Ross Levinsohn, CEO of both Maven and Sports Illustrated, offers the business world a unique perspective on the persistence of print media in an increasingly digital world.
Traditional media, Levinsohn says, has an unappreciated long shelf life. While writers and publishers rush to the latest innovation, the print media turtle still has the potential to make a favorable showing in the race with the digital media hare.
Ross Levinsohn recounts George Foreman’s comment to him that he was a better boxer in his forties than in his twenties, despite losing ferocity with age. In Levinsohn’s career, he has seen three decades of the “latest thing” come and go. News organizations with true staying power iterate and adapt, Levinsohn says. Cutting-edge fads come and go, but value is built.
A career dedicated to building value
Ross Levinsohn began his career at British advertising and media giant Saatchi and Saatchi in the 1980s. He moved to a position with Lapin and Rose, then to sports marketing firm ProServe before joining HBO in 1989.
In 1996, Ross Levinsohn joined SportsLine USA, where he produced the syndicated TV program “Football Playbook” featuring NFL coaches Sam Wyche and Marv Levy, with Scott Kaplan as host. At SportsLine USA, Levinsohn also produced radio programming aired on Westwood One.
For four years beginning in 2001, Levinsohn served as Senior Vice President and General Manager at FOX Sports Interactive Media. In late 2004, he began his role as President of Fox Interactive Media and accepted ongoing operating responsibility for FOX Internet’s most highly-trafficked properties.
Under Levinsohn’s tenure at FOX, the company became the owner of some of the most heavily visited sites and highly ranked Internet pages.
Yahoo, Guggenheim Media, and the Tribune Company
In 2010, Levinsohn began his tenure as Executive Vice President for the Americas at Yahoo. Under Levinsohn’s leadership, the company invested in premium content featuring celebrities such as Tom Hanks and Robert Redford.
In 2012, Levinsohn led Yahoo for two months as its interim CEO. When the board passed him over as a permanent hire, he left the company to become CEO of Guggenheim Digital Media. At that time, Guggenheim Partners owned Billboard and Hollywood Reporter, which Levinsohn oversaw. Levinsohn also managed Adweek, the Clio Awards, and acquisitions.
Ross Levinsohn joined several boards of directors in the 2010s, including the Tribune Company as it emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He also accepted the position of director at Dex Media and Scout Media, sold to CBS Sports.
Sports Illustrated and Maven
In 2019, Levinsohn was named by New York-based digital publishing technology company Maven as CEO of Sports Illustrated. In the first year of Levinsohn’s leadership alone, despite numerous pandemic-related challenges, Sports Illustrated doubled its revenues.
Sports Illustrated had been losing millions of dollars in ad revenues until Levinsohn recognized that its 70 years of cumulated authority could be extended to other brands and products. Ross Levinsohn led Maven’s acquisition not with an eye to acquiring its writers and editorial staff (he made significant changes in the magazine’s editorial leadership), but to put the Sports Illustrated imprint on a broader range of products that previous leaders hadn’t considered, such as e-sports and gambling.
Maven could market its brand in-house, but expanding Sports Illustrated’s legacy proved more efficient under Levinsohn. As a result, the Authentic Brands Group, owner of Maven, sold $12.3 billion in branded goods in 2020, earning Levinsohn the CEO position at Maven, replacing company founder James Heckman.
The deal allowed Heckman to transition from his CEO role to advising Levinsohn on key company strategic and business development initiatives. Ross Levinsohn also secured additional funding to support Sports Illustrated and other media properties of the Authentic Brands Group, including History.com, Maxim, Ski Magazine, and Biography.
Ross Levinsohn’s Advice to Aspiring Business Leaders
Ross Levinsohn’s critical piece of advice to business leaders developing their careers: Be fearless.
Ross Levinsohn represents the personification of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in the context of modern business.Every conflict becomes a critical part of future success. No matter how the challenging career issues are resolved, you can learn from every confrontation what is necessary to be closer to your goals than your competitors.
Realize that opportunities to succeed in business occur when others are in disarray. When easy goals are available, charge ahead and grab them. When competitors seek to leave a niche, don’t get in the way of their retreat. When paths intersect, make allies.
Ross Levinsohn’s resume also illustrates another 2,500-year-old principle taught in The Art of War: Always leave yourself an avenue of retreat.
Ross Levinsohn says that the attitudes of the warrior don’t have to be, well, mercenary. When he encountered a homeless person asking for contributions to buy a meal, Levinsohn stopped his day to take the homeless person and their child to a restaurant, then bought them a meal and a gift card for several more.
Another of Levinsohn’s themes is that you don’t have to be an entrepreneur, but you must be entrepreneurial. Ross Levinsohn currently occupies not one, but two CEO positions simultaneously, because he recognized that greater profits come from the operating efficiencies of letting subsidiary companies do what they do best. He found value in the Sports Illustrated deal, leading to $12 billion in sales, in areas that competitors overlooked.
Ross Levinsohn also notes the importance of using technology without becoming enslaved to it. He comments that he uses Google Docs, Slack, and Microsoft Suite like many others in business, but when he needs kinesthetic memory of important facts and decisions, he confidently litters his desk with post-it notes.
Finally, Levinsohn counsels young executives to remain patient, listen for opportunities, and not fear trying something new. With enough practice, Levinsohn’s career illustrates, exploring new ventures will invariably lead to success.