won't Shift To New Owner Yet

May 28, 2019
Originally published on May 29, 2019 12:57 pm

Sports Illustrated has been sold for the second time in less than two years. This time, however, the $110 million purchase by Authentic Brands Group places far more importance on the iconic magazine's reputation than the publication itself — pushing the name further into such ventures as gambling and live events.

The Meredith Corp. acquired Sports Illustrated in January 2018 along with a bunch of other titles as part of its purchase of Time Inc. Meredith moved to unload most Time Inc. magazines that were not focused on its primary audience: female readers. And those moves also reflected the flagging finances of major legacy publications.

So Meredith sold Time magazine to Salesforce co-founder Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne Benioff; it dealt Fortune to a Thai entrepreneur, Chatchaval Jiaravanon; and it killed Money magazine's print edition.

Sports Illustrated dominated sports journalism for decades, featuring the articles of such powerful writers as Frank Deford, George Plimpton and Gary Smith and the photojournalism of such photographers as Neil Leifer. The magazine incorporated clear-eyed looks at civil and human rights, politics, power and money through the prism of professional, collegiate and amateur sport. A cover was considered a feat equal to many accomplishments on the field of play.

Yet the immediacy of sports news, on cable television and online, in particular, from nimble and caustic websites to TV giant ESPN, chipped away at its seeming indispensability. So did larger societal shifts in how people consume information and news.

"Sports Illustrated had so much residual goodwill among its readers and entire audience," Terry McDonell, the former top editor of the magazine, tells NPR. "Everybody remembered something about sports in relationship to Sports Illustrated. I don't think that's gone away. It might have shrunk a bit."

A Meredith spokeswoman says Sports Illustrated remains profitable with a 27-issue-per-year schedule. Yet the company has now sold Sports Illustrated to Authentic Brands in a deal that hinges on the acquisition of the magazine's intellectual property. That includes its photo archive, its past sportsman and sportswoman of the year covers, and the annual swimsuit issues, which feature female models in bikinis — including supermodels from Cheryl Tiegs and Christie Brinkley in decades past to Tyra Banks.

"As a trailblazer and cultural phenomenon, Sports Illustrated has created moments and experiences for its readers that are unmatched by any other sports brand," Nick Woodhouse, president and chief marketing officer of Authentic Brands, said in a statement. "We look forward to working with Meredith to extend Sports Illustrated's legacy and connect the brand with new audiences around the world."

Authentic Brands also controls the rights to a wide array of brands, including such pop cultural figures as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley; such sports figures as Julius Erving and Shaquille O'Neill; and such fashion lines as Juicy Couture.

Meredith will continue to publish the magazine and run its website for now — paying Authentic Brands a licensing fee to do so while maintaining editorial independence, according to both companies. Meredith's president of national media said he would integrate SI's print and digital products into Meredith's operations.

In a memo to staff, Sports Illustrated Editor-in-Chief Chris Stone wrote that the magazine would seek to reach greater audiences on other platforms — including in live events, conferences, gambling and video games. He also cited the development of television shows from SI material. And he praised Meredith for striking a deal that honored the magazine's work.

"This deal only made sense if we continue to generate premium journalism and storytelling," Stone said. The guarantee that the magazine would continue to publish under Meredith, however, lasts just two years.

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For decades, Sports Illustrated was the judge of athletic greatness. Now it is changing hands again. And the new owner is not interested in running a magazine or the affiliated website - at least not right away. Instead, the company called Authentic Brands Group is buying the name Sports Illustrated for $110 million. It wants to take advantage of what it sees as big licensing opportunities. Here to sort this out for us is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hi, David.


SHAPIRO: Explain what it means that the buyer sees more value in the brand of Sports Illustrated than the magazine itself.

FOLKENFLIK: Such a good question. Authentic Brands Group represents a lot of big names, some in sport, like Dr. J - Julius Erving - Shaquille O'Neal, a lot of icons of culture that have passed - Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley - and some, you know, other sporting figures and brands in culture - Juicy Couture, fashion, the like. And they see...

SHAPIRO: It's a good collection.

FOLKENFLIK: It's incoherent, but it's broad. Let's put it that way. They see the ability to do things they think - in live events, in conferences, perhaps in gambling, I guess. Casinos could be branded with - or certain kinds of lotteries could be branded with Sports Illustrated - gaming, presumably - video games and the like. They think that this is a franchise that has a strong name, even if publication of Sports Illustrated is down from its heyday. You know, you think of such an important publication - the journalism of Frank Deford, of Gary Smith, of the photography of Neil Leifer and others - so many impressive works over the years. That's not what these guys are about. These guys want to draw on that intellectual property, maybe sell it, maybe find ways to wrap new products around - that name around new products.

SHAPIRO: What do you think? In your view, does Sports Illustrated have the cachet of, like, an Elvis Presley, a Marilyn Monroe, a Juicy Couture?

FOLKENFLIK: I just don't know. I think it's - I think you could find certain kinds of audiences that were very activated by it - say, oh, you know, that spoke to my childhood - particularly - you know, particularly men, I got to say, but not only men who said, that was an important part of my growing up. That's how I looked at the world and at issues around the world and how I connect both emotionally and intellectually society around me first as a young man and as a young person. They're banking on that, and we've got to see whether that play works.

SHAPIRO: And this is a magazine that still has a couple several million subscribers. Is it really being assigned no value in this transaction?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's certainly not what they're buying it for. What they're doing is they're leasing back the ability to operate and run the magazine. It's been promised at least two years to its current owners. That's Meredith Corporation, a major magazine publisher that bought Sports Illustrated, along with a slew of other titles, back in early 2018.

But Meredith focuses mainly on titles that they think of appealing to female readers. Sports Illustrated wasn't part of it. Time Magazine, they sold to Marc Benioff. They sold Fortune to a Thai entrepreneur, and they killed the print edition of Money magazine. This is part of that slimming down. And let's not forget, of course, the publishing industry has taken a lot of - you know, a sock to the chin. Meredith says Sports Illustrated is still profitable, but that probably hinges on a couple of major franchises, like sportsman, sportswoman of the year and particularly the swimsuit edition.

SHAPIRO: Ah, the swimsuit edition. So is it safe to say that for the next couple years, the magazine will stick around, and after that, we just don't know?

FOLKENFLIK: I think that there's a two-year bet on the life of this magazine. And there are people saying this will infuse new life and give - the fact that their new ventures will help heighten awareness of it. And I think there are people who are saying that this is in some ways almost like a Viking burial, that it's being put on a pyre, set on flame for a few years and cast out into the sea. We're going to have to see how this plays out. But I wouldn't bet a lot of money on the profitability of the print business. We'll see what happens in digital as well.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.