The Athletic Swings for the Fences by Putting Up a Paywall

The Athletic is changing the sports media landscape by hiring the best sports writers in North America – and putting their work behind a paywall.

The startup, which launched in January 2016 in Toronto, Canada, now employs over 100 full-time writers and 12 full-time staffers to cover sports in 18 North American markets according to Taylor Patterson, the communications director for The Athletic.

We believe that the journalism profession needs to be accompanied by a business model that allows the work to be self-sustaining. A subscription-based approach for news means that The Athletic’s writers are paid well and that subscriptions, not ad revenue, support the business,” said Patterson in an interview with MediaFile.

The Athletic stands out in the ever-changing and crowded media environment by producing high-quality content from accomplished journalists for its subscribers at a cost of about 49 dollars a year.

While Patterson declined to discuss The Athletic’s profitability, number of subscribers, paid subscriber conversion rate, or user demographics she said, “The feedback from our subscribers is they love the premium content they are paying for, and they believe The Athletic’s model is the future of sports journalism.”

Over the past six months, The Athletic has greatly expanded its staff and footprint by opening bureaus in six American cities and six Canadian cities and launching new national verticals to cover NCAA basketball, NCAA football and the NHL, according to Patterson.

FanGraphs senior writer Jeff Sullivan jokes about The Athletic’s aggressive expansion.

Its most notable recent hires include former FOX Sports MLB columnist Ken Rosenthal, former Sports Illustrated college basketball writer Seth Davis, and former SI college football writer Stewart Mandel.

Patterson said the new expanded editorial team includes journalists who have worked for “ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Chicago Tribune, The Globe and Mail, FOX Sports, USA Today (Gannett), San Jose Mercury News, The Star Tribune and NBC Sports.”

These big hires have been key to attracting new subscribers.

In an interview with MediaFile, Mike E. Utzig–32, a self-described die-hard Mets fan and upstate New York college basketball fan from Schenectady, NY–said, “When I heard The Athletic signed [former Newsday Mets beat writer] Marc Carig I knew I had to give it a shot.”

The new subscriber commented how the presence of veteran writers like Peter Gammons and Ken Rosenthal gave the website “credibility.”

Addison Prestwood, 22, a San Francisco Giants and Charlotte Hornets fan from High Point, NC has subscribed to The Athletic for over a year.  

He said he checks The Athletic at least three times a week for news and is a subscriber because of the great content from journalists like former CSN Bay Area reporter Andy Baggarly.

These two accounts corroborate Patterson’s statement to MediaFile that “subscribers of The Athletic tend to be die-hard fans who are looking for in-depth coverage of their teams.”

Besides poaching veteran journalists from established outlets, The Athletic is also providing young writers a platform to make a name for themselves.

One up-and-comer is Matt Craig, a contributor to The Fieldhouse, The Athletic’s college basketball vertical.  In an interview with MediaFile he said he is grateful to have a chance to prove himself at The Athletic.

“Working at The Athletic is a really unique opportunity for me as a young professional. Seeing my byline on our homepage besides national figures like Seth Davis, Dana O’Neil or Ken Pomeroy never fails to blow my mind,” said Craig.

Similarly, The Athletic is NHL reporter Dominick “Dom” Luszczyszyn’s first full-time media job.

“I have a lot of freedom to do work that I greatly enjoy, time to do the work, and a lot of support from the staff,” said Luszczyszyn in an interview with MediaFile.

Both young journalists said they work remotely, but are supported by The Athletic’s editorial staff electronically.

While The Athletic is experiencing explosive growth and continuing to hire journalists from across the country, its long-term viability is unclear.

 

The Athletic recently announced its expansion to the New York City market. It will also expand to Cincinnati, OH and Dallas, TX.

Patterson, The Athletic’s communications director, told MediaFile that the website raised $6.6 million dollars in July 2017 in its Series A round.  However, it is unclear if the site will have to raise more money to sustain its rapid growth.

NBC Sports lead baseball writer Craig Calcaterra offering his thoughts on The Athletic.

As other sports media outlets like Fox Sports and ESPN are laying off journalists and pivoting to video or investing in sports personalities, The Athletic is providing in-depth sports journalism and is not afraid to charge for it.

“We can promise every day we’ll do our best to make you Fall in Love With The Sports Page Again,” wrote The Athletic co-founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann in a recent blog post on the site.

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