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Media Meltdowns

Sports Illustrated Continues Its Lurch Away From Journalism With Fresh Round Of Layoffs

The stage at a big Sports Illustrated part.
Jeff Schear/Getty Images for Captain Morgan

Sports Illustrated, once the pinnacle of prestige in sports journalism, initiated another round of layoffs Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, cutting loose 17 staffers as part of yet another "strategic shift" for the company. The layoffs were announced internally in an email from senior vice president/general manager of sports Chris Pirrone, who joined Sports Illustrated from USA Today Sports Group in June 2022. Pirrone, whose signature contribution to sports media to date is guiding content-farm-style growth and monetization at replacement-grade digital outlets, described the layoffs as part of a critical investment in "the growth areas of our brands," highlighting in particular a "renewed focus on key sports verticals."

This is at least the third round of layoffs to hit the Sports Illustrated newsroom since the publication was purchased by consumer brand licensing outfit Authentic Brands Group (ABG) in 2019, and subsequently licensed to The Maven, the weird "scalable media vertical" operation run by sleazy executive Ross Levinson and rebranded in 2021 as Arena Group. Levinson, who has since named himself CEO of Sports Illustrated, worked with ABG and outgoing owner Meredith Corp. in 2019 to cull half of Sports Illustrated's newsroom during the transfer of ownership, and less than a year later then-CEO James Heckman laid off another six percent of the company's editorial staff over pandemic-related revenue losses. Meanwhile, as part of Levinson's bold plan for reviving Sports Illustrated, the company launched its own dirt-cheap, fan-run contributor network, currently socked away under "FanNation" on the Sports Illustrated website. Reader concerns about the mingling of Sports Illustrated's very good professional sports journalism with a bunch of work from amateur bloggers were well-founded, but for the most part the professional side of Sports Illustrated has continued to produce good and essential work, even as its ranks have been thinned by vampire ownership.

It's hard to imagine how that can continue much longer. The cuts made Wednesday included approximately 12 members of SI's bargaining unit, and a whopping 13 editors. The new job openings described by Pirrone in his email to staff and posted by the company on LinkedIn are for social media editors and Breaking/Trending News Writers, suggesting that Pirrone's vision for the company resembles less the thorough and ambitious work that over a period of decades made Sports Illustrated into a juggernaut, and more the quick-hit aggregations, sweaty lists, and empty-calorie traffic enjoyed by myopic executives across the deeply beshitted sports media landscape. Journalism is becoming a smaller and smaller part of the Sports Illustrated business portfolio: The big innovations under ABG's ownership have been ticketing and gambling verticals, an e-commerce marketplace, the sponsoring of a Formula 1 event, the branding of "performance driven" lines of clothing, the distribution of non-fungible tokens, and the launching in 2022 of a hospitality and tourism venture, called SI Resorts. Meanwhile, the company has laid off dozens of experienced journalists, all while bragging to hilariously unserious media water-carriers that the company is "on fire right now" and is enjoying "a rebirth."

It's also worth noting that while Sports Illustrated is dumping experienced journalists and editors, its parent company is screwing around with robots. Arena Group told the Wall Street Journal recently that it has begun working with a pair of artificial intelligence startups to generate stories at some of its smaller publications, and has already run several AI-generated articles at Men's Journal, under the byline "Men's Fitness Editors." Levinson touts the efficiency with which AI allows journalists to comb their own archives, which at Men's Journal facilitated the aggregation of previous work into the ultra-hard-hitting and super-duper essential article, "The Best Ways for Men Over 40 to Maintain Muscle." It also produced another article that was rife with factual errors. It is Levinson's view, he told the WSJ, that eventually AI might improve workflow by helping his journalists to identify trending topics on social media.

Defector reached out to Pirrone Wednesday with questions about the layoffs at Sports Illustrated, the publication's direction, the new open positions, and what he sees as the company's "key sports verticals," but had not heard back as of publication. Pirrone's email to Arena Group staff is reprinted below in its entirety.

The Continued Evolution of SI

Team Arena,

Today is a day of change in our sports business. We are restructuring our Sports Illustrated group to reflect how consumers engage with us, and how we address the needs of our partners and audience.

We are saying goodbye to 17 colleagues and have created 12 new openings to reflect the new needs of the SI business. Since October of 2019, when we partnered with Authentic Brands Group to take over operations of the print and digital web and mobile businesses, we have evolved SI by repositioning the print business as a monthly publication, with premium journalism and excellent storytelling, while also developing a robust digital presence across many platforms. The strategy has helped propel our sports vertical to rapid growth, adding more than 30 million users to our sports vertical since inception.

The SI Team revamped the print strategy, won awards for their incredible journalism, and reset the editorial direction, design and experience of SI and SI Kids magazines. The digital audience has grown substantially, but increasingly, consumers are interacting with our content on other platforms and in new ways.

The changes announced here will allow us to continue to respond and address those evolving audience needs. It is critical that we invest in the growth areas of our brands, while maintaining the expectations of our existing and long-time consumers.

Going forward, we will have three distinct editorial units focusing on serving different parts of our audience. The magazine and long form editorial group will continue to be led by our Editor-in-Chief, Steve Cannella. Our digital coverage from SI, with a renewed focus on key sports verticals, will be led by Joy Russo, and our breaking and trending team will be led by Neal Coolong. All three will report to me going forward. We are looking to make key hires to support our editorial plans, including 9 new journalists and 3 new editorial managers.

The changes in our structure will ensure that we continue to grow and prosper while serving passionate sports audiences on every platform.

In addition, after 25 years of service to the Sports Illustrated brand, our co-Editor-in-Chief Ryan Hunt will be retiring from the company this March. Ryan will be working on several strategic projects and other elements of the transition through then. Ryan’s passion and contributions to making SI what it is today cannot be overstated.

I want to thank the departing members of our team for their contributions, hard work and commitment to Sports Illustrated, and wish them the very best in the future.

Chris Pirrone

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