Sports Illustrated’s ex-publisher makes pitch to create SI-branded TV channel: sources

The Sports Illustrated publisher whose license was revoked last month has made a pitch to revive the iconic brand even as he continues to gut its magazine — and his plan includes the creation of an SI-branded TV channel, The Post has learned.

Arena Group, led by Five-Hour Energy founder Manoj Bhargava, would cough up a bit more than the $15 million a year in licensing fees it had balked at paying Authentic Brand Group’s Jamie Salter to pull off the unusual pivot, two sources close to the situation told The Post.

Arena sparked an uproar after announcing it will fire most of SI’s unionized staff — including the few remaining high-profile writers — after failing to make a $3.5 million quarterly payment to ABG. It gave the staff a mandatory 90-day notice of the mass layoffs and continues to update the SI website.

Manoj Bhargava bought Arena partly so he could turn SI into a TV channel, sources said. Str/EPA/Shutterstock

But Arena also owns Bridge Media Networks, which includes a 24/7 network called Sports News Highlights, a low-budget, mostly digital channel that plays a 30-minute loop in midsize and a few major markets like Detroit and Los Angeles.

SNH currently plays on SI’s website, but Bhargava wants to rebrand the channel as SITV and hire on-air talent to improve the broadcasts, sources said. The goal would be to find a home for SITV with cable operators as major sports networks like ESPN move toward a standalone app model, the insider added.

Salter has also been in talks about licensing the rights to Minute Media, owner of the Derek Jeter-founded blog Player’s Tribune — which is offering less money but would more likely maintain the 70-year-old magazine’s traditional model and many of its writers, a source familiar with the negotiations said.

Salter is expected to make a decision within the next few weeks, the source added.

Arena Group declined comment, as did Authentic Brands and Minute Media.

There is plenty off bad blood between Barghava and Salter after Arena reneged on the licensing fee. Authentic is owed $45 million on the current contract.

When Bhargava demanded a lower licensing fee, “I told him to f–k off,” Salter had told the Washington Post.

Salter is deciding whether to trust Bhargava to run an SI sports channel. David McGlynn

The feuding moguls have been going round for round since. Bhargava even admitted an illustration by The Post of the two in a boxing ring hit close to the mark during an interview with Arena-owned TheStreet this month.

“We went at each other for a little bit,” he said. “I’d say some of that boxing stuff might have been a little accurate.”

Bhargava called Salter a “tough old guy,” but predicted he would accept Arena’s offer.

“The contract will be for different things,” Bhargava said in the Feb. 16 interview. “Jamie is going to come out better than he was but then again so will we.”

Bhargava hinted that he would retain some of the 82 unionized workers that are about to lose their jobs but that there isn’t enough money to keep marquee writers like Tom Verducci, Jon Wertheim, Chris Mannix, Greg Bishop and Pat Forde.

The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue gets a lot of attention but is not a major SI revenue generator, sources said. Getty Images for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit

“We looked at a different path and we looked at the cost structure. We just couldn’t afford these great journalists,” Bhargava told TheStreet.

“Those days when people are paying for those [great articles] are not here anymore.”

SI union reps, however, fear for the future of the publication if Salter accepts Arena’s plans.

“It is time for ABG to prove that it is interested in more than simply milking Sports Illustrated’s name for profit,” the union said.

Bhargava will likely fire baseball writer Tom Verducci if he becomes SI’s publisher. Getty Images

“It must ensure a future for SI that respects not only the history of the institution but the workers who make the brand’s success possible.”

In in its heyday, SI had a circulation of 3 million a week, but has been reduced to 12 issues a year — for an annual fee of $20. There are also about seven annual special issues.

Illustration by The Post showed Manoj Barghava (left) and Jamie Salter (right) fighting over a new licensing agreement.

Arena does not break out how many print subscribers remain.

Arena made a small profit from SI’s print and digital versions and the brand generates more than $100 million in annual revenue, sources said.

On Feb. 14, Bhargava invested an additional $12 million in Arena to give his firm a 54.5% stake.