Photo: The Athletic's Twitter

The Athletic, a subscription-based digital sports media company, is launching a multi-million dollar podcasting business. Over 20 exclusive, ad-free podcasts will debut behind the company's subscription paywall on its app and website on Tuesday. The podcasts will be produced in-house by a team of 12 new hires.

Why it matters: The sports podcasting space has become more crowded over the past few years, with digital upstarts like Barstool Sports, The Ringer and SB Nation, in addition to TV sports giants like Fox Sports and ESPN, all launching new podcasts. The Athletic is hoping to differentiate itself by focusing on quality, hyper-localized podcasts that live only behind a paywall.

Details: The Athletic is building a podcasting business from the ground up, launching both a front-end operation — with talent and producers to record the podcasts — as well as a back-end operation of engineers and audio specialists to manage the podcasts from the company's new podcast studio at its San Fransisco headquarters.

  • The programming strategy is to leverage The Athletic's 300+ sports reporters around the country and in Canada to create local and national podcasts, varying in topics and cadence. Most podcasts will range from 15-40 minutes long.
  • Some podcasts will focus on individual teams or cities, while others will focus on big topics, like sports and media, or the coverage of certain sports leagues.
  • The company has created several new podcasts, and has taken over the personal podcasts of some of its biggest stars. It's also begun acquiring podcasts, like "The Daily Ding" and "Birds All Day," and hopes to add more podcasts in the coming months.
  • A full list of debut programming is listed below.

The catch: The podcasts will only be available on The Athletic's owned and operated channels, and will not be accessible anywhere outside of its paywall, like on Spotify or Apple Music. The hope is that by keeping the podcasts behind a paywall, the company will be able to attract new segments of sports fans who engage with sports differently.

Yes, but: It's not a totally novel idea. SB Nation launched 32 NFL team-focused podcasts in November as a part of a bigger local podcasting push. David Locke, a radio host in Utah covering the Jazz, launched the Locked On network in 2016, which publishes hundreds of local sports podcasts weekly.

  • The Athletic is hoping that its hundreds of full-time reporters in nearly 50 local markets will set it apart.
  • "The Athletic is uniquely positioned to bring professional polish to local podcasts given our subscriber base and business model," says Alex Mather, CEO and founder of The Athletic. "Advertising dollars and local podcasts haven’t gone hand-in-hand, given local’s naturally smaller audiences. “

The big picture: The Athletic launched in 2016 as a direct-to-consumer subscription business, meaning all of its content is distributed directly to paying subscribers. It's since expanded its editorial team to include hundreds of top local and national sports reporters — talent it thinks it can leverage further via audio.

  • The news comes on the heels of the company's expansion into more local markets. In October, The Athletic raised $40 million as a part of its Series C fundraising round, which valued the company at roughly $200 million. The company says it has well over 100,000 paid subscribers.
  • "With our launch of podcasts, we have become so much more than a written-word product and we can now leverage our hundreds of local reporters to bring their unique storytelling and analysis to our subscribers in a whole new way," says Mather.

Featured shows at launch will include:

  • The Daily Ding with Dave Dufour, Big Wos, Travonne Edwards, and Zach Harper  (NBA)
  • The Opener with Jonah Keri (MLB)
  • The Breakout with Julie Stewart-Binks, Billy Jaffe, Craig Custance (NHL)
  • Birds All Day with Andrew Stoeten, Drew Fairservice (MLB)
  • Rates and Barrels with Eno Sarris, Derek Van Riper (Fantasy)
  • Warriors Plus-Minus with Marcus Thompson, Tim Kawakami (NBA)
  • Starkville with Jayson Stark and Doug Glanville (MLB)
  • Plus 15 more local podcasts in the Bay Area and Toronto (with more to come in additional markets)

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