Jul 24, 2017

The Athletic thinks people will pay for quality sports journalism

David Goldman / AP

The Athletic, a locally-focused, subscription-supported sports publication, announced its expansion into nationwide coverage today with the splashy hires of Stewart Mandel for college football and Seth Davis for college basketball.

What makes it different: The Athletic charges $5.99 a month (or $40 for a full year) to access its content, allowing it to provide a clean ad-free presentation to readers. From Mandel: "The Athletic's subscriber model allows us to focus entirely on high-quality written content. NO ads, NO auto-play videos, NO clickbait."

Why it matters: An AP NORC Center and American Press Institute study earlier this year found that 53% of people are willing to pay for news that suits their interests and fosters a good user experience. Spikes in subscriptions and investments in subscription products across diverse, often-specialized publications like The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New York Times' cooking section and The Information prove that trend. By investing in a clean user experience and backing it up with quality niche content, The Athletic is hoping to latch onto the trend.

The pedigree: The Athletic came out of prestigious tech incubator Y Combinator last year after its founders saw a lack of focused coverage and analysis in local sports markets — eventually expanding to four cities: Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, and Cleveland. But the Mandel and Davis hires clearly showcase a bigger vision for the company's eventual reach.

How it's going: Per Bloomberg, the company needs between 8,000 and 12,000 subscribers in a city to become profitable. It took 8 months from its mid-2016 Chicago launch to hit 1,000 subscribers, but it grabbed 10,000 subscribers with ease in hockey-crazy Toronto — the only city where it's currently profitable. The rash of new hires comes from a $5.4 million funding round that closed last week.

Changing landscape: Mandel was laid off by Fox Sports last month while Davis was laid off by Sports Illustrated earlier this year — ESPN also notably laid off a number of big name journalists in 2017.

Another trend: These layoffs are happening as a result of both consolidation within the sports media ecosystem and a pivot to video-focused content, which has created an opportunity for smaller, editorially-focused sites to enter the ecosystem. The goal? Often, it's being snapped up by a VC firm or — perhaps ironically, given The Athletic's poaching of laid-off writers — a legacy media outlet looking to connect with a base of intelligent, information-hungry consumers. Think: Turner's 2012 purchase of Bleacher Report and Vox Media's commercial relationship with Bill Simmons' The Ringer that was announced earlier this year.

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