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Journalismism

Debating The Finer Points Of Nepotism With Ex-SI Boss Ross Levinsohn

10:39 AM EST on February 1, 2024

When Ross Levinsohn gave up his board seat at the Arena Group, the by-appearances crumbling publisher of Sports Illustrated, he railed against his former employer for damaging the legacy magazine’s “storied brand.”

“To watch in horror what is transpiring now," he said on LinkedIn, "is one of the most disappointing things I've ever witnessed in my professional life."

And, in fairness to Levinsohn, the brand has been watered down like a casino martini. There’s the editorial shame, for example, of SI being exposed in a wonderful investigative piece from Futurism for running AI-generated stories alongside bylines of writers who don’t exist. And then there are the reports of cheesy resorts being developed for Texas City, Texas, and Ann Arbor, Mich., under the name Sports Illustrated Resorts.

So nobody should be more qualified to speak about brand damage than Levinsohn, since so much came on his watch.

One such embarrassing moment from SI's recent past was last fall’s advent of a little-known and short-lived Instagram account called Sports Illustrated University Buffs. Levinsohn might be able to claim some degrees of separation between himself and disasters like the AI stories or SI putting its name on destined-to-fail resorts in last-resort destinations. But it's a lot harder for him to say Sports Illustrated University wasn’t his baby. Because, well, one of his babies started it. 

Levinsohn took the podium at a ceremony in Boulder, Colo., on Dec. 6 featuring the announcement of Deion Sanders as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year for 2023. He began his speech by saying, “This is personal for me.” 

Moments later, Levinsohn hijacked what used to be the highlight moment of his revered magazine’s social calendar to make a plug for a new media venture called “SI University Buffs.” The account covered high-profile events and people on the University of Colorado campus, most frequently football games and the school's football coach, Deion Sanders.

“Please go there and follow it,” Levinsohn said. “We follow all the teams.”

Levinsohn boasted that the project—which had the taglines “CU content for the students, by the students” and “Powered by @sportsillustrated"—was "started" by his daughter, a junior at Colorado. The elder Levinsohn pointed out his offspring, who he called out by name and whose LinkedIn page boasts a 2020 internship at Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, was sitting “in the front row” at the ceremony.

Until Levinsohn’s solicitation for clicks, few of SI’s workers knew that anything called Sports Illustrated University even existed. Those who were aware were appalled. I talked to two SI writers who said they’d learned about it after the CU athletics office called trying to confirm the legitimacy of “Sports Illustrated University” as a news organization after somebody from the site applied for a media credential to a Colorado Buffaloes home football game. After consulting with SI employees, the writers told me, the application was denied.

Curtis Snyder, associate athletic director at Colorado, confirmed to Defector Media the SIU Buffs credential denial. Snyder said, per the university's policies, fan sites that are “affiliated with national media brands” must have “a full-time journalist working for them” to get a game credential. SIU Buffs didn’t meet that criteria.

One SI writer termed the Sports Illustrated University credentialing episode and the shoutout that Levinsohn gave his daughter's site at the sportsperson of the year ceremony as “cringeworthy."

“I’m like, Dude, what are you doing?” the writer said. “He was trying to use SI's influence to get his daughter access to Deion. He was trying to launch her career with Sports Illustrated’s name. Her father’s most respected sports outlet is now reduced to that!”

Another SI writer Defector spoke with said the Sports Illustrated University struck him as “a nepo-baby thing.”

In interviews with Defector conducted by phone and via email, Levinsohn said his daughter had help from other students starting the site, and rebuked assertions that nepotism had any role in the creation of SIU Buffs.

"I would call that entrepreneurism—not nepotism," he wrote in an email. "She and others were not paid. She worked with the social media team (Not me)."

He said the site grew out of a plan hatched by SI's social media specialists to get the brand more exposure among college kids. Levinsohn said the "great connectivity" that Barstool Sports achieved on campuses provided SI with the inspiration for the Sports Illustrated University concept. SIU Buffs was just the prototype site, and the plan was for Sports Illustrated University to be on 10 campuses next year. He said he had almost no role in its founding.

"It was run by our social team," he said. "I didn’t direct them to do anything. I gave them a contact on the University of Colorado campus who happened to be my daughter."

Levinsohn took issue with any assertion that turning over the fabled SI handle to a site where his daughter and other students worked pro bono would in any way damage the trademark.

"Watering down the brand? I mean, that’s expansion of the brand," he said.

Levinsohn said he felt it was unfair to single out him and his daughter for even the appearance of a conflict of interest or nepotism because there are also "journalists' kids who are working at Sports Illustrated." He didn't name them. Levinsohn wanted it known that neither he nor anybody else at Arena during his time at the helm had anything to do with the looming Sports Illustrated Resorts debacles. He said Authentic Brands Group licensed the magazine's name out to developers for those projects.

Levinsohn was pushed out as Arena’s CEO on Dec. 11, mere days after his Boulder appearance. The AI shaming episode, at the time, was viewed as the primary reason for his dismissal. He was allowed to stay on the Arena board of directors after the firing, but resigned loudly earlier this month. Sports Illustrated University appears to have become collateral damage of him getting the boot from his day job: Shortly after his firing, links that once went to the Instagram account @siubuffs began getting an error message in various languages. Asked who pulled the plug on the project, Levinsohn said, "I don’t know since I am not in the company any longer."

At least some content from the @siubuffs page, however, has been transferred to an Instagram account under the name of “skobuffs24.” The posts found on the new account still feature “#siubuffs” and #sportsillustrated tags. 

Despite the limited notoriety the Instagram account attained in its brief lifespan, the writers interviewed by Defector lumped the chapter in as just another humiliation magazine management has foisted upon their peers. One writer said anybody wondering if Levinsohn’s statement blaming others for the watering down of the value of SI was sincere need look no further than the #siubuffs debacle. 

“That’s cheapening the brand,” he said. “And a lot of it is Ross. So you want to talk about the pot calling the kettle black? Well…"

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