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Sources: ‘Sports Illustrated’ and Swimsuit Edition to Be Broken Apart

  • The news comes as Authentic, which owns ‘SI,’ is expected to make a decision about its future within the next few weeks.
  • Authentic could retain the ability to use the swimsuit rights as part of a live-events business.
Credit: Brevard

The future of Sports Illustrated remains murky amid a dispute between its publisher, The Arena Group, and its owner, Authentic. However those negotiations go, though, the swimsuit edition isn’t likely to be part of SI’s editorial arm when things are settled.

Authentic—the licensing giant that owns Sports Illustrated and leases it to The Arena Group—is in advanced discussions to split the swimsuit edition lease off from that for SI, a source familiar with the situation tells Front Office Sports. The move is actually welcomed, that source says, by the de facto head of The Arena Group, billionaire 5-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava. 

At first, the swimsuit edition would likely fall back under Authentic’s control, much like other SI intellectual property retained when it entered into a licensing agreement with Arena in 2019 to publish SI’s print and digital properties. Authentic uses the SI name for its annual Super Bowl Party and allowed British bookmaker 888 Holdings to operate an SI-branded sportsbook, a deal that ended a week ago. Another source with knowledge of Authentic’s arrangement with SI says that Authentic would likely then license the swimsuit edition to a new publisher while possibly retaining the ability to hold and sell against events tied to the brand, as it does now with SI. (Representatives from Authentic and Arena declined to comment for this story.)

In January, Authentic terminated Arena’s licensing deal, a move that coincided with mass layoffs by Arena of SI employees and others elsewhere inside the media company. Arena still operates SI and is negotiating to lower how much it pays to Authentic under the 10-year $150 million agreement. Arena remains on the hook for a $45 million fee triggered when Authentic moved to terminate the contract. 

Minute Media—the parent company of The Players’ Tribune and The Big Lead—is considered the front-runner to take over SI’s operations, two sources with knowledge of the negotiations said. One of those sources said Authentic is expected to make a decision on who operates SI going forward over the next month. 

Like much of the rest of SI, the swimsuit edition has languished under Arena. But the decline—a product of how media in general has evolved in the internet age—began before Arena came along. 

The swimsuit edition debuted with Babette March on the cover in March 1964, a way for SI to boost circulation during a slow time for sports. For decades, the swimsuit edition was just another weekly edition of SI before it became a stand-alone issue in ’97. Forbes reported that the ad sales for the swimsuit edition in 2005 produced an estimated $35 million in ad sales and, in total, generated $1 billion in revenue for Time Inc., SI’s original owner. 

The 25th edition of the swimsuit edition in 1989 was the peak of its influence and reach. The cover featured supermodel and Loaded Weapon 1 star Kathy Ireland, and circulation for that issue reached 2.7 million. 

The swimsuit edition isn’t the money-maker it was back then, when it accounted for as much as 15% of SI’s revenues. In recent years, the swimsuit edition came close to losing money. It also became a target of right-wing media for featuring trans models—and SI staffers dealt with a dustup on how management dealt with a trans-focused story under Bhargava, a major donor to conservative candidates. 

An article on USA Boxing’s new trans athlete policies was held from the March edition of SI at the insistence of Arena executive Orestes Baez. A spokesperson for Arena told The Washington Post “the story was not pulled” and chalked it up to Baez learning his new role in overseeing SI
The spokesperson told the Post that SI planned to run the story online. Six weeks later, it still hasn’t been published.

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