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Thursday, February 29, 2024

Sports Illustrated’s AI Controversy: What We Know, What’s Next

  • Union, corporate issues heightened amid AI-related controversy.
  • Issue seen as a sign in part as a consequence of corporatization of media.
Gary Cosby Jr via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The controversy surrounding Sports Illustrated and its alleged use of artificial intelligence to develop content and writer profiles is heightening tensions with a key employee union, as well as creating new stress within the venerable outlet’s complex ownership structure. 

A report from Futurism claims that SI routinely attributed the writing of articles to authors who don’t exist and used AI-generated pictures to give those fake authors a visual presence. The story strongly suggests that SI may have even used AI to generate articles.

SI was quick to dismiss the report as only relating to licensed content of product reviews — and insisted those articles were written and edited by humans. The company did, however, acknowledge that the AdVon Commerce-created content did use pseudonyms, and the partnership has now been terminated.

The Sports Illustrated Union, which represents the outlet’s writers, is pressing for answers, saying it is demanding a full accounting from SI publisher Arena Group on what “exactly has been published under the SI name” using artificial intelligence, as well as a commitment to “adhering to basic journalistic standards, including not publishing computer-written stories by fake people.”

“It sucks. It f—ing sucks,” tweeted former SI staffer and noted author Jeff Pearlman. “SI was the land of legends. Deford and Jenkins and Hoffer and Rushin. [Some] of the greatest sports writers of the past century. But this is what we’ve done with the continued corporatization of media. These companies don’t care about content. At all. It’s entirely clicks and ads and ads and clicks.”

Ownership Stress

For many years a flagship brand within the former Time Inc., SI now exists in a layered ownership and operating structure.

The brand is owned by Authentic Brands Group, a brand management company that also owns Reebok and many other entities, and actively partners with outside entities to license and merchandise those brands.

Arena Group, which also oversees brands such as The Hockey News and Athlon Sports, holds such a relationship with ABG for SI, and acts as the outlet’s publisher. Shares in Arena Group ended Tuesday trading down 27%, as investors were clearly alarmed by the claims. The stock has dropped 80% since the start of the year.

Even before this latest incident, a potential transfer in control of Arena Group has been the subject of repeated rumors.

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