The union representing the staff of Sports Illustrated filed an unfair labor practice charge against the magazine’s publisher, alleging it engaged in illegal union-busting tactics when it sent layoff notices to all of the unionized staff, according to a copy of the complaint reviewed by The Washington Post.
Nearly all Sports Illustrated staffers received layoff notices from the Arena Group this month, devastating the 70-year-old magazine that once set the standard for sports journalism. Most of the staffers were told their jobs would be eliminated in 90 days, but a few were laid off immediately.
The move came amid a multimillion-dollar dispute between SI owner Authentic Brands Group and the Arena Group, which has an agreement to license the magazine’s rights.
According to the complaint, the NewsGuild alleges Arena fired employees because of their “support of the Union engagement in Union activities and/or engagement in other protected activities.” In a statement, the guild said managers and supervisors who are not eligible for the guild were not targeted by the layoffs. The statement also noted a staffer who has an unresolved labor grievance against the company as well as a union officer were among those let go immediately. (Sports Illustrated had around 80 unionized staffers.)
The charge was filed with the National Labor Relations Board’s New York office. The NLRB will conduct an investigation and decide whether the charge has merit. If it does, it could urge the parties to mediate a settlement or award restitution.
“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,” said Susan DeCarava, president of the NewsGuild of New York. “Filing an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board is just the first step as we continue to explore all options for our membership.”
The Arena Group declined to comment. Its former CEO, Ross Levinsohn, who resigned from Arena’s board of directors the day of the layoffs, said union-busting was one of the reasons he quit.
“Today’s obliteration of Sports Illustrated’s storied newsroom and the union busting tactics is the last straw,” he wrote to the board. “These actions and the inaction of this board are illegal, riddled with self-dealing, and will almost certainly lead to shareholder lawsuits.”
The process for an NLRB grievance to be settled can be lengthy, possibly taking more than a year.
While the grievance is adjudicated, the future of the storied publication remains uncertain. Sports Illustrated has been owned since 2019 by Authentic Brands Group, a licensing company best known for owning the brands to non-journalistic entities such as Elvis Presley and Billabong. The Arena Group has an agreement to pay $15 million annually for the rights to publish SI in print and online. But it missed a $3.75 million payment this month, prompting Authentic to revoke the publishing license. Arena then laid off staff.
Manoj Bhargava, founder of 5-Hour Energy, recently became the largest shareholder of Arena. In the several months since Bhargava’s arrival, Arena has fired several of its top executives (including Levinsohn), laid off 100 staffers across its publications and missed the payment to Authentic.
After Authentic revoked the publishing license, the company’s CEO, Jamie Salter, told The Post that Bhagarva had attempted to negotiate a lower licensing fee. Salter said the sides could still reach a deal on a publishing license or Authentic could sell the license to another company. Staffers have been told that if Authentic and Arena reach a new deal within 90 days, they could keep their jobs.
Salter told The Post he intends to make sure the media arm of the company continues to exist.
“Authentic is the absolute best at monetizing a brand, but the brand still has to have value,” said Michael Rosenberg, a columnist at Sports Illustrated. “If whoever is running the editorial operation has no contractual obligation to uphold the quality of the brand, they will say, ‘To hell with Jamie Salter,’ and cheapen it by cutting salaries or resorting to clickbait if they can make a buck.”