Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Roman Kraft/Unsplash.

The Sports Pages’ New Clothes

How long can the Athletic grow like a tech disruptor if it reads the same as the newspapers it’s poaching from?

The Athletic’s rapid recent launch into the stratosphere of buzzy publications is built on two big ideas. The first happens to be the least revolutionary in business: People should pay for a product. The second happens to be the least revolutionary in journalism: Sports fans will do almost anything for news about the teams they love, including satisfying requirement No. 1. Yet despite the obviousness of these ideas, so far they have worked. In under three years, the Athletic has leveraged the resiliency of local sports writing and a willingness to pay for it to become one of the biggest sports publications in the country. And still nobody quite knows what to make of it.

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The Athletic has raised almost $28 million in venture capital funding and has roughly 250 editorial employees in 38 markets—I note that because the company has hired 75 employees and expanded to seven additional markets since I started reporting this article earlier this summer. It’s hired some of the biggest bylines in sports journalism to serve as national columnists, including Ken Rosenthal, Seth Davis, Jayson Stark, Pierre Lebrun, and Jay Glazer. “Why I’m Joining the Athletic,” the format for many a new hire’s first post on the site, has become a meme. In August, the site expanded its NFL coverage for the upcoming season, a sign that the rapid hiring is nowhere near abating. Its trajectory fits well with the by-now cliché narrative of a San Francisco–based startup disrupting a pre-internet industry for the digital age. “Fall in love with the sports page again,” its tagline reads.

That this astronomical growth is happening at a time when most other sports publications—not to mention journalistic organizations broadly—are shrinking has made the Athletic’s expansion a story in itself. From the start, the site’s boosters have tied its future to the future of sports journalism. After the company finished its first funding round with famed startup incubator Y Combinator, Jared Friedman, a Y Combinator partner and co-founder of Scribd, said that “if they continue doing what they’re doing, we believe they can save local sports media.”

This heady call to greatness, combined with the breakneck pace of expansion, has piqued intense curiosity about the Athletic’s business model. Observers wonder if the ad-free subscriptions model can truly support an operation of that size. More recently, some have begun to challenge the notion that the Athletic’s content is all that special. After the Athletic’s college football editor Stewart Mandel publicly declared a No Lavar Ball editorial policy (to prove its serious-journalism bona fides, in contrast to, say, ESPN), reporter Andrew Bucholtz surfaced several pieces about Lavar Ball. Recently, Deadspin referred to the upstart’s staff as being in a “mediocre-to-good” range. An emerging consensus among critics is that the “New Standard of Sports Journalism”—as its homepage declares to new visitors—looks a lot like the old one, right down to the bylines. It’s hard to argue with that assessment. The Athletic is a classic, old-school sports journalism reboot that, by its own admission, hires almost exclusively from the most established names in sports media. Readers will not be subscribing to the Athletic anytime soon for fresh voices or new perspectives. But for the growing number of sports fans willing to give it money, does that matter?

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Until this recent spate of hiring, the Athletic last made headlines for something its co-founder Alex Mather told the New York Times last year: “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

But as one staffer told me more recently, “I, of course, do not want to drink the blood of local papers.” Every employee I spoke to (except Mather himself) mentioned the Mather quote without being asked. They also still expressed affection for former colleagues and hoped their old workplaces would survive.

This gap between the co-founder’s statement and the sentiments of the rank and file is revealing, and it captures the complicated dynamic between the Athletic and other sports publications, particularly local papers and legacy magazines that employ the lion’s share of beat writers and columnists. To borrow a sports metaphor, the Athletic has treated the rest of the sports-journalism industry like its farm system, acquiring its own employees almost exclusively by poaching. Those employees don’t see the game as necessarily zero-sum, however, and celebrate the fact that the Athletic has created more jobs in an otherwise contracting industry.

Since Mather’s brag was published in October, the Athletic has more than doubled its head count, largely from the mastheads of local papers, including walking corpses of once-great outlets like the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Buffalo News, which are being bled dry not so much by the Athletic but management decisions or hedge funds slashing and burning their way to asset sales.

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Poaching that local talent—who generally continue to cover the same team for the Athletic that they did before—does two things at once for the upstart media company. It gives the Athletic an experienced beat writer with established contacts and a reputation as well as a loyal readership and social media following. According to several sources with direct knowledge of the Athletic’s hiring offers, new hires can earn a bonus of up to a dollar per new subscriber who converts from their established followers. One source told me that high-profile beat writers convert about 10 percent of their social media followers. For a big-market beat writer with, say, 100,000 Twitter followers, that means the Athletic could garner about 10,000 subscribers, or roughly $400,000 a year.

