US swim star Michael Phelps, left, and Milorad Cavic hold a famous Sports Illustrated photo of their 100m butterfly photo finish, in which Phelps won gold at the 2008 Olympics, a sign of the iconic nature of the magazine which had its staff fired

New York (AFP) - Staff at Sports Illustrated, the famed American sports magazine that became a fixture for athletes and fans, were laid off on Friday by publisher The Arena Group, according to the SI employees union.

Arena group missed a licensing rights payment to brand owner Authentic Brands Group (ABG), which ended its deal with Arena, prompting layoff notices being sent.

“Earlier today, the workers of Sports Illustrated were notified that The Arena Group is planning to lay off a significant number, possibly all, of the Guild-represented workers at SI, a result of ABG revoking Arena’s license to publish SI,” the union said in a statement.

“This is another difficult day in what has been a difficult four years for Sports Illustrated under Arena Group stewardship.

“We are calling upon ABG to ensure the continued publication of SI and allow it to serve our audience in the way it has for nearly 70 years.”

Authentic, which bought Sports Illustrated publishing rights for $110 million from Meredith in 2019, told AFP in a statement that SI will continue its activities but gave no further details.

A notice sent to staffers by Arena said it would “be laying off staff that work on the SI brand.”

“Some employees will be terminated immediately… and paid in lieu of the applicable notice period under the (union contract). Employees with a last working day of today will be contacted.

“Other employees will be expected to work through the end of the notice period.”

On Thursday, Arena announced it was terminating 100 employees after incurring substantial debt on its way to a more streamlined business model.

It was uncertain what Authentic’s plans were for the SI brand.

Sports Illustrated, which had suffered earlier rounds of layoffs, struggled with the transition to the digital age from the print area, where being featured on its cover was considered a milestone achievement for athletes.

SI’s Swimsuit Issue became famous for superstar models and athletes in swimwear, with photographs made in exotic locations all over the world.

The first issue debuted in August 1954 showing a Major League Baseball image of Milwaukee Braves batter Eddie Matthews at home plate with a backdrop of the huge stands at County Stadium in Milwaukee.

SI was a hit for its color photographs and the long-form stories that accompanied the pictures – visual and written storytelling that became an industry standard.

A myth grew about the SI cover jinx when teams would be featured on the front of the magazine only to suffer a major loss or injury soon after.

Among the athletes featured the most on SI covers are retired NBA legend Michael Jordan, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, NBA superstar LeBron James, 15-time major golf champion Tiger Woods and retired NBA star Magic Johnson.

Sports teams featured most often on the magazine’s cover include the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, MLB’s New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals and the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.