Brian Merchant: The depressing fall of Sports Illustrated reveals the real tragedy of AI

Brian Merchant, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Quick, name five classic American magazines.

Did you say Sports Illustrated? I did. And I'm not even a sports guy. But if you're of a certain age, you know Sports Illustrated. Along with, say, People, Time and National Geographic, it has long lined the dentist offices, neighbors' doormats and coffee tables of your life. It's an institution. At one point, it boasted 3 million subscribers. It's won numerous awards and accolades. The evening news would do whole segments about its swimsuit issue.

Today, it's pumping out third-rate articles by AI-generated writers in a darkening corner of the internet. It's a stunning fall for one of the great icons of American sports journalism. So what happened? How did such a celebrated publication get here? The answers point us to one of the most pressing — and unlikely — dangers posed by the ongoing AI boom.

First, the facts: On Monday, the tech and culture site Futurism published an expose that revealed Sports Illustrated was publishing bizarre and badly written articles attributed to authors that didn't exist.

The reporters traced the fake authors' headshots to a website that sells AI-generated images, and sources told them that the stories they allegedly wrote were produced by AI, too. "The content is absolutely AI-generated," one said, "no matter how much they say that it's not." When contacted, Arena Group, Sports Illustrated's publisher, deleted all of the suspicious content and, in a statement, denied it was created by AI. Arena blamed the mess on AdVon, a third-party company hired to produce content.

The saga has been heatedly discussed by journalists and media watchers, and lamented by onetime fans of the iconic brand. Generative AI very much remains a hot-button topic, and the question of whether it's ethical — or a good idea — to use AI has driven much of the conversation.


But it's worth backing up and looking at the bigger picture here, and the conditions that led to the use of such sketchy AI in the first place. Because this story is as much about bad management, sheer laziness and how relentlessly profit-seeking corporate management can erode our cultural institutions as it is about any given technology.

Sports Illustrated was already in dire shape long before Arena brought in the AI. Amid economic challenges that confront all print media, the magazine's revenue and subscriber base declined over the 2010s. It repeatedly downsized, switched from a weekly to a monthly publication schedule and was sold by its owner, Time Inc., to a company called Authentic Brands Group, or ABG, which is in the business of inking lucrative licensing deals. ABG then sold a 10-year license to publish Sports Illustrated to our new friends at Arena Group.

As a result of this arrangement, Sports Illustrated branding is now showing up both on dietary supplements and on thousands of hastily produced blog posts. After all, on the publication side of the business, "Arena's options for generating revenue are somewhat limited, encouraging a daily churn of articles," as the New York Times reports. "Hundreds of sites dedicated to individual teams — helmed by non-staff writers paid small sums — were created with little oversight and diluted what it meant for 'Sports Illustrated' to write something." Arena has continued to fire editors and staffers, while enforcing weekly quotas of article production. (On the licensing side, business is booming — ABG says it has doubled Sports Illustrated's earnings. That's a lot of Sports Illustrated-brand diet pills. It also launched an online SI-branded casino in 2021.)

In other words, Sports Illustrated is run by not one but two vampiric entities with markedly little interest in the magazine's erstwhile core mission — you know, the thing that made it so beloved in the first place, doing good sports journalism — and every interest in maximizing profits at every opportunity. And they have squeezed the lemon until it was dry.


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