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Threats, Demands, a Lawsuit, and a Website in Limbo: Inside the Chaos at ‘SI’

  • Sources say 5-Hour Energy tycoon Manoj Bhargava threatened to destroy the archives in a meeting with the new publishers of ‘SI.’
  • A recent lawsuit details claims of union-busting and other illegal behavior.
Doug Hoke/The Oklahoman/USA Today Network

Last week, Authentic Brands Group transferred control of Sports Illustrated from The Arena Group, a business controlled by eccentric energy drink tycoon Manoj Bhargava, to Minute Media. Since then, chaos has reigned, with SI’s website being populated largely by stories written largely by writers from Minute’s The Big Lead—and credited as “Special to SI.com”—because its staffers still work for Arena. Behind the scenes, things have been even worse. 

Three sources with direct knowledge tell Front Office Sports that Bhargava demanded Minute Media pay at least $50 million for SI Fan Nation and threatened to destroy SI’s archives in a meeting with Minute. They also say that Arena tried to take over its social media accounts. And according to an email reviewed by FOS, Arena turned off email and Google Workspace access for SI employees last week over what it claimed was “potential unauthorized extraction of data and IP.”

On top of all this, Ross Levinsohn, a former Arena executive, recently filed a suit detailing Bhargava’s thirst for taking over the company. The suit broadly claims that Bhargava used a minority holding in Arena to take over the company and, by extension, SI as part of a plot to consolidate his media holdings and secure free advertising for his businesses, which include the 5-Hour Energy brand. More specifically, it accuses him of deliberately breaking contracts as part of a convoluted union-busting plan and uses the word “illegal” or variants nearly two dozen times.

The through line connecting all these developments is Bhargava’s attempts to exploit SI for his own gain, which appear to have been ongoing even since Arena lost control of the publication—and to be complicating any effort to set it on a more sustainable course. 

An Arena spokesperson declined to comment, citing company policy on pending litigation.  

Levinsohn’s lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles on Thursday, the same day a Senate committee tied Bhargava to a long-running federal investigation over allegations he hid hundreds of millions in an offshore bank account. A former L.A. Times publisher who has repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct—two lawsuits in which he was a defendant were settled, according to NPR, while an investigation by the Times’ then-parent company found “no wrongdoing”—Levinsohn is depicted in the lawsuit as something of a white knight, a dam trying to hold back Bhargava’s flood of troublesome ideas for running Arena, a public company beholden to SEC reporting rules. 

Before he even assumed effective control of The Arena Group in December, for example, The 5-Hour Energy founder allegedly “made it one of his first points of business” to request SI swimsuit models to tour his company offices.

“He proposed having the models sell subscriptions to his products like 5-Hour Energy, and giving them a commission, far below industry standards,” according to the suit. “Bhargava plied swim models … with diamond jewelry he manufactures and sells as part of one of his business ventures in an effort to coerce them into promoting the jewelry brand at an SI Swim event.”

Levinsohn claims he was fired as CEO and later resigned from Arena’s board for not going along with Bhargava’s greater vision, which included “a calculated plan to kill the SI Union.” 

Going back to when Arena, then known as Maven, began a 10-year, $150 million deal with Authentic in 2019, the company was built up around SI. A start-up with few other assets, Maven’s lordship over SI was often bumpy, and it included cuts to SI’s print publication schedule, the use of SI branding to boost what amounted to a content farm of sites, and repeated layoffs. According to Levinsohn’s suit, though—which goes so far as to claim that by ’23, SI.com was the “#2-ranked site” in the United States per Comscore—it was a success. 

What isn’t in dispute is that Arena’s debt impeded progress and that Levinsohn was initially welcoming of Bhargava’s deep pockets. Last summer, he promised Arena $60 million in advertising spending over five years and purchased about 40% of Arena’s common shares and nearly all of the company debt for about $100 million. This gave him a minority stake in the business; despite this, he began to operate as if he owned it outright. For example, according to the suit, on Dec. 1, 2023, Levinsohn was sent a draft of a press release about Bhargava buying debt and equity in Arena that said the deal would make him the “largest shareholder in Sports Illustrated.”

“Levinsohn protested this plan,” the suit says, “explaining that Sports Illustrated was a separate company owned by Authentic Brands Group and others, and that Bhargava’s investment was not in Sports Illustrated, but in Arena.” The suit goes on to say that Levinsohn explained to lawyers involved that falsely claiming Bhargava had purchased SI “would be a lie and potentially an act of securities fraud.”

That press release wasn’t sent, but Bhargava stormed into Arena and effectively took over days later. Bhargava introduced himself to Arena’s staff (including SI employees) on Dec. 7 in a meandering 90-minute town hall at which he declared “PowerPoints are illegal” and implored staff to “stop doing dumb stuff.”

“If I call you adequate, that is my highest form of praise,” Bhargava told employees, per the suit. “Everyone is replaceable.”