If you take Mather’s words at face value, the poaching also accomplishes a third goal: It kneecaps competitors by robbing them of those same benefits, forcing them to fill the empty position, if they do at all, with a less experienced and less-well-sourced journalist. Many in sports media reacted to Mather’s vampiric remarks in a predictably irate fashion, spurring a backlash that has not dissipated.

The Athletic has tried to spin Mather’s comment as frustration with the companies he poaches his employees from, because their poor business decisions have hurt journalists and readers. When I spoke to Mather and his co-founder, Adam Hansmann, they seemed to harbor a deep respect for journalists but less so the industry that has struggled to adapt. Before the internet, 4 out of every 5 dollars newspapers earned came from advertising, with classified ads hauling in an increasingly large share. Google and Facebook came along and took nearly all of that ad money for themselves, as the internet was still mostly expected to remain free.

For proof of sports media’s struggles, one need look no further than ESPN, the once-untouchable behemoth of the industry, which in 2015 laid off 300 employees—mostly from the TV side—and shut down the sports and culture site Grantland, as cord cutting dug into the worldwide leader’s profit margins. Then in 2017, the network laid off dozens of its biggest names, people previously thought to be untouchable. That June, Fox Sports axed its entire digital writing staff to pivot to video. The following month, I was let go from Vice’s sports vertical along with most of my colleagues and dozens of others from Vice Media, yet another poster company for once-unbridled growth. There are countless other examples.

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Enter the Athletic, which promised readers “quality journalism with no ads” and “unique content from top writers.” The company’s business model requires it hire the most popular writers on any given beat in order to attract paid subscribers in volume. With those high-profile writers come hefty salaries. Interviews with more than a dozen people who were offered jobs at the Athletic revealed the salary for beat writers tends to start at about $70,000 a year not including subscriber bonuses, depending on various factors including market size and experience, with many in the six figures. (The Athletic declined to comment on salaries.) Everyone interviewed stated they were offered significant raises over their newspaper salaries. And employing scores of beat writers means paying expenses for their travel with the teams, which can be upward of $30,000 a year for baseball writers who are on the road for 81 regular-season games and about half that for hockey and NBA writers. Most, if not all, writers are on a fixed-term contract, typically two or three years, a very uncommon arrangement for beat writers on staff. (It’s more common for nationally recognized name talent.) For the company, this gives it predictability in controlling costs or shutting down markets that don’t prove profitable. For writers coming from at-will contracts with unpredictable ownership in a dwindling industry, two years of a high, guaranteed salary can feel like a blessing.

The company says it has subscribers “well into the six figures” spread across its 38 local markets, each with its own homepage and editorial staff. Subscribers choose a home market but get access to every story the company publishes. According to the company, Chicago, its first market, has more than 30,000 subscribers and is profitable, which the company says is a useful example of a market’s potential because most of the Athletic’s other local sites have existed for less than a year. Although the company declined to provide any specifics on revenue or average subscription rates, which can vary widely depending on which of the various introductory offers a subscriber takes advantage of, the most common figure analysts have used when ballparking the company’s finances is about $40 per subscriber per year. This would mean the Athletic Chicago alone brings in at least $1.2 million in annual revenue. Plus, the pricing structure incentivizes readers to pay for the full year upfront, giving the company immediate cash on hand to invest in attracting more subscribers.

Overall, it is clear the relatively modest amount of VC money has been enough to make the Athletic work thus far, largely because it had the luxury of starting with a clean slate. It didn’t inherit any of the institutional baggage of a newspaper with fairly random print deadlines. It had the luxury of staffing up from zero rather than managing a slow transition from print to digital. It didn’t have to haul clunky publishing systems through the 2000s. It entered a digital landscape where people are very much OK with paying for things online and even enthusiastic about supporting good journalism, with a rich web ecosystem to make such an experience easy for users. It jettisoned years of unfortunate attempts to make online ads work alone, providing not only a more stable revenue strategy but a clean, enjoyable reading experience.

But historically, subscriptions have never been enough to sustain a newspaper business. The size of each slice of the subscriptions-ads-classifieds revenue pie has shifted over time, but nobody’s ever successfully baked an entire pie out of subscriptions. Bryan Goldberg, who founded Bleacher Report and sold it to Turner Broadcasting in 2012 for about $175 million, said he finds it difficult to see the Athletic working at its current size and subscription prices but that “price increases are almost certainly baked into their models.” Indeed, one basic discount plan offered by the Athletic is $48 for the first year, which is 20 percent lower than the auto-renew next year at $60. Given that the company has tens of thousands of credit cards on file, it may be counting on most people not bothering to cancel, even after price increases. “So,” Goldberg concluded, “let’s see if their product is good enough to keep subscribers loyal.”

