Sports Illustrated’s owner FIRES CEO Ross Levinsohn after publication used AI to produce product reviews written by fake authors

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Written By Maya Cantina
  • The magazine was accused of publishing AI-generated writing while using headshots of fake authors 
  • Levinsohn, 59, had served as CEO and publisher of SI since 2019 and ran The Arena Group since 2020 
  • He will be replaced in the interim by Manoj Bhargava, the founder and CEO of Innovations Ventures LLC, best known for 5-Hour Energy Drink 

The owners of Sports Illustrated have fired CEO Ross Levinsohn after it was accused of publishing AI-generated writing while using headshots of fake authors and creating bogus profiles. 

The Arena Group Holdings, which owns the 79-year-old periodical, made the announcement after a board of directors meeting ‘to improve the operational efficiency and revenue of the company.’

Levinsohn, 59, had served as CEO and publisher of SI since 2019 and ran The Arena Group since 2020.

He will be replaced in the interim by Manoj Bhargava, the founder and CEO of Innovations Ventures LLC, best known for 5-Hour Energy Drink.

Bhargava, who bought a majority stake in the company this past August, also owns a group of television stations.  

The owners of Sports Illustrated have fired CEO Ross Levinsohn after it was accused of publishing AI-generated writing while using headshots of fake authors and creating bogus profiles

In addition to Levinsohn, COO Andrew Kraft, media president Rob Barrett, and corporate counsel Julie Fenster have also been terminated.

However, a spokesperson for Bhargava claims this was all in the cards ahead of the scandal breaking.

‘That included significant changes with the leadership team,’ Vince Bodiford told the New York Post, changes that they hope will ‘improve the operational efficiency and the revenue of the company.’ 

Levinsohn called the company ‘positioned well for the future’ in a LinkedIn post signing off. 

‘It has been an incredible ride. We’ve been able to grow the business substantially from 10s of millions of users to more than 100 million and 10s of millions of revenue to hundreds of millions. We’ve grown in every key category and added brands like SI, The Street, Parade, Men’s Journal, Powder and Surfer to our platform to help create a major digital player.’

He made no mention of the controversy, saying that he’s ‘most proud’ of the team he built. 

The legacy magazine was called out for the content – which was allegedly written by nonexistent authors. Sports Illustrated said that the work came from a ‘third party’ who assured their articles were written by humans.

An investigation conducted by Futurism found that multiple ‘authors’ with biography pages on the Sports Illustrated website were fake – including made-up interests, hobbies, and even an AI created headshot.

He will be replaced in the interim by Manoj Bhargava, the founder and CEO of Innovations Ventures LLC, best known for 5-Hour Energy Drink

He will be replaced in the interim by Manoj Bhargava, the founder and CEO of Innovations Ventures LLC, best known for 5-Hour Energy Drink

Levinsohn, 59, had served as CEO and publisher of SI since 2019 and ran The Arena Group since 2020

Levinsohn, 59, had served as CEO and publisher of SI since 2019 and ran The Arena Group since 2020

As well as the authors, some of the writing on the website’s review page was accused of sounding like it was written by an ‘alien’ – with bizarre descriptions and formatting discrepancies.

After the magazine’s publisher, The Arena Group, was first contacted to respond to the allegations, all of the bizarre content disappeared, according to the report. 

Drew Ortiz, an alleged writer, had a profile that highlighted how he ‘has spent much of his life outdoors, and is excited to guide you through his never-ending list of the best products to keep you from falling to the perils of nature.

‘Nowadays, there is rarely a weekend that goes by where Drew isn’t out camping, hiking, or just back on his parents’ farm.’

The report alleges that Ortiz doesn’t exist – having no social media presence or publishing history. 

And his profile photo was found on a website that sells AI-generated headshots. Ortiz’s fake image is described as ‘neutral white young-adult male with short brown hair and blue eyes.’

Months ago, Ortiz’s page disappeared completely – and started redirecting to a page for someone named Sora Tanaka. Her image was also on sale on an AI website, listed as ‘joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes.’

The legacy magazine was called out for the content - which was allegedly written by nonexistent authors. Sports Illustrated said that the work came from a 'third party' who assured their articles were written by humans

The legacy magazine was called out for the content – which was allegedly written by nonexistent authors. Sports Illustrated said that the work came from a ‘third party’ who assured their articles were written by humans

One of the alleged writers' headshots is seen on a website selling AI generated photos

One of the alleged writers’ headshots is seen on a website selling AI generated photos

An investigation conducted by Futurism found that multiple 'authors' with biography pages on the Sports Illustrated website were fake - including made-up interests, hobbies, and even an AI created headshot

An investigation conducted by Futurism found that multiple ‘authors’ with biography pages on the Sports Illustrated website were fake – including made-up interests, hobbies, and even an AI created headshot

Her alleged fake description on the Sports Illustrated website read: ‘Sora has always been a fitness guru, and loves to try different foods and drinks. Ms. Tanaka is thrilled to bring her fitness and nutritional expertise to the Product Reviews Team, and promises to bring you nothing but the best of the best.’

A third, allegedly fake, writer for Sports Illustrated is Domino Abrams – whose biography said he was a stay-at-home dad. His headshot was also found to be AI generated. 

The report also claimed that their bylines would change over too – with no editor’s note giving an explanation as to why someone’s story was suddenly attributed to someone else. 

At the end of the stories, it was stated that the work was ‘created by a 3rd party,’ and the ‘Sports Illustrated editorial staff are not involved in the creation of this content.’ 

One insider told Futurism: ‘There’s a lot. I was like, what are they? This is ridiculous. This person does not exist.

‘At the bottom [of the page] there would be a photo of a person and some fake description of them like, ‘oh, John lives in Houston, Texas. He loves yard games and hanging out with his dog, Sam.’ Stuff like that. It’s just crazy.’

Another source told the outlet: ‘The content is absolutely AI-generated, no matter how much they say that it’s not.’

The Arena Group had a partnership with AdVon Commerce, the company that supplied the posts. But the publisher said it has since severed ties with the firm. 

Months ago, Ortiz's page disappeared completely - and started redirecting to the page related to someone named Sora Tanaka. Her image was also on sale, listed as 'joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes'

Months ago, Ortiz’s page disappeared completely – and started redirecting to the page related to someone named Sora Tanaka. Her image was also on sale, listed as ‘joyful asian young-adult female with long brown hair and brown eyes’

Sora Tanaka's headshot is seen on an AI website

Sora Tanaka’s headshot is seen on an AI website

In a statement to Variety, an Arena Group spokesperson said: ‘The articles in question were product reviews and were licensed content from an external, third-party company, AdVon Commerce. 

‘A number of AdVon’s e-commerce articles ran on certain Arena websites. We continually monitor our partners and were in the midst of a review when these allegations were raised. 

‘AdVon has assured us that all of the articles in question were written and edited by humans.

‘According to AdVon, their writers, editors and researchers create and curate content and follow a policy that involves using both counter-plagiarism and counter-AI software on all content. 

‘However, we have learned that AdVon had writers use a pen or pseudo name in certain articles to protect author privacy — actions we don’t condone — and we are removing the content while our internal investigation continues and have since ended the partnership.’

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