The problem, in recent years, is that there aren’t enough people who care about it.
The hard-hitting observation—and partial truth—was a line in “What Will Become of Sports Illustrated?” published in The Ringer on April 11, 2018. As much a part of the American fabric as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie, Sports Illustrated, the go-to source for sports for more than 60 years, “seems to be dying” penned Michael MacCambridge, who also wrote The Franchise: A History Of Sports Illustrated Magazine a decade prior.
At the time, he wasn’t lying.
Sports Illustrated publisher Time Inc. laid off or bought out 300 employees in June 2017. Magazine subscribers were down from 3.2 million a decade prior to 2.75 million. The once-weekly magazine trimmed its number of issues from 50 to 46 in 2016, then again to 38 a year later. SI was reduced to a biweekly publication in 2018 as subscribers and advertisers abandoned print magazines in favor of digital and social content.
The future of the iconic brand that “legitimized sports” according to former TIME managing editor Ray Cave was in doubt as Sports Illustrated was being shopped around for the second time in a year; the male-centric sports publication was the outlier in Meredith’s portfolio of female-focused publications including People, Better Homes & Gardens and Martha Stewart Living.
But on May 27, 2019, Authentic Brands Group gave Sports Illustrated a much-needed lifeline after purchasing the brand’s IP for $110 million and licensed its publishing rights to The Maven, which rebranded as The Arena Group in September 2021.
While the SI of today is no longer your father’s Sports Illustrated, the brand has grown and evolved, and, it could be argued, is stronger than ever.
“This brand is on fire right now,” says Dan Dienst, executive vice chairman of Authentic Brands Group. “It’s very relevant, and it’s becoming even more relevant.
“It’s still the most trusted, best brand in sports.”
Like it overcame “bumbling early years” after first being published in August 1954, Sports Illustrated has evolved with the times as Millennials, Gen Z and Generation Alpha are able to consume news and entertainment 24-7 at their fingertips.
What used to be a weekly print-only magazine has evolved into an entire brand ecosystem extending into content and media, hospitality and tourism, betting, fashion and apparel, and live events.
In 2020, Sports Illustrated became a monthly publication, publishing 12 issues per year as well as seven special edition issues, including its annual Swimsuit Issue and SI Kids, while ABG launched the first-ever Sports Illustrated Awards as well as SI Studios. Ticketing and gambling verticals were launched the following year with the debut of SI Tix and SI Sportsbook; the latter currently operating in partnership with 888 Holdings in Colorado and Virginia. Ecommerce marketplace SI Shop also launched that year, while SI threw its inaugural Formula 1 event at the United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas.
Authentic Brands Group, whose mission is to “evolve, transform and reimagine global brands” including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Nautica, Muhammad Ali, David Beckham and Reebok, hasn’t stopped there.
Sports Illustrated will expand into hospitality and tourism with SI Resorts—the debut location is expected to open later this year in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, while a second location is planned for Orlando in 2024. The brand also partnered with JCPenney to launch a performance-driven clothing line for men, women and kids in January while also introducing other fashion-focused collaborations with Mitchell & Ness, Forever21, Hard Rock and Alchemist.
“What we saw in Sports Illustrated was a classic, timeless prestige brand in the sports ecosystem that plays a very important role as a tastemaker and trendsetter,” says Marc Rosen, ABG president of entertainment. “We saw the opportunity to really leverage that heritage and use what we know how to do best and really bring this brand and business to all these different consumer touch points and transform what a traditional media publishing business was.”
While Sports Illustrated has expanded across multiple industries, the brand remains rooted in journalism. Anchored by some of the best scribes in the industry including Tom Verducci, Jon Wertheim, Pat Forde, Chris Herring, Howard Beck and Stephanie Apstein, SI continues to pride itself on its long-form, in-depth features and investigations in the magazine complemented by short-from, snackable content via The Spun, which was acquired for $11 million in 2021, as well as its roughly 120 hyper-local FanNation sites.
Sports Illustrated Media Group, which also includes The Hockey News, Morning Read and Athlon Sports, reached more than 92 million unique views in January, growing more than 35% from 68.6 million monthly UVs in December 2021, according to Comscore’s latest reports.
SI will leverage youth-focused properties like Faces in the Crowd, Prospects by SI and SI for Kids cards in new ways to further engage with Gen Z and Gen Alpha, including on social media where 19.58% of SI followers are between 18-24 years old; SI’s largest demo on social media is 25-34 (36.5% of followers).
“It isn’t by accident that we’ve grown,” says Ross Levinsohn, CEO of The Arena Group and Sports Illustrated. “It isn’t by accident that SI has had kind of a rebirth. But it is all tied to the exact same thing we had when I was growing up—the brand is trusted, the brand is meaningful and sports are really important to people and we’ve tried to embrace that.”
The Sports Illustrated brand, which has already ventured into NFTs and has its sights set on the metaverse, long-form documentary projects and sports conferences, is also expanding internationally. In December 2021, ABG partnered with Kouneli Sports to publish the first German edition of Sports Illustrated.
The evolution and growth will continue as SI expects to be part of, and driving, the conversation around sports, society and culture for years to come.
“We aren’t playing the short game,” Rosen says. “We’re playing this like a marathon. We’re most concerned about the lifetime value and retention of these consumers while bringing on new consumers into the Sports Illustrated ecosystem and super serving them across all these different touch points.
“That’s how you create lifetime customers for the business and the brand.”