Inside TheMaven’s Plan To Turn Sports Illustrated Into A Rickety Content Mill

Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)Now that Sports Illustrated’s three owners, Meredith Corp., Authentic Brands Group, and TheMaven, have completed the callous layoff of half of Sports Illustrated’s newsroom and finalized a deal that gives control of the publication to TheMaven, a wannabe tech company helmed by notorious scumbags Ross Levinsohn and James Heckman, the future…

Inside TheMaven’s Plan To Turn Sports Illustrated Into A Rickety Content Mill

Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)Now that Sports Illustrated’s three owners, Meredith Corp., Authentic Brands Group, and TheMaven, have completed the callous layoff of half of Sports Illustrated’s newsroom and finalized a deal that gives control of the publication to TheMaven, a wannabe tech company helmed by notorious scumbags Ross Levinsohn and James Heckman, the future of Sports Illustrated is coming into focus. It’s not pretty.TheMaven, which instigated the tortured layoffs of dozens of people on Thursday, claims it will continue to carry on Sports Illustrated’s tradition of high-quality journalism while simultaneously launching hundreds of content farms to churn out “local sports news.” It will use a model similar to that of the SB Nation team sites, now the subject of two federal collective action lawsuits; FanSided, Sports Illustrated’s last exploitative appendage; and Rivals.com and Scout.com, irrelevant and failed ventures, respectively, that were both championed by Levinsohn and Heckman in the early 2000s. As foolish as it may seem, the broverlords in charge of the venerated Sports Illustrated brand are dusting off the same bad idea yet again: TheMaven wants to build out a network of SI-branded Maven “team communities” that will drive traffic through a combination of cynical SEO ploys, news aggregation, and low-paid and unpaid labor. This isn’t the first time that Levinsohn, now the CEO of Sports Illustrated, has tried to impose this particular terrible and exploitative idea on a newsroom. Back in 2017, as the newly installed publisher of the 138-year-old Los Angeles Times, Levinsohn attempted to turn the paper into a contributor network, but his plan was ultimately nixed after he was placed on administrative leave due to allegations of sexual harassment. Two years later with Sports Illustrated, Levinsohn is getting a second chance at ruining a prestigious publication. In conversations with Deadspin, several sources who were pitched jobs running Maven team sites under Sports Illustrated branding described a bleak scenario. They said they were told they would earn between $25,000 and $30,000 per year, with vague opportunities to make extra money by hitting “traffic bonuses.” They would be expected to post three “news videos” per day to their site—they were to wear Maven polo shirts in these videos—as well as hundreds of posts per month. The message was clear: Quantity over quality. Prospective Maven “partners” were told by company execs that if they had trouble creating enough content, they should go to the nearest college and find eager young students who would write for free. These Maven partners would also be required to register themselves as an LLC, presumably so TheMaven would avoid any SB Nation–like legal liability for misclassifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees. Multiple sportswriters, all of whom spoke to Deadspin about their experiences with TheMaven on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, compared the company’s executives to “snake oil salesmen.” The situation described by these sources is further fleshed out by a 60-minute video and slideshow presentation and a “Maven coalition partner contract” that have been obtained by Deadspin. This presentation was shown to potential recruits for the new Maven SI venture, and it details exactly how the people now in charge of Sports Illustrated plan on turning it into the sort of volume-driven content farm that ruled the web a dozen or so tweaks of the Google algorithm ago.The executives now in charge of Sports Illustrated don’t see any problem with gutting and reinventing a revered publication because they don’t believe anyone is actually a fan of the magazine. Here’s what TheMaven COO Bill Sornsin said in the hour-long presentation on the company’s plan:“Sports Illustrated is known for its iconic brand, award-winning journalists, amazing longform stories, great videos, and apparently there’s something to do with swimsuits that I don’t fully understand. […] What’s new, though, is the recognition—and, you know, we kind of pioneered this with the original Rival and Scout networks—is that nobody is actually a fan of ESPN or Sports Illustrated. They’re a fan of the New York Giants, or the Iowa Hawkeyes or what have you. They’re a fan of their team. And therefore it’s, you know, their interest is intense and it’s not actually possible, as ESPN has discovered and adjusted to recently, its not actually possible to cover the Iowa Hawkeyes in depth unless you’ve got an entrepreneur on the ground in Iowa City covering it intensely. Same is true for the Arizona Cardinals, the Washington Huskies, you name it. What fans want is way deeper than what any national site will ever provide with a centralized staff. So our vision, and this is where you come in, is that entrepreneurs run these team-specific sites. People who are all Hawkeyes all the time or all Jets all the time. And are covering their team on an intense basis, and equally importantly are fostering an intense community of fans who come back to the site everyday.”These are high expectations for people being paid less than $15 per hour, who have no benefits or security, and who don’t get additional money to travel with the teams they cover. Still, some aspiring writers and established journalists with other gigs were curious about the opportunity. That curiosity didn’t last long. “They were selling a content mill,” said one source who spoke to TheMaven about running a team site. “It was pretty obvious.”When another source was first contacted by an editor from Sports Illustrated about becoming a beat writer for an NBA team, he was interested. Then he spoke to TheMaven SVP of business development Mark Pattison and watched a version of the presentation obtained by Deadspin.“I watched the presentation and it became clear that they’re all about volume and pumping out cheap click-bait stuff,” he said. “I don’t think it was Mark, but another Maven guy [on the call] was like, ‘Yeah if you need help with volume you could go on college campuses and solicit free help.’” Another source confirmed that this advice was given during the presentation he watched.All the sources said that it was clear that “beat writer” was not the appropriate description for the job they were being asked to do, which also included moderating comments on the site, selling advertisements, and managing and promoting “premium subscriptions” for their site. The emphasis on video was also a turn-off for some writers; TheMaven executives, parroting one of the most frequently repeated canards in media, claimed that video should be a high priority because “video monetizes at a much higher rate.” For one source, the final straw came when they were told they would have to register as an LLC.“This is not as simple as being an independent contractor,” the person said. “It’s a requirement to be an LLC.”A different source confirmed the LLC requirement, saying that the exec he talked to slipped it in as a “side note.”“He was like, ‘Yeah, so if you’re ready to go we’ll have you set up an LLC,’” the source said, adding that the offer came with no benefits. “And no outside financial editorial support. No money to travel with the team or anything.” Curiously, the LLC registration was not always a part of the pitch Maven “partners” received. One source who spoke to Deadspin said he was approached by Pattison in April 2019, before the Sports Illustrated sale was part of the conversation, at least publicly (Meredith entertained an offer from TheMaven and Junior Bridgeman before selling to ABG). This person said he was offered only $12,000 per year, and that Pattison said nothing about an LLC. The source also noted that at that time, TheMaven was touting its Blue Lives Matter site as an example of success.It’s unclear whether the increased pay and LLC requirement made their way into later versions of the presentation as a result of ABG and SI’s involvement with TheMaven. Sornsin said in the 60-minute pitch that sometimes Sports Illustrated national staff would “pick up a story” and put a “national spin on it,” but that they would link back to the team sites in those cases. He said this “technique” worked really well for Fox Sports and Scout, which elides the fact that Scout was a failure and that Fox Sports gave up on its digital presence years ago. Sornsin said that this is “great for everybody” because “it gives SI more depth and it gives YOU more exposure and more traffic, and to the user it gives them that really in-depth team coverage that they’re never going to get from a national site.”From here, Sornsin delved into his explanation of the soon-to-be-launched “contributor flow,” a casually dystopian wrinkle that amounts to random internet commenters and SEO robots writing stories for Sport
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