Report: The Athletic Attempted to Save Sports Illustrated

The Athletic offered $50 million for the licensing rights to the publication

Report: The Athletic Attempted to Save "Sports Illustrated"
Joe DiMaggio was the cover feature for the original Sports Illustrated magazine (Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty)
By Evan Bleier / November 25, 2019 11:42 am

If The Athletic had been successful in an attempt to acquire the licensing rights to Sports Illustrated, all the recent changes the longtime publication has announced may have been averted.

SI, which let go of a sizable portion of its digital staff and has substantially reorganized the format of its printed magazine, almost ended up in the hands of The Athletic co-founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansman, according to NBC News and MSNBC media reporter Dylan Byers.

Upon finding out SI’s current owner Maven intended to turn the digital side of the magazine into a content farm, Mather and Hansman offered to pay $50 million for the licensing rights to the publication, $5 million more than Maven ended up paying. “Mather and Hansmann’s plan was to upsell Sports Illustrated print subscribers to the digital Athletic product, allowing them to continue supporting the journalists it would have acquired in the deal,” Byers reports.

Unfortunately, the offer was either too late or not even considered and Maven was able to acquire SI. 

“The Athletic’s offer would have given Sports Illustrated the opportunity to sustain and even grow its journalistic operation,” according to Byers. “Instead, Maven has cut roughly half of the editorial staff and plans to hire freelancers who will be paid based on their ability to drive traffic.”

In October, Deadspin reported on the more cynical aspects of Maven’s plans to overhaul the monolithic imprint into a “rickety content mill.” In a cruel and much-discussed twist of fate, Deadspin itself crumbled earlier this month after their new ownership — the private equity-backed G/O Media — attempted to impose similar traffic-driven imperatives over the editorial staff.

The Athletic stands apart in the new sports-media landscape. The company has raised nearly $90m in venture capital since their initial seed round in 2016, and has invested most of that money into recruiting seasoned sports reporters produce longer, more thoughtful, research-driven stories, which they distribute via a paywalled, ad-free website.

In theory, such a site would have been a perfect fit for SI and its legacy of award-winning journalism. Instead, it looks the most likely candidate to fill the void that SI’s demise and Deadspin’s death have left behind.

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