NFLPA, MLBPA among sports players' unions backing SI guild in fight with Sports Illustrated ownership

Laid off Sports Illustrated staffers now have the support of major sports unions. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)
Laid off Sports Illustrated staffers now have the support of major sports unions. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images) (Rodin Eckenroth via Getty Images)

Unionized Sports Illustrated staffers who were let go in a recent round of mass layoffs have the support of multiple sports players' unions as they fight for their jobs and the integrity of the once-venerated publication.

The AFL-CIO released a joint statement Monday alongside the labor unions representing seven U.S. sports leagues that are backing members of the Sports Illustrated Union.

"On behalf of our thousands of player members, we stand in solidarity with the unionized workers of Sports Illustrated," the statement reads. "We were shocked to see that these journalists — who have worked tirelessly to uphold the integrity and standards at Sports Illustrated — were laid off as the result of a licensing dispute between The Arena Group, which publishes SI, and Authentic Brands Group, its owner."

The statement was endorsed by unions representing players from the NFL, MLB, NHL, WNBA, NWSL, MLS and USL. Each of the unions is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, a federation of 60 national and international labor unions that states that it represents 12.5 million workers. The National Basketball Players Association, which represents NBA players, is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO and was not associated with the statement.

What happened to Sports Illustrated staffers

Sports Illustrated's publisher, The Arena Group, issued mass layoffs of the SI editorial staff on Jan. 19, a day after it announced "significant" planned workforce reductions in a "strategic move to transform the business model." The statement cited "substantial debt and recently missed payments" as the reason for the layoffs.

At the time of the layoffs, Front Office Sports reported that Arena had missed a $3.75 million payment that broke the company’s deal with Authentic Brands Group, which licenses SI to Arena. The missed payment led Authentic to revoke the publishing license, per the report.

Per an email sent by Arena to SI employees and obtained by FOS, Arena cited the lapsed licensing deal while informing workers that they would be laid off.

"We were notified by Authentic Brands Group (ABG) that the license under which the Arena Group operates the Sports Illustrated (SI) brand and SI related properties has been officially revoked by ABG," the email reads, per FOS. "As a result of this license revocation, we will be laying off staff that work on the SI brand."

The SI Union has since filed a lawsuit alongside the The NewsGuild of New York against The Arena Group, citing allegations of union-busting. The lawsuit states that every member of the SI Union was told they were being laid off, while SI management staffers kept their jobs.

"It’s clear that The Arena Group ownership is using an engineered dispute over the SI license as a cover to union-bust and unlawfully target our members,” Susan DeCarava, president of the NewsGuild of New York, said in a statement to media.

Former CEO blasts 'abhorrent actions,' 'union-busting'

Former Arena Group CEO Ross Levinsohn resigned from the company's board of directors after the layoffs with a scathing letter, citing the "abhorrent actions of this board."

"Today's obliteration of Sports Illustrated's storied newsroom and the union busting tactics is the last straw," Levinsohn wrote. "These actions and the inaction of this board are illegal, riddled with self-dealing, and will almost certainly lead to shareholder lawsuits. In my more than 30 years inside of public and private companies, I've never witnessed more negligence in my career."

Arena issued a statement disputing Levinsohn's letter and accusing him of being "a disgruntled former executive." It cited its responsibility to its stockholders as the reason for the workforce reduction.

"The members of the Board take their fiduciary duties and responsibilities seriously," Arena's statement reads. "The Company's decisions regarding operating expenses, strategic transactions, or otherwise, followed thoughtful process and deliberation and were determined to be in the best interest of the Company and its stockholders."

Shifting tides at Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated was once the standard bearer for sports journalism, but its relevance has declined alongside other legacy publications in the age of digital media and has further deteriorated in recent years. Arena purchased SI in 2019, when it was branded as Maven.

In November, Futurism reported that SI was publishing AI-generated e-commerce articles with bylines of authors who don't exist. The stories were deleted following the report, but Arena disputed that they were generated by artificial intelligence.

"The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon Commerce," the Arena statement reads. ... "AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans."

The statement acknowledged that "AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name."

Levinsohn was CEO at the time but was dismissed in December in the aftermath of the scandal. Arena replaced him in the interim with Manoj Bhargava, an entrepreneur with no notable journalism background who is best known as the creator of 5-hour Energy who is the majority owner of the Arena Group. Bhargava stepped down from his interim role in January in a stated move to avoid conflict of interest.

Jason Frankl from FTI Consulting was then named Arena's chief business transformation officer. He carried out the SI layoffs alongside Arena executives and its board of directors, according to FOS.

Monday's joint statement by sports unions and the AFL-CIO challenged SI leadership to "treat SI workers fairly and honor their union contract."

"We will be watching this closely, and it is our expectation that Authentic and The Arena Group treat the SI workers fairly and honor their union contract. If management replaces the brand’s full-time unionized workforce, Sports Illustrated will no longer be Sports Illustrated. Our unions will always call out any attempt by management to treat their workers unfairly and demand that these union-busting tactics at one of America's most important journalistic institutions stop now."

Disclaimer: Ross Levinsohn is a former Yahoo interim CEO and executive.