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It’s been a rough couple of years for Sports Illustrated.

After more than six decades as a golden child of Time Inc., the iconic magazine was sold in late 2017 to Meredith Corporation. It seemed an odd fit for the publisher of Better Homes & Gardens. Sure enough, 18 months later Meredith flipped SI to Authentic Brands Group (ABG), an outfit that calls itself a brand-development, marketing, and entertainment company.

You may not know ABG but you know its brands, which include stakes in retailers such as Brooks Brothers and Forever 21, as well as intellectual property associated with celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Muhammed Ali. What, you may ask, does that mean? Well, last year ABG struck a deal with Better Choice, a company operating in what is known as the “animal health and wellness” space, to launch a line of cannabidiol products for pets under the Elvis Presley Hound Dog brand. Slip Mr. Pickles a CBD chew before you go walkies, I suppose, to take the terror out of your terrier.

ABG didn’t have any experience running a magazine, but that didn’t matter, because it simply turned around and licensed the Sports Illustrated brand to yet another company: Maven, a digital-media startup out of Seattle.

Maven quickly laid off a bunch of the SI work force and tried to replace them with a “contributor model” network of cheap and often inexperienced freelancers. Critics say the moves cut the legs out from under the magazine’s rigorous editorial standards and led to plagiarism, shoddy reporting and contributors with questionable ethical standards. Sometimes, the content is frankly embarrassing. Last December, Maven slashed SI’s print-publication schedule from biweekly to monthly.

Readers noticed. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, print circulation dropped from 2.8 million in May, 2019, to less than 1.9 million by June, 2020, a loss of about 33 per cent.

All of which evidently made Maven hungry for what Canadian businessman Graeme Roustan was bringing to the table. Roustan, the former chair of Bauer Hockey and the founder of private-equity firm Roustan Capital, had bought The Hockey News from Quebecor Media Inc. in January, 2018. Last fall, he says he got a LinkedIn message from Ross Levinsohn, the new CEO of Sports Illustrated, asking if he might be interested in selling.

“I said, no, of course; it’s not for sale,” Roustan told me in an interview. “Never for sale. I’m going to die with this thing.” But he and Levinsohn kept talking, and last month they launched a partnership under which The Hockey News became the exclusive provider of hockey-related content for Sports Illustrated.

The appeal for SI is obvious. After decades of stellar hockey coverage – even William Faulkner once wrote a short piece in 1955, a dreamy riff about going to a Rangers-Canadiens game at Madison Square Garden – the sport had all but disappeared from the magazine. Maven’s contributor model had been a laughable substitute for the pros who used to fill its pages. With The Hockey News, SI gets the legitimacy of a legacy brand, without the overhead and headaches that might come from adding staff.

For Roustan, the move is more of a marketing play than it is a search for digital ad revenue. (Facebook and Google have disabused most publishers of the fantasy of ever making real money in that realm.) SI.com/hockey has been replaced by The Hockey News website, complete with subscription offers for that magazine. Roustan says The Hockey News has about 68,000 subscribers, perhaps 30 per cent of whom are in the United States, so gaining access to tens of millions of digital SI readers could be a boon.

“There is going to be a conversion rate, it’s going to be tiny, but adding 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 print subscribers in the U.S. brings us U.S. dollars,” Roustan says. “And I think, in Canada, we’ve sort of – I don’t want to say ‘maxed out,’ but everybody knows about The Hockey News in Canada. To expand the brand in the U.S. market – we’ll see how it comes out, but I thought it was a terrific platform.”

Since buying The Hockey News, Roustan says he’s invested millions of dollars in the brand: relocating the staff from a bland office in Toronto’s north end to a modern HQ near Scotiabank Arena, better to nab video interviews with hockey players and executives passing through the neighbourhood (pre-COVID-19); beefing up the paper stock and binding of the magazine, for a more pleasurable tactile experience; and boosting the page count.

“You can never cut your way to growing a brand,” he said. “You have to invest in it.”

Still, he knows – the media business being what it is – The Hockey News is unlikely to turn much of a profit. “My goal every year is to make zero,” he says. “I don’t look at [the spending over the past three years] as a loss, I look at it as an investment.”

“I’ve made enough money in my lifetime to be able to have indulgences,” he adds. “Some guys, they work their lives, they make a lot of money, they collect Ferrari cars. But for me, The Hockey News, I’ve been a reader for more than 50 years.” His brother and cousin are both journalists. “It’s in our blood, a little bit.”

Roustan’s next move is to build out what he calls a franchise network of 32 sites, one for each NHL team co-owned by himself and a local bureau chief, who ideally would be a former newspaper beat writer cast aside when their outlet cut back on hockey coverage. He expects to launch the first site – covering the Toronto Maple Leafs, naturally – next month, with the other six Canadian team sites to follow. The timing of the 25 U.S. site launches will depend on when the NHL’s 2020-21 season actually begins.

That content may soon be appearing in more places than just SI.com. Over the summer, there were rumblings that NordStar Capital, the private-equity company that bought Torstar Corp., had taken a run at The Hockey News, perhaps as a way to beef up its appeal in several local markets as it tries to expand the Toronto Star’s audience across the country. Roustan confirmed he’d been approached by NordStar but told it, as he’d said to Levinsohn, that The Hockey News was not for sale.

Still, he acknowledged he is now in what he calls "advanced talks” with “one of Canada’s largest newspapers” on a growth initiative. That seems likely to be an SI-style partnership with the Star.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve sent e-mails to NordStar principal Jordan Bitove and Toronto Star publisher John Boynton, and sent e-mails and placed calls to a Toronto Star spokesperson. No one has yet responded, so we can’t know for certain how The Hockey News fits into their The Star’s new vision.

It’s been a rough few years for The Star. Maybe more hockey coverage could help save an important institution. Whatever the case, it’s going to be a wild ride. It might want to have a few Hound Dog chews on hand, in case things get bumpy.

Editor’s note: Meredith Corporation acquired Sports Illustrated in late 2017, not late 2018, and sold it to Authentic Brands Group about 18 months later, not six months later. Maven, the company that currently publishes Sports Illustrated, is based in Seattle, not Silicon Valley. It cut the magazine’s print publication from biweekly - not weekly – to monthly.

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