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The man in charge of much of that product is the company’s chief content officer, Paul Fichtenbaum, who worked for Sports Illustrated for over 25 years before joining the Athletic in July 2017. He’s known for having a very traditional view of sports coverage—game-day stories, player profiles, matchup previews, trades and draft analysis. Multiple sources used the same phrase to describe his approach to sports stories: meat and potatoes.

It’s difficult to square the Athletic’s claim that it’s providing stories that readers cannot find elsewhere with the fact that almost all of its writers and editors come from that most conventional of elsewheres. Its most high-profile hires have been the guys Mather and Hansmann admired most growing up, when sports writing was almost entirely white and male. At a time when sports and sports coverage are getting more diverse, the Athletic is harkening back to an era almost entirely devoid of diversity. The company has been forthright in acknowledging this issue, but it’s not clear how much it can continue its strategy of only hiring established writers and industry veterans while also cultivating a diverse staff.

It’s also an issue exacerbated by the company’s conservative editorial sensibility, as cultivated by Fichtenbaum. For the most part, one has to squint awfully hard to see what stories the Athletic writers are doing that couldn’t have run at their old outlets. There are also plenty of familiar empty-calorie stories, like rankings and mailbags, to go along with the meat and potatoes.

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Take a recent randomly selected Monday. The Athletic Los Angeles’ front page featured a Lakers mailbag, a story on the USC quarterback battle, and another about a change in the Dodgers’ batting order. They’re good stories, but so are the ones at the Los Angeles Times about USC’s quarterback battle and the Dodgers’ batting order. The “Most Read” stories are a Q&A with a Nashville Predators player who recently had a Twitter beef with an Anaheim Ducks player, an NHL farm-system ranking, a profile of young Ducks player Troy Terry, a ranking of the potential “most exciting postseason contests” in baseball this year, and a profile of Caleb Ferguson, a young Dodgers reliever. Of those five articles, only the Terry profile is something that truly could not be found at another major sports publication because the Ducks are the most undercovered pro male sports team in the L.A. area (The L.A. Times ran an article about Ferguson four days before the Athletic.) A vague sense of headline déjà vu shows up in other well-covered major markets too.

That distinction is a clue to where the Athletic thrives and where it struggles. As Fichtenbaum has himself detailed, the site prospers in small- or medium-size markets with struggling local papers such as Buffalo and Denver, or with traditionally undercovered teams and leagues, such as select MLB teams and most of the NHL. As Hansmann told me, “Who else is going to come in and hyper-serve Anaheim Ducks fans?” The site launched the Buffalo and New York City markets roughly simultaneously, but it was Buffalo, with its starved readership, that was more successful out of the gate. Big markets or major sports with saturated coverage are more challenging areas in which to carve any space, as the company’s struggles in D.C. further illustrate. That being said, a larger-market Athletic site can find success if it is able to poach top talent from major competitors, as it has in the Bay Area.

After reading the Athletic closely for several months, I can’t think of many examples of stories that obviously could not have run on D1 of a local paper. When I asked Tim Kawakami, editor in chief of the Athletic Bay Area and a 30-year newspaper-career veteran, for an example of a story that couldn’t have run at his old employer, he cited Marcus Thompson’s 4,400-word story on the Golden State Warriors’ visit to San Quentin State Prison. It’s true that the Mercury News didn’t run a story on the visit—perhaps because Kawakami and Thompson had both recently left the paper—but the day after Thompson’s story ran, other outlets ran stories on the Warriors’ annual tradition. And the Wall Street Journal and USA Today ran stories on it as well—in 2015. To be fair, none of these pieces were as long or as personal as Thompson’s. Kawakami insists readers responded positively to this and states that “I wouldn’t have wanted a word less.” But had I been shown the article out of context, I would not have been able to say, Now this is an Athletic story. I probably would have guessed Sports Illustrated or Bleacher Report’s feature site. And long, quasi-personal feature stories about the intersection of sports and societal issues are very much the exception to the Athletic’s content, not the rule.

This is not to take away from Thompson’s work. It was a good story! And overall, the Athletic is a good sports website. But finding unique angles to the same teams, storylines, and games is a challenge in sports no matter how new or old the publication. Some are better at it than others, but for every scