Sports Illustrated's future in standoff between billionaires: sources

MONEY & BUSINESS: Sports Illustrated’s future in standoff between billionaires: sources



Sports Illustrated’s future comes down to a high-stakes game of chicken between the iconic magazine’s billionaire overlords, The Post has learned.

In one corner stands Manoj Bhargava, the founder of 5-Hour Energy and top shareholder of SI publisher The Arena Group, who made a risky bet to withhold paying the licensing fee in a bid to renegotiate terms on a contract that runs through 2029.

In the other is Jamie Salter, a Canadian licensing magnate whose Authentic Brands owns the storied title and called Bhargava’s bluff — fearing the tactic could embolden other Authentic licensees, a source close to the situation told The Post.

Stuck between the battling barons — with net worths of $1.5 billion and $1.1 billion, respectively, according to Forbes — are the roughly 100 Arena workers, most of them in the SI union, who may be cast aside in the next two months if the two can’t work out a deal.

“Manoj wanted to negotiate a new licensing agreement and Jamie said no,” a source close to the situation told The Post.

5-Hour Energy Founder Manoj Bhargava has put Sports Illustrated’s future at risk. Str/EPA/Shutterstock

“Manoj was surprised for sure,” a second source added. “It was a gambit that didn’t pay off.”

Authentic, which has allowed Arena to keep publishing SI, has said it will keep the SI brand alive after revoking Arena’s license. The two sides continue talking, a source told The Post on Wednesday.

Salter has also held discussions with Penske Media, Vox and Essence to take over the Sports Illustrated license, The Post reported exclusively last week. Authentic Brands Vice Chair and Chief Strategy Officer Daniel Dienst is acting as Salter’s representative in the talks, according to sources.

Arena said it could not comment due to its ongoing discussions with Salter’s Authentic Brands.

Bhargava and Salter declined comment.

Authentic owns 50-plus brands, including storied retail labels like Aeropostale, Brooks Brothers, Forever 21 and Izod, as well as the rights to dead celebrities including Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and Marilyn Monroe.

Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue is expected to be published this year no matter what happens in this SI standoff. Getty Images for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

A new publisher may be more interested in keeping seasoned reporters and the long-form journalism that made SI famous, another source said.

A source said part of Arena’s decision to enact the massive layoffs was to get rid of high-paid writers, eight of whom allegedly make a combined $2 million. The company sent out a mandatory 60-day WARN notice to SI staff last week and fired some workers immediately.

The magazine’s few remaining big-name writers include Tom Verducci, Jon Wertheim, Chris Mannix, Greg Bishop and Pat Forde. They remain on the payroll but the plan is to fire them and offer to bring them back on a contract basis, one of the sources said.

“Manoj does not like high salaries,” the insider said. “This needs to be on a different platform to ensure great journalism.”

SI, which in its heyday had a circulation of 3 million a week, has been reduced to 12 issues a year — for an annual fee of $20. There are also about seven annual special issues. Arena does not break out how many print subscribers remain for a magazine that featured some of the nation’s best writers when it was launched nearly 70 years ago.

Authentic Brands CEO Jamie Salter is talking to several publishers about the future of Sports Illustrated. David McGlynn

The publicly-traded company said SI’s website gets about 70 million users a month. It generates roughly two-thirds of Arena’s $250 million in revenue, sources said.

Two of the sources said SI turns a small profit, but a third source said it loses money for Arena.

Bhargava wants to cut its $15 million annual licensing fee by at least a third, to $10 million, as digital ad sales across the publishing industry fall, according to those with knowledge of Bargava’s thinking.

Arena skipped making a quarterly $3.75 million licensing payment to Authentic on Jan. 2 to force Salter’s hand.

Authentic can charge Arena a $45 million penalty for non-payment, sources said.

Sports Illustrated covers could quickly turn into collector’s items.

Bhargava, 70, signed a letter of intent in August to buy Arena Group. That deal has not closed.

Arena stock, which traded as high above $14 just 14 months ago, has fallen below $1 since news broke about Authentic yanking its SI license.

The company’s stewardship of the fabled brand came under fire after it was reported last November that SI published AI-generated content.

Arena CEO Ross Levinsohn was fired shortly after and Bhargava took over as CEO last month but stepped down on Jan. 4 — two days after initiating the standoff with Authentic — citing a conflict of interest.

The company named FTI Consultant Jason Frankl as its Chief Business Transformation Officer.



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