The new master plan for Sports Illustrated is straight out of 2009
It’s been a tumultuous few months for Sports Illustrated. The venerable magazine was on the market since the end of 2017 after Meredith bought Time Inc, and was finally sold to the Authentic Brands Group in May. Weeks later, SI’s media operations were sold to a company called TheMaven, a startup owned by Jim Heckman (the former owner of both Rivals and Scout), and that’s where things started to go awry.
Earlier this month, Chris Stone left his role as SI’s editor-in-chief. The next day, a wave of layoffs smashed through Sports Illustrated, resulting in dozens of people losing their jobs. After those layoffs came and went, TheMaven’s vision for SI became clear, and optimism immediately began to fade.
The plan that TheMaven has for SI is to essentially use the SI brand name to give legitimacy to independent contractors posting under TheMaven’s banner, creating a whole lot of team-specific content with minimal editorial oversight. It’s an idea straight out of 2009, when multiple blog networks launched with the goal of saturating the internet with numerous pieces of content about each team every day. It wasn’t revolutionary then, and sure as hell isn’t revolutionary now.
It’s disappointing, but not surprising, to see this happening. After all, during Heckman’s years at Rivals and Scout, team-based models were part of the whole allure of the networks. But times have changed in recent years, and fans don’t crave the minimalist content that is provided by large networks like TheMaven. Why would I go to a website providing multiple clips from a coach’s press conference when those clips and quotes are on Twitter seconds after they take place? Who’s clicking on a story about a player winning a weekly award when the result has already been announced? What kind of website thinks that a two-day old post about injury updates is relevant after the game takes place?
This is a dated strategy that just seems like a poor decision in 2019. In a world where people are willing to pay a subscription fee to sites like The Athletic, which focus on quality, original content, TheMaven’s SI is going in the opposite direction while trying to tell us that this content being pumped out at a ridiculous pace is still high quality.
In another strange step back in time, TheMaven is also emphasizing original video on their SI-branded team sites. This is weird to me, because numerous outlets like Fox Sports made video a focus a few years ago, only to have that strategy backfire in spectacular fashion. And while TheMaven isn’t going to the extreme lengths that Fox and other did in terms of video, just the fact that they’re trying to emphasize original video seems like they’re reading from a dated playbook instead of accurately dissecting today’s digital sports media landscape.
Seemingly, the best case scenario for TheMaven is that SI’s brand is able to propel all of these subsites to a sizeable amount of traffic, and that nobody cares about the evident drop in quality from SI’s main page to the team-specific subsites. This would (theoretically) bring more attention to TheMaven and its platform, consequentially increasing funding and attracting more investors. If this happens, SI would probably focus even more on TheMaven and its contributors, letting go of even more staff and removing even more luster from the Sports Illustrated brand.
The worst case scenario actually might be a good thing for Sports Illustrated: if TheMaven’s plan flops, it’s possible they wouldn’t be able to meet the conditions outlined by the Authentic Brands Group (which still owns, but doesn’t operate, SI), which could force Authentic to move away from TheMaven as SI’s publisher and move towards another company. If that happens, we could see another potential investor attempt to bring SI back to its glory days – or we could see another ambitious company like TheMaven get involved and drag SI further down in another direction. The future of SI will not be revealed in a matter of weeks, or even months, but rather years.
Joe Lucia has been covering sports media since 2011, and is a fan of the Ravens, Braves, and Manchester City. He was born and raised in Harrisburg, PA, but now makes his home in southern California with his wife.