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New ‘Sports Illustrated’ Publisher Carries Big Opportunities, Bigger Expectations

  • Minute Media has already generated big traffic online, but ‘SI’ represents something else entirely.
  • The deal for online and magazine publishing rights closely follows a large-scale fundraising.
Painted murals of Sports Illustrated covers inside the new University of Tennessee-themed Graduate Hotel located at 1706 Cumberland Ave. in Knoxville on Friday, August 7, 2020. Kns Graduatehotel Bp
Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The new operator of Sports Illustrated is anything but a household name among general consumers, but for years it has been one of the most widely trafficked outfits in digital sports media. And while Minute Media’s acquisition of the SI publishing rights offers a new realm of hope for the long-embattled company, it also presents an entirely fresh set of expectations. 

Minute Media struck an agreement Monday with Authentic Brands Group—the licensing giant that owns SI—to take the magazine and website publishing rights previously held by The Arena Group. Founded in Israel in 2011 and now operating around the world, Minute Media owns digital brands such as The Players’ Tribune, FanSided, and the soccer-oriented 90min. Those titles have a certain prominence—and Minute Media has consistently ranked among the top 10 entities in U.S. digital sports media as measured monthly by Comscore—but the SI publishing rights bring an entirely different level of attention. 

Executives for Minute Media clearly acknowledged the heft of that incoming task in a memo sent Monday to its own staffers.

Sports Illustrated is the gold standard for sports journalism in the U.S and around the world, and has been for nearly 70 years across both print and digital media,” wrote Minute Media CEO and founder Asaf Peled. “The weight and power of that distinction cannot be understated.”

In addition to the core SI operations themselves, the agreement also includes the long-running SI Swimsuit edition, SI Kids, and SI’s FanNation.

The arrival of Minute Media represents a sizable turn for SI after months of rising turmoil that have included a near-total layoff of the editorial staff, artificial intelligence controversies, and a combative company culture under The Arena Group’s Manoj Bhargava.

The Minute Media deal offers an opportunity for SI to turn the page. But the deal also means a potential ideological clash between the short-form, mobile-oriented content Minute Media focuses on, and the long-form material that is core to SI’s venerable brand. 

“We have said from the start that our top priorities are to keep Sports Illustrated alive, uphold the legacy of the institution and protect our union jobs,” Emma Baccellieri, staff writer for SI and vice chair for the SI Union, said in a statement to Front Office Sports. “We look forward to discussing a future with Minute Media that does that.”

To that end, Minute Media intends to take the next couple of weeks to assess future staffing and organizational needs. 

The initial deal is for 10 years with the option to extend it with two more 10-year deals, a source with knowledge of the agreement tells FOS. Authentic will take an equity stake in Minute Media as part of the deal. The SI agreement follows a January fundraising by Minute Media that valued the company at more than $1 billion, with that influx involving large institutional investors such as HSBC and BlackRock. 

—A.J. Perez contributed to this report.

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