- How Newspapers Can Get Inspired by The Athletic
Newspapers used to be the kings of sports coverage. Today, while they’re struggling to stay alive, there’s a new king on the throne: The Athletic. The subscription-based website’s fast growth has generated critics and jealousy within the industry, but also, hope and respect. What lessons can be drawn from this success story and be applied by newspaper brands? Here are some clues.
The Athletic Has Changed the Game
Digital sports journalism is evolving at the speed of light, mainly because of one game changer: The Athletic. All eyes in the industry are now turned to this new clutch player, looking forward to its next move. From Day 1, the startup has attracted top beat reporters covering college and pro sports teams, and there are now 500 writers active in 50 local markets. In the summer of 2020, they entered the UK, hiring 55 top soccer journalists from traditional British sports newsrooms.
“We are a simple company, with a simple business model,” summarized CEO and cofounder Alex Mather in the podcast This Week in Startups (2019). Indeed, the strategy is crystal clear: providing in-depth stories for avid sports fans, on a subscription model. The company has recently raised $50 million in additional funding— for a total funding of $140 million— and is now valued at $500 million. Even if The Athletic is not yet profitable, its audience growth has been spectacular; it has attracted more than one million paying readers. In the UK the number of subscribers is considerably above expectations.
How can we explain this spectacular growth? “The obvious reason to me is the collapse of journalism as we used to know it in the United States,” explains Randall Smith (personal communication, November 11, 2019), professor [End Page 137] at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and expert in journalism business models.
Every metropolitan newspaper had huge staff, with dozens of sports reporters covering high school, college and pro sports. But they have been very slow to really care about subscriptions. So their revenue has fallen, as well as their staff. The two verticals proven to be done well by these metro papers are sports and opinions. So they tried to prevent the down-sizing in these areas. Still, they couldn’t keep the coverage they had on sports. It created an enormous opportunity for an independent to come in, with a focus on covering sports in-depth.
Quality content is a key factor. “The Athletic’s success is largely rooted in its vocal and strong commitment to producing deeper, richer storytelling about sports,” confirms Jessica Pucci (personal communication, January 24, 2020), the assistant dean at Arizona State University (ASU) Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications and specialist in digital audiences.
We don’t need sports content from five years ago anymore. What’s the purpose of a 200-words story with play-by-play explanation? Everyone has already seen it on TV or on Twitter! That kind of content doesn’t engender a lot of loyalty to the brand. But many media outlets are still doing that.
Where Is the Limit? “There Are NBA Fans in Every Country on Earth”
Despite the impressive numbers, there is still some skepticism in the industry around The Athletic. “That kind of rapid growth, supported by hedge fund money, is a dangerous business model,” according to Damon Kiesow (personal communication, December 2, 2019), a professor at the University of Missouri specializing in media innovation and business strategies.
We’ve been there a couple of times. The National did very well for a year or two. Then their funding went out. It plateaued in terms of distribution and subscription revenue. Acquiring the best beat reporters is a good strategy. Every time The Athletic goes to a new market, it gets new subscribers. But I don’t know if this rapid growth is anything else than geographic expansion. With high wages and marketing costs, you need a lot of subscribers in each market to become profitable. Usually, if the growth [End Page 138] flattens, the investors will start to lose interest and will want a...