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Marketing company buys Sports Illustrated’s licensing rights for $110 million

Marketing and brand development company Authentic Brands Group has purchased the intellectual property of Sports Illustrated from Meredith Corporation for $110 million, the companies announced Monday night. The sale is not a traditional exchange of assets but instead creates an unusual partnership to steward the country’s most iconic legacy sports magazine.

Meredith will continue to print the magazine and manage the editorial side of Sports Illustrated for at least two years as part of the deal, people with knowledge of the agreement told The Washington Post, while Authentic Brands will license the magazine’s brand and all of its content. That could include a litany of offerings such as SI for Kids-branded youth sports camps or SI-branded athletic equipment such as foosball or ping-pong tables. Authentic Brands will also be able to license and monetize nearly 60 years worth of Sports Illustrated photography and magazine covers.

“SI is worth a heck of a lot more than $110 million, and thank God we got it for that price,” Authentic Brands CEO Jamie Salter wrote in an email. “It’s one of the best sports assets on the planet. It’s got heritage, authenticity and it represents the true athletes.”

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; basketball clinics with O’Neal and golf trips with Norman would be potential cross-promotional licensing opportunities. Salter also highlighted sports gambling as an area he plans to explore.

Authentic Brands has never licensed a media company, though, and most of its holdings are in the fashion industry, where it owns licensing rights to Nautica and Juicy Couture. That makes the marriage a strange one for a publication that debuted in 1954 from magazine magnate Henry Luce. The weekly glossy quickly became the pinnacle of sports writing — home to writers such as Frank Deford and Dan Jenkins — as well as its annual swimsuit issue. In recent years, Sports Illustrated has fallen on harder times, along with much of the magazine industry, and it was slow to adapt to a digital world as advertising revenue dwindled and audiences moved online.

What the sale means to the journalism of Sports Illustrated is harder to say. The magazine remains profitable, and Meredith and Authentic Brands reached a profit-sharing agreement, the people familiar with the arrangement said. But at the end of the two year-agreement, Meredith has the right to walk away from the deal, which would leave Authentic Brands looking for an editor and publisher in a difficult industry. (The print version of the magazine will continue to be published over that time.) Last month, ESPN announced its flagship magazine would stop publishing a print edition because it was not profitable.

Salter said journalists at the magazine should not be worried. “Meredith has obligations to invest in SI,” he wrote. “To reporters who work there, I would say to fasten their seatbelts and get ready to kick some butt. Sports Illustrated is going to see some significant growth. We’re preserving the journalistic integrity and excellence. Sports Illustrated is a respected outlet and we’re going to continue that legacy.”

Added a Sports Illustrated writer: “If you’re leasing a boat, I would think you’d want to make sure the boat is seaworthy.”

Asked specifically whether Sports Illustrated would prioritize investigative stories, Salter wrote: “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.”

Sports Illustrated has had a peripatetic several years. Meredith, based in Des Moines, bought Time Inc. in 2017 for $1.8 billion and immediately put legacy titles Time Magazine, Fortune and Sports Illustrated up for sale because they did not fit with the company’s lifestyle-themed publications, such as People Magazine.

Meredith sold Time to Salesforce’s Marc and Lynne Benioff for $190 million, and Fortune to Thai businessman Chatchaval Jiaravanon for $150 million. Louisville-based businessman and former NBA player Junior Bridgeman was a leading candidate to purchase Sports Illustrated last year but could not put together the financing to complete the deal, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

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