The Sports Illustrated Sale Details Are Pretty Bizarre

Ryan Glasspiegel

Sports Illustrated was sold from Meredith to Authentic Brands for $110 million. The first instinct is that the number seems very low for a brand that has the historical cachet of SI and remains a force digitally both in reporting — they recently broke the big stories on misconduct from Jerry Richardson and members of the Mavs front office — and in distribution. The sale also dragged on forever; last June, Meredith officials were saying bids had been received in the $200 million range.

The weirdest part, though, is not the purchase price, but the fact that Meredith is paying Authentic Brands an undisclosed amount to license the Sports Illustrated brand name and continue to publish the magazine and website. What this means is that Authentic is not buying the actual core SI product; they are buying the brand, the intellectual property, and the photo library.

What does this mean? Variety explained:

In a wide-ranging discussion, [Authentic Brands founder, chairman, and CEO Jamie] Salter envisioned possibilities ranging from Sports Illustrated medical clinics and sports-skills training classes to a gambling business and better use of the magazine’s vast photo library. “We always stay close to the DNA and the heritage of the brand,” he says. “Granted, we will go beyond, but we will always remember sort of how we go there.”

While Meredith has what Salter described to Ben Strauss of the Washington Post as “obligations” to continue to invest in the people who write for SI, Salter sidestepped Strauss’s direct question about whether investigative journalism — which drives relevance, but also costs a lot and potentially alienates branding partners — would continue to be a priority. The CEO said:

 “Sports Illustrated will continue to be a resource for its readers, providing up-to-the-minute sports news and coverage, thoughtful analysis, and entertaining stories. Our partnership with Meredith is key in continuing to re-build Sports Illustrated into a global platform while disseminating information with integrity and respect.”

It’s also instructive to realize how these two companies got to these respective positions. Meredith is an Iowa-based magazine company backed by the Koch Brothers described in a recent Wall Street Journal story as being particularly “unsentimental.” They operate women’s lifestyle publications like Better Homes & Gardens and Allrecipes, and bought Time Inc. for $1.85 billion with the express intention of selling off legacy titles like TimeFortune, and SI, while seeing an opportunity to capitalize on People.

As the Washington Post story on the SI acquisition describes, Authentic Brands “holds the licensing and trademark rights to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali. The company also has licensing deals with former golfer Greg Norman and retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal.” They also have licensing rights for fashion brands like Nautica and Juicy Couture.

The weirdness of this whole transaction makes it feel like a shotgun wedding. In it, Meredith does not get an attractive sale price nor a clean break from the publication they sought to sell for over a year. Their stock price fell over 4% on Monday on the news. Authentic Brands probably gets a bargain, but the nature of the deal itself reveals that they don’t have enough interest in operating the core assets to figure it out themselves.

SI still produces a lot of relevant work. The annual swimsuit issue remains a major revenue driver. We’ll have to see if this arrangement is crazy enough to work.