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The Athletic Wanted to Buy SI Before Maven Closed But They Were Too Late

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Jerry Rice (L) and Sugar Ray Leonard speak onstage at Sports Illustrated 2018 Sportsperson of the Year Awards Show on Tuesday, December 11, 2018 at The Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. Tune in to NBCSN on Thursday, December 13, 2018 at 9pmET to watch the one hour Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards special.  (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)
Rich Polk/Getty Images

An interesting what-if media tidbit emerged this morning when NBC media reporter Dylan Byers broke the news that The Athletic made a last-ditch effort to acquire the Sports Illustrated editorial operations from Authentic Brands Group (ABG) before TheMaven officially closed that deal. However, they were too late.

Per Byers, "around the time the [SI] layoffs got announced" in early October, Athletic co-founders Alex Mather and Alex Hansmann tried to pay $50 million to ABG to run the SI magazine and web operations, and "upsell" the magazine to Athletic subscribers. This was an 11 percent premium over the $45 million upfront that TheMaven, led by James Heckman and Ross Levinsohn, were paying. However, at this juncture Maven was closing the deal and Byers says it's unclear that ABG would've been interested even if the timing were better.

There are a lot of hypotheticals to digest here, but SI was on the market for years before this apparent last-second bid by Athletic. Granted, ABG purchased it from Meredith for $110 million before they segmented out the editorial operations -- in the process, they retained the brand IP for things like merchandise, health clinics, youth camps, and who knows what else -- but The Athletic had a lot of time where SI could've been theirs if they really wanted it badly enough.

Further, it's hard to say conclusively that there wouldn't have been layoffs even if The Athletic's hail mary had been completed. There's a reason that such an iconic brand that you'd presume any number of companies or wealthy individuals would love to own if only as a trophy took so long for Meredith to sell. While still profitable for the time being, the business faced significant headwinds with its overhead costs.

Knowing what you know about media, how shocking would it be if Athletic's acquisition went through and you started to hear about "synergies" as a code word for eliminating overlap? It may not have been as immediate and severe a bloodletting, but the idea that everyone at SI would've kept their jobs in this transition is a tad optimistic.

There are a lot of SI ex-pats at The Athletic. Former SI editor-in-chief Paul Fichtenbaum is Athletic's chief content officer. Richard Deitsch, Stewart Mandell, Bruce Feldman, Andy Staples, and Seth Davis are amongst the former SI reporters who are writing there. While there are undoubtedly more SI writers Athletic would love to integrate into their platform, they've already hired a lot of the ones they wanted most.

Anyways, we'll never know what would've happened. Nonetheless, if The Athletic maintains strong purchasing power and TheMaven operations of SI go the way that some people fear, perhaps Mather and Hansmann will have another crack at it down the road.