Shortly after Wahl made the announcement, James Heckman, CEO of SI’s publisher, Maven, emailed the SI staff and criticized Wahl.
“Every senior staff member volunteered to put their personal budgeted future at risk, to save jobs and ensure stable salaries for those making less,” Heckman wrote in a memo that was shared with The Washington Post. “Everyone, that is, but one person. That person made $350,000 last year to infrequently write stories that generated little meaningful viewership or revenue.”
On Twitter, Wahl said he was willing to take a temporary pay cut, his base salary was less than what Heckman cited (though he did receive a bonus), and that he writes frequently.
1) I told Maven I was fine taking a 30% pay cut during the pandemic. But it was shameful to try to push through a permanent 30% cut beyond the pandemic.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) April 10, 2020
2) My base salary was far below that, but I got a bonus because my bosses said my work was very good.
3) I write frequently. https://t.co/Q5BvV2CTeg
In 2020, Wahl wrote in-depth stories about former U.S. national team star Jermaine Jones and Liverpool Manager Jürgen Klopp — in addition to regular columns. He filmed regular videos and hosted a twice-weekly podcast. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, he delivered stories about former U.S. men’s national team coach Bob Bradley and former U.S. women’s national team star Carli Lloyd.
The tone of Heckman’s email left an already gutted newsroom stunned.
“To fire one of our best people and then to send out an email lying about him is beyond the pale,” one staffer said. “He worked here for 24 years, and he was the best in the country at what he did.”
The Sports Illustrated Union released a statement Friday night decrying Heckman’s email as a smear against Wahl and criticizing Maven for verbally promising to double severance payments during the pandemic before backtracking. Maven has yet to voluntarily recognize the union, and staffers plan to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.
Wahl declined to comment, and Heckman did not respond to an email seeking comment. According to people familiar with the chain of events, Wahl had a call last week with SI and Maven executives after the company announced staff-wide layoffs. Maven projected a $30 million budget shortfall this year in the wake of the economic downturn — and sports hiatus — amid the pandemic.
Wahl said he was willing to take a 30 percent pay cut during the pandemic but balked at a permanent salary reduction. A Maven executive said he was interested in pursuing a new contract for Wahl with the pay cut plus financial incentives based on page views. Following the conversation, Wahl posted messages to Instagram, reading, “Who would take advantage of a pandemic to permanently reduce someone’s salary beyond that pandemic? Maven and James Heckman would.”
Just days later, Wahl was fired and told he would not receive any severance. According to a person with knowledge of Wahl’s plans, he is contemplating legal action.
In his tenure at Sports Illustrated, Wahl carved out a niche as one of the preeminent soccer writers in the country, covering World Cups, European soccer and the sport’s growth in the United States. His exit comes days after celebrated NBA writer Chris Ballard was laid off, further depleting the magazine’s stable of accomplished writers.
Maven, a digital media company that publishes a constellation of websites, bought the publishing rights to Sports Illustrated last fall. As part of the transfer from magazine publisher Meredith Corp. to Maven, around 40 staffers were laid off.
Maven’s contracts with Sports Illustrated staffers contain a provision that they are not entitled to severance for time worked if they are let go after July 1, which has left many writers fearful of further staff cuts this summer.