How Ross Levinsohn and Sports Illustrated's New Premium Membership Model Benefits Its Readers
As of February 2, 2021, like many of its industry peers, Sports Illustrated moved to a digital premium membership model.
Authentic Brands Group (ABG) acquired Sports Illustrated in 2019. A few weeks later, it licensed the print and digital rights for Sports Illustrated to Maven in a $110 million agreement that stands for 100 years.
With the media space evolving so quickly, Sports Illustrated’s new leadership, Maven Inc. and Ross Levinsohn, realized that advertising dollars had a minimal impact on the publisher’s growth. Alternative methods like a paywall ensure that premier magazines like Sports Illustrated stay strong by offering a better reader experience.
Based in Seattle, Maven (MVEN) is a coalition of more than 300 media publisher brands. The corporation uses shared publishing, distribution, and monetization tools for the brands under its umbrella, which include publishers like History.com and Maxim.
A behemoth of the digital publishing world, Maven reaches more than 150 million people every month. After acquiring the rights to Sports Illustrated from ABG in 2019, Maven is focusing on helping the brand grow its subscription revenue with top-tier content.
After acquiring the rights to Sports Illustrated, Maven tapped Sports Illustrated’s CEO, Ross Levinsohn, to lead Maven through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
About Ross Levinsohn
Today, Ross Levinsohn serves as the CEO for both Sports Illustrated and Maven. With over 35 years of experience, Levinsohn brings deep expertise from the worlds of publishing, finance, and technology to both brands.
Ross Levinsohn earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from American University. He has served as the president of Fox Interactive Media, executive VP and interim CEO of Yahoo!, CEO of Guggenheim Digital Media, CEO of Tribune Interactive, and an on-air contributor for CNBC. Levinsohn has also served as a strategist and consultant for high-profile media brands.
Since August of 2020, Levinsohn has revamped Maven’s high-profile publishing brands to stay on the bleeding edge of quality content.
From Print to Paywall: The Future of Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated released its first issue on August 16, 1954. In the 67 years since, Sports Illustrated has proven itself as one of the most premier magazines in U.S. history. In addition to featuring greats like Mickey Mantle and Muhammad Ali, Sports Illustrated earned the National Magazine Award twice.
Created by Times co-founder Henry Luce, Sports Illustrated quickly became the biggest weekly sports magazine in the country’s history. Over the past six decades, the magazine has continued its great legacy of real-time, on-the-ground news coverage for sports around the world. Sports Illustrated evolved to transform mere moments in time into cultural phenomena, reporting on history as it was being made.
Although Sports Illustrated launched its website in 1997, the industry has changed in the decades since. Sports Illustrated is turning away from a revenue-based advertising model and embracing premium memberships. “We experienced unprecedented circumstances in 2020,” says Ross Levinsohn. “We’re making forward-thinking changes to thrive in a volatile market.”
How the Sports Illustrated Paywall Works
As of February 2, 2021, Sports Illustrated is using a metered paywall model. Every user receives five free articles every month. Levinson says that the publisher doesn’t limit views on breaking news, FanNation content, or SI Swimsuit posts.
After viewing your last free Sports Illustrated article for the month, you can subscribe for a digital premium membership with unlimited access to content.
The premium subscription includes:
- Premium stories, videos, podcasts, and photos.
- The SI Vault, the magazine’s digital archive that dates back to its first issue.
- Early access to stories each month.
- A customized newsletter.
- Audio versions of select stories.
Premium membership is $7.99 billed monthly for both digital and print access. Annual billing is $5.83 per month or $69 for one year. Every membership includes access to both digital and print content.
Why Is There a Paywall?
While many publishers share free content laden with ads, Ross Levinsohn and the Maven leadership team felt that implementing a paywall was the best option for Sports Illustrated. The publisher moved toward a premium subscription model largely because:
- The industry is moving toward paywalls: Even large publishers like Hearst and Condé Nast are implementing paywalls. This model is an affordable way to support content efforts in an ad-free environment that focuses on quality journalism.
- Readers want better content: In spite of the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic, readers are consuming more digital content. Although digital content is plentiful, it isn’t always trustworthy or high quality. A paywall allows for premium storytelling from a trusted source on sports journalism.
- Advertising revenue is too unpredictable: While advertising revenue can be profitable, solely relying on ads opens publishers up to big fluctuations in the market. This isn’t a sustainable model for publishers interested in building long-term legacies, like Sports Illustrated.
- Ads limit the reader experience: Readers hate ads. Ads get in the way of content, leading to a frustrating and slow experience for readers. In this way, an advertising model limits Sports Illustrated’s ability to tell compelling stories.
Ross Levinsohn and the Maven team chose this path for Sports Illustrated based on consumers’ shifting preferences. In a world of 24/7 news, premium subscriptions allow Sports Illustrated to cover important stories for discerning readers.
This switch to a premium model won’t be without its benefits.
“We’re hiring more editorial staff to improve our global coverage,” Levinsohn says. Since storytelling is such an important component of Sports Illustrated’s content, Levinsohn’s team is focusing on onboarding reputable journalists to improve the magazine’s coverage. Sports Illustrated is improving its real-time sports coverage around the world, hiring top-tier talent and journalists like Chris Alameida, Howard Beck, Kate Fagan, and Michael Pena.
Thanks to the switch, Sports Illustrated will have the support to take readers deeper inside the game, getting closer to the biggest events in sports. With more resources and insider scoops, Sports Illustrated can be there 24/7 in print, video, podcasts, and more.
Although COVID-19 led to big changes in the global economy, Maven and Ross Levinsohn implemented changes to ensure Sports Illustrated’s existence for decades to come. Despite many changes to the online space, Levinsohn wasn’t willing to compromise content quality. Moving forward, Sports Illustrated’s premium subscription model promises to not only secure another 67 years of hard-hitting reports but also inspire a rebirth of high-quality journalism.
iHeartMedia and Sports Illustrated Create New Podcast Deal
iHeartMedia is the number one podcast publisher in the world and as of the end of July, they have struck a deal with Sports Illustrated and Sports Illustrated Studios to create eight new podcasts. The deal will commit iHeartMedia to distribute Sports Illustrated’s existing podcasts as well. Two of the eight podcasts should launch in the first quarter of 2022.
An Overview of Some of the New Podcasts
The Sports Illustrated podcasts are expected to be editorial and sports analysis podcasts. The Sports Illustrated Studies (“SI Studios”) podcasts will work with producer 101 Studies and Sports Illustrated owner, Authentic Brands Group, to create scripted podcasts as well as limited series and narrative shows.
One of the podcasts from SI Studios will be a true-crime podcast called Lateral Damage, a story about football player Mariet Ford (News - Alert), who was later convicted of murdering his son and pregnant wife. The podcast will explore the effect of the murder on Ford’s friends, family, and affiliates, particularly considering that Ford has maintained his innocence for nearly 25 years.
Sports Illustrated will launch a sports news show called Sports Illustrated Weekly later this year. This 45-minute podcast will take a deep dive into the latest sports news of that week.
The new podcasts will appeal to a wide variety of listeners, both sports fans and those who enjoy storytelling alike.
A New Type of Venture
David Hutkin, COO of 101 Studios, states: “[T]his venture allows us to introduce audiences to the most memorable events in sports history in unexpected ways, which is precisely the foundation of SI Studios. With this new partnership, Sports Illustrated, the most trusted brand in sports, and iHeartMedia, the industry’s leading podcast publisher and distributor, we have the unique opportunity to tell these historic, remarkable stories to audiences globally.”
Today, Sports Illustrated reaches more than 50 million monthly visitors across all of its platforms. Ross Levinsohn, CEO of Sports Illustrated, states that this partnership with iHeartMedia is the best way to expand Sports Illustrated’s content. He explains: “iHeart has proven to be a dynamic platform to reach audiences across genres and mediums, and the opportunity to showcase the exceptional voices of Sports Illustrated is paramount to us.”