Sports Illustrated publisher ousts CEO James Heckman after slew of controversiesAugust 27, 2020
Maven, the publisher of Sports Illustrated, the Street and other online news sites, said its embattled chief executive James Heckman will be replaced by veteran media mogul Ross Levinsohn, who most recently served as Sports Illustrated CEO.
Heckman’s relationship had lately grown strained with ABG as the licensing giant worried that controversies swirling around Sports Illustrated in recent months were damaging the magazine’s brand as it looked to make other deals with its property beyond the media world.
Last October, Heckman fired close to 50 Sports Illustrated staffers — many of them senior writers who had been with the magazine for decades — as he pushed to focus on quick-breaking news in pro and college sports instead of long-form journalism, which was a hallmark of the magazine in its heyday. The every-other-week magazine under Meredith was cut back to monthly with specials, such as the SI Swimsuit issue under Maven.
Staffers, fearful of more cuts to the venerable but struggling sports brand, voted to unionize with the News Guild of New York shortly after the deep cuts. This year, SI has nevertheless cut staff and salaries twice after the coronavirus ravaged the ad base.
Since then, Heckman has run into controversy for hosting a Blue Lives Matter website on its ad platform after the killing of George Floyd. And earlier this month, Maven got slapped with a $1 million lawsuit from Meredith, which claimed Maven still owed it unpaid fees from a six-month ownership transition. Maven counters that Meredith had padded SI’s file with recycled subscriptions from the shut-down Money magazine and that the digital traffic was overstated. The suit is still pending.
“Heckman is a deal maker and a disruptor but there is good disruption and bad disruption,” said one source close to the situation. “There are so many problems in media these days, why pick fights with Meredith, why pick fights with ABG?”
Ultimately the decision to remove Heckman was made by the board of publicly traded Maven. “I think the noise level got to be too much for the investors,” said one source.
His successor Levinsohn — a former interim CEO of Yahoo, a short-lived publisher of the Los Angeles Times and former president of Fox Digital Media — was brought in early last year when Maven acquired the rights to publish Sports Illustrated in a licensing deal with Authentic Brands Group, which purchased the iconic magazine brand from Meredith for $110 million last spring.
An announcement late Wednesday said Heckman will be an advisor to Levinsohn. Heckman, a past CEO of Rivals.com and Scout.com, had worked for Levinsohn at Fox and Yahoo.
Levinsohn has a stormy history of his own. While he was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, he was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior while running a former company. The LA Times’ then-publisher Tronc, which has renamed itself Tribune Publishing, said he was cleared after an internal investigation. He was installed as head of digital operations for Tribune while LA Times was being sold to health care billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.
In a prepared statement, Levinsohn said, “This is a unique opportunity to lead a technology and media company during a dynamic time of change in both spaces. I’m excited to partner with a powerful array of incredible brands, partners and a world-class team of executives and employees.”
In the past week, the company said it was seeking to raise $6 million in a private equity placement. According to an SEC document earlier this week, the embattled company had raised more than $2.7 million thus far, but didn’t identify the new investors. The investment bank B. Riley had been an early investor in Maven, which in addition to SI, also purchased Jim Cramer’s financial news site The Street.
“As a large shareholder, we are supportive of the Board’s decision to appoint Ross Levinsohn as CEO of the Maven,” said Kevin M. Rendino, Chief Executive of 180 DegreeCapital Corp., who also has been an investor in the Street.
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