New Playboy Owners Look to Shutter Iconic Magazine

CYBERSPACE—The iconic magazine that played a key role in sparking the sexual revolution, and was the first mainstream publication to feature photographs of women in the nude, may soon be ending its historic run as a print publication—a run that has now endured nearly 65 years.

Playboy Magazine, founded in 1953 by former Esquire Magazine copywriter Hugh Hefner, sold the last shares owned by Hefner’s estate in December, just three months after Hefner—who, himself, became a cultural icon on par with the magazine he created—died at age 91.

Hefner’s company, Playboy Enterprises, is now controlled by Rizvi Traverse Management LLC, an investment firm founded by India-born billionaire Suhail Rizvi, which also owns large shares of the social media platforms Twitter and Snapchat, the Hollywood talent agency ICM, and the private spaceflight company SpaceX.

According to a report this week in The Wall Street Journal, Rizvi now plans to focus on what it calls “The World of Playboy,” which according to a spokesman means licensing the Playboy brand name, rather than publishing the magazine or creating new, original Playboy products.

“We plan to spend 2018 transitioning (Playboy) from a media business to a brand-management company,” said Rizvi Traverse managing partner Ben Kohn, who also serves as Playboy Enterprises CEO—adding that the opportunity for licensing the Playboy brand name “is so much larger than a small, legacy print publication.”

Rizvi acquired control of the company in 2011, as part of a deal that allowed Hefner to buy back $207 million worth of Playboy stock, returning the company to private ownership. Part of that deal was a promise to continue publishing Playboy Magazine—but only as long as Hefner remained alive.

With the Playboy founder’s passing in September of 2017, the investment firm is moving quickly to consolidate ownership of the company and likely end publication of the magazine, which has reportedly been losing about $7 million per year. 

“Historically, we could justify the losses because of the marketing value, but you also have to be forward thinking,” Kohn told the Journal. “I’m not sure that print is necessarily the best way to communicate to our consumer.”

Playboy Magazine reached a circulation high of 5.6 million monthly in 1975, but has dropped ever since, struggling at less than 500,000 today.