The group that publishes Sports Illustrated said in an email on Friday that it was laying off many, if not all, of the employees who work at the magazine, leaving the future of the publication in doubt.
The move came after the Arena Group, which publishes the magazine under a complicated management structure, had its license to operate the publication revoked.
It was unclear whether Sports Illustrated would continue publishing, or if its owner, Authentic Brands Group, would strike a new agreement with the Arena Group or find a new company to operate it.
For decades, Sports Illustrated was a weekly bible for sports fans and a financial engine for the Time Inc., empire. It once had over three million subscribers, and its writing and reporting were considered the pinnacle of sports journalism. But it has been in decline for years. Like many publications, the magazine had struggled to shift to the digital media world from print publishing. In 2019, the media conglomerate Meredith sold Sports Illustrated to Authentic Brands Group, which is primarily a licensing company that acquires the rights to celebrity brands, for $110 million.
The Arena Group — which owns Men’s Journal, Parade and TheStreet and was previously known as the Maven — then struck a 10-year agreement with Authentic Brands Group to operate and publish Sports Illustrated. It paid at least $45 million for the right to do so, while Authentic Brands Group retained commercial rights for things like a potential Sports Illustrated-branded hotel in Michigan.
Spokeswomen for Authentic Brands Group and the Arena Group declined to comment on Friday.
The union representing Sports Illustrated confirmed that the Arena Group was laying off many, or possibly all, Sports Illustrated employees.
“This is another difficult day in what has been a difficult four years for Sports Illustrated under Arena Group (previously the Maven) stewardship,” the union said in a statement. “We are calling on ABG to ensure the continued publication of SI and allow it to serve our audience in the way it has for nearly 70 years.”
It has been a particularly tumultuous several months at Sports Illustrated. In August, Manoj Bhargava, the entrepreneur behind the 5-Hour Energy drink, agreed to buy a major stake in the Arena Group, raising hopes that he might provide a measure of stability.
But shortly after Mr. Bhargava agreed to buy the stake, Sports Illustrated was thrown into chaos. Several of the company’s senior executives were forced out of the company, including its chief executive, Ross Levinsohn; its president, Rob Barrett; its chief operating officer, Andrew Kraft; and its general counsel, Julie Fenster.
In November, reports circulated that Sports Illustrated had published product reviews under fake author names, seemingly generated by artificial intelligence, which the Arena Group blamed on a vendor.
Mr. Levinsohn — who himself oversaw cuts to Sports Illustrated’s newsroom amid industry headwinds — resigned from Arena’s board on Friday. He reacted to news of the layoffs on LinkedIn, calling them “one of the most disappointing things I’ve ever witnessed in my professional life.”
“The actions of this Board and the destruction of Sports Illustrated’s storied brand and newsroom are the last straw,” Mr. Levinsohn wrote.
A spokesman for Mr. Bhargava declined to comment.
In early January, the Arena Group reported that it had failed to make a $3.75 million payment to Authentic Brands Group, and thus was in breach of its licensing agreement. At that same time, Mr. Bhargava resigned as its interim chief executive officer “to avoid any conflict of interest” in an agreement the company signed with FTI Consulting to help turn the business around.
In 2020, shares of the Arena Group traded for as much as $14.20. On Friday, they were trading for under $1.