The next month, Arena missed a $3.75 million January payment to Authentic. This exposed Arena’s most valuable asset: SI. Levinsohn claims in the suit that Arena had millions in cash reserves and “certainly more than enough” to make the payment, but that this didn’t stop Bhargava from stiffing Authentic. Levinsohn also claims that Bhargava ordered his handpicked interim CEO, Cavitt Randall, to skip a payment on Arena’s debt—nearly all held by Bhargava—as part of a plan to place Arena in bankruptcy.

Arena remains on the hook for a $45 million termination fee due to Authentic, although one source with knowledge of the matter told FOS that Bhargava requested Authentic waive that fee. 

According to the suit, there was a method to Bhargava’s madness, albeit one that would seemingly violate federal labor law: “Randall stated that by not paying Authentic Brands the license fee, he believed Authentic Brands would terminate,” the suit says, “thus giving Arena the ability to fire everyone in the SI Union. At that point, Arena could then merely hire them back as independent contractors or have them write articles and pay them by the word.” And in fact, in January, amidst the chaos caused by the missed payment to Authentic, Arena started to lay off employees, telling others that they would be laid off imminently.

An SI Union spokesperson said in a statement to FOS that the allegations laid out in the lawsuit “are far from surprising.” 

“It was immediately clear to us that Bhargava engineered this opportunity to try to bust our union and lay off all our members,” the statement read. “Less than two weeks after the layoffs were announced, we filed an unfair labor practice charge against Arena.  

“Since that first step, we have been actively pursuing any and all other avenues to protect our members. Despite Bhargava’s obvious union-busting efforts, we stand united as we have throughout all the corporate upheaval.”

According to Levinsohn, Bhargava didn’t have authority to run Arena until Feb. 14, when he spent $12 million on more Arena stock to take his stake in the company above 50%. By that time, though, Levinsohn and other top execs were out, Bhargava was already in control of the board, and Arena’s relationship with Authentic was in tatters. 

In the weeks before Authentic finally yanked the license to publish SI from Arena, Arena continued to publish SI—and Bhargava’s operatives meddled with editorial decisions. A story on trans rules for boxing was killed. A press release on 5-Hour Energy’s sponsorship of an IndyCar team ran basically verbatim on SI.com. Bhargava even tried to kill off the print edition.

On March 18, Authentic tapped Minute Media as the new publisher for SI, setting the stage for an apparently contentious meeting between Bhargava and Minute Media execs two days later. Minute offered to pay Arena to make the transition run more smoothly, but a person with knowledge of the discussions tells FOS that Bhargava demanded at least $50 million for Fan Nation’s assets—well beyond what Minute had in mind. Bhargava then threatened to basically annihilate SI’s story archives, the person said. 

“Our team said, ‘We need to ensure that all of this does not get lost. How can we work with you, work together?” the person says. “He metaphorically spit in our face.”

On Thursday, the migration of SI.com to Minute Media began—and it became immediately clear that Arena wasn’t going to make anything easy. 

“He threatened to shut down all the [SI] websites and, essentially, tried to steal the domain while our team was actively trying to [take it over], which is illegal, by the way,” the person said. 

A source close to SI said that Bhargava’s “henchmen tried to sabotage” the transition. Arena had hoped that the site essentially would go dark for multiple days as March Madness kicked into gear in an effort to tank SI.com’s Google ranking, two sources told FOS

“This would have the dual effect of damaging the brand—a middle finger to both Authentic and Minute Media—and making Arena look like a more attractive partner for the Fan Nation publishers,” one source said. 

Fan Nation, which has roughly 300 contractors who produce content for approximately 160 sites mostly covering individual college and pro teams, is key to the value of SI as an ongoing concern. Multiple sources said it is murky whether Minute or Arena holds the rights to the Fan Nation name. Sources close to Minute and SI, though, contend that Minute now possesses the intellectual property for Fan Nation, much like it does now for SI’s editorial assets, including the SI swimsuit edition. 

Over the last week, Minute and Arena held multiple meetings in an attempt to sway the contractors to their side. Two sources said Minute Media could still rebrand Fan Nation, as Arena has pushed forward with an Athlon Sports site carrying the Fan Nation branding, which is part of Arena’s sports effort minus SI. 

Some of the first SI employees Minute Media hired were the managers atop Fan Nation, a nod to the fact that some of the team sites generate around $1 million in revenue annually with very little overhead, since those who create Fan Nation are in revenue-sharing deals and don’t get benefits. Most of the rest of the SI employees remain on Arena’s books, and it could take several more days—maybe weeks—before they become Minute Media employees. 

Before the transition, two sources with knowledge of the situation told FOS that Authentic warned Minute Media about how Bhargava’s Arena would react to losing SI

“Minute Media had to understand who they were dealing with,” one of those sources said. 

Like SI’s beleaguered employees, Authentic execs, and others, Minute Media has a thorough understanding of that now.

Editors’ note, March 26 at 8:09 p.m. ET: An earlier version of this story misstated that Ross Levinsohn was thrown off The Arena Group’s board. In fact, Levinsohn resigned from The Arena Group’s board. The story has also been updated to provide additional context for misconduct allegations made against him.

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