Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: Sports Illustrated will never be the same after heartbreaking layoffs

As a young sports fan, a Sports Illustrated subscription is a golden ticket to the best writing sports journalism has to offer. I still remember coming home from elementary and middle school to find Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Kids waiting for me on my kitchen table.

Sports Illustrated has been a must-read for sports fans since its inception in 1954 and it has helped inspire millions of kids, like me, to pursue a career in sports and sports journalism. Every reader has his or her favorite writer –– mine is Tom Verducci –– whose work to them is required reading.

This past Thursday, the magazine was thrown its greatest curveball yet: heartbreaking layoffs that cleared nearly half its newsroom.

Sports fans and journalists alike reacted to the news with shock, anger and sadness. An American journalistic icon was being gutted –– the latest example of the evils of media conglomeration. The resounding consensus among those upset with the layoffs: we all deserve better.

Like a bench player who is constantly on the trade block, Sports Illustrated had been entangled in a period of great uncertainty for years. The magazine was purchased from Time Inc., along with Time and Fortune, by publishing conglomerate Meredith for $1.8 billion in 2017.

Meredith turned around just a few months later and placed Sports Illustrated back on the market. In May 2019, Meredith sold Sports Illustrated’s licensing rights to Authentic Brands Groups. Then in June, ABG leased the outlet’s media operations to Maven, a Seattle-based tech start-up.

The latest move was viewed as a harbinger of more change to come at Sports Illustrated and Thursday proved those worries legitimate. A reported 35 to 40 percent of the publication’s editorial staff was laid off and while Maven claims that their ownership will lead to “The New Sports Illustrated: Reimagined, Revitalized — and Restored,” it is clear what the move actually means: the legendary magazine will never be the same again.

Prior to the publication-altering announcements last week, members of Sports Illustrated’s staff circulated a statement, pleading for Meredith to rethink its decision.

They wrote, “TheMaven wants to replace top journalists in the industry with a network of Maven freelancers and bloggers, while reducing or eliminating department that have ensured that the stories we publish and produce meet the highest standards … These plans significantly undermine our journalistic integrity, damage the reputation of this long-standing brand and negatively affect the economic stability of this publication.”

But the Hail Mary effort was too late.

The Thursday Evening Massacre at Sports Illustrated was the latest installment in a larger, troubling trend in the journalism industry. Through May, around 3,000 journalists had lost their jobs in 2019, and according to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of American newspapers had layoffs in 2018.

The Sports Illustrated news is reminiscent of ESPN’s two rounds of layoffs in 2017, which left approximately 250 journalists unemployed. In a society where technology and social media have opened the door for innovative methods of storytelling, the journalism industry is badly hurting.

While the layoffs at Sports Illustrated reflect the trend, this case is even more upsetting. This wasn’t solely about ad revenue or budget cuts. This was about a media conglomerate looking to exploit a famed brand to turn a profit.

Maven’s proposed model would transform Sports Illustrated into a shell of its former, beloved self. Not to mention, the method used to fire these respected writers was shameful. The new leadership announced two “transition meetings” early on Thursday afternoon, which they promptly cancelled moments before, only to be rescheduled for later in the afternoon.

As many had feared, one meeting was for those being fired, the other for the lucky ones whose jobs were safe. It was a cynical, Draconian way to alert dozens of journalists, many of whom had logged decades of service to Sports Illustrated, that they were no longer valued.

It seems the consensus that formed on Thursday in the wake of the news was spot on: we all deserve better. The writers, the readers, the industry.

For decades, Sports Illustrated has been home to the best sportswriting in America. It has told engaging stories in insightful and unique ways, captivating the attention of generations of sports fans. It has influenced countless young writers, like me, to pursue the craft of journalism. But with TheMaven at the helm, it’s hard to imagine young boys and girls racing home to read the latest edition of their favorite magazine.

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