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Sunday, February 25, 2024
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‘The Amount of Useless Stuff You Guys Do Is Staggering.’ Inside a Shakeup at Sports Illustrated’s Publisher

  • Following an AI journalism scandal, the iconic sports publisher jettisoned two top executives Wednesday.
  • The owner of the company that operates SI, The Arena Group, forcefully took the reins, telling employees to “stop doing dumb stuff.”
Sports Illustrated

One week after Sports Illustrated suffered an embarrassing artificial intelligence scandal, the latest leader of the company that operates SI laid down the law for his new employees.

Manoj Bhargava, the 5-Hour Energy drink owner whose firm earlier this year purchased a controlling stake in The Arena Group, which operates Sports Illustrated, introduced himself in a meandering video call with Arena staff on Wednesday afternoon. 

That call was preceded by a shakeup atop SI and The Arena Group: Out are Arena COO Andrew Kraft and president of media Rob Barrett. With the call, Bhargava asserted his control of the publication and other outlets under the Arena banner, sources told Front Office Sports.

“No one is important,” Bhargava told staffers, per one source on hand for the presentation. “I am not important. … The amount of useless stuff you guys do is staggering.”

The meeting lasted more than 90 minutes, and Bhargava joked at one point, “Did anyone bring any 5-Hour [Energy drink]?”

Other highlights from Bhargava’s comments during the town hall: 

  • A rant about recycling being “useless.”
  • He told employees they should “stop doing dumb stuff.”
  • He declared “PowerPoints are illegal” because such presentations are a waste of time.

TAG told Front Office Sports in a statement: “Today, Manoj conducted a virtual town hall and spoke with the staff of The Arena Group, and took questions. Also today, some adjustments to the business have been made to improve efficiency and revenue, and also some changes to senior management have been made.”

TAG Senior VP of growth Matthew Lombardi is expected to have an expanded role in the new structure, sources told FOS. Lombardi’s sports news aggregator website, The Spun, was acquired by TAG in 2021.

Katie Kulik, who was tapped as TAG’s chief revenue officer last month, will lead the business side of SI, the sources said.

SI and TAG are still dealing with the fallout from a bombshell report last week by Futurism that alleged the venerable journalism outfit had used artificial intelligence to create product reviews and had fabricated bylines and headshots.

Bhargava agreed to acquire a majority stake in TAG in August, when his Simplify Inventions took a roughly 65% stake in the company. In return, TAG got a $50 million investment and a five-year, $60 million advertising commitment from a collection of consumer brands owned by Simplify.

“Like most in the media world, the greater reach you have, the more opportunity you have,” TAG chief executive Ross Levinsohn said at the time about the deal. “This dramatically accelerates our path to being a diversified media company featuring great brands.” 

Meanwhile, SI has had to weather a blizzard of negative headlines about its alleged use of AI. TAG placed the blame on a third party company called AdVon Commerce, saying through a spokesperson: 

“AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans. However, we have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect author privacy — actions we don’t condone — and we are removing the content while our internal investigation continues and have since ended the partnership.”

Bhargava did not address the allegations in the Futurism story during the town hall, one source told FOS. Moreover, another source told FOS that the timing of the Futurism story, and the departure of the the Arena execs were unrelated.

The Sports Illustrated Union, representing the outlet’s writers, released a statement last week saying its members were “horrified” by the report and demanded “answers and transparency” from the parent company.

“If true, these practices violate everything we believe in about journalism,” the union said. “We deplore being associated with something so disrespectful to our readers.”

SI, in its 69th year, has struggled to transition from print to digital, suffering through numerous rounds of restructurings and cutbacks, including in February when TAG laid off 17 employees. 

In 2019, Authentic purchased SI and then leased out its publishing rights to TAG — known as Maven — soon after the transaction.

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