On Jan. 19, Arena Group, Sports Illustrated’s magazine ownership group, announced the layoff of 82 writers. This comes after a tumultuous decade for the magazine, bringing attention to a previously quiet conversation: Is physical sports journalism obsolete?
Amid this challenge, Sports Illustrated was sold to two different companies, first to Meredith Purchased Time Inc. in 2017 and then to Authentic Brands Group in 2019, before it ended up under Arena Group. The downfall of the magazine has been one of great proportions; due to years of mismanagement, it has been reduced to a shell of its once-great fame. It’s been some time since the publication’s subscription numbers exceeded three million and being on its cover meant everything to athletes who earned the honor.
In 2015, the magazine laid off the remaining staff photographers in a cost-cutting effort, effectively putting an end to the “Illustrated” in Sports Illustrated. As a result, the publication went from weekly to monthly.
Since then, Sports Illustrated has been using underpaid contractors to write their stories. In Nov., the company was found to have published stories written by A.I.-generated journalists who never existed. The Authentic Brand Group blamed an outside contractor for the scandal.
The situation has since worsened for Sports Illustrated and Arena Group. The union representing Sports Illustrated employees is filing a grievance over the mass layoffs, claiming that Arena Group used illegal union-busting tactics when it sent a change of employment notice to all the laid-off employees.
The dominance of digital news in the media has posed challenges for physical newspapers and magazines as they need help to adapt to the digital age. The shifting landscape of digital media consumption has begun to render long-form sports articles less important. Most articles now can be made to fit into a one-minute TikTok video that appeals to and reaches the average consumer in ways that long articles can’t. This could mean very bad news for employees like the ones who worked for Sports Illustrated, and future sports journalists. The risk of vital information being left out of a video exists, whereas in an article that vital information can be expanded upon.
At this point in the sports realm, creators are – or should be – afraid of what the future of sports media production looks like. As short-form content becomes the norm, there could be a place for bigger corporations to have fewer staff openings. Short-form content is only getting easier to make, so the need for more than 100 writer rooms for sports could be eliminated. I am scared for the future of sports media. As someone who consumes and makes short-form content, I’ve noticed that there is a big market that larger corporations can take advantage of.
Now, we are starting to see a shift in digital media consumption as it’s still in its infant stages. Proof of this can be seen at ESPN, the company grappling with layoffs. In 2023, on-air talent for the network was cut due to the lack of viewership that said talent was bringing. They were replaced with the Pat McAfee Show, which has captivated audiences and garnered a large viewership across social media platforms. The Pat McAfee show is a show that has been able to turn into short-form content and brings a lot of eyes to sports media consumers, cementing it as just one example of a trend that is starting to grow within the sports media landscape.
Where sports shows once had a cohesive schedule of topics to discuss, we now get short segments about viral topics that transfer into a content farm for short-form content. This cuts out any need to watch – or read – anything long-form.
Sports journalism has been a way for regular sports watchers like myself to voice their opinions, but it’s starting to look like it will be an industry for the elite. I want a career in the sports industry, and with openings in the industry closing up, I fear that it will turn competitive and based on nepotism rather than talent. For sports lovers’ sake, I hope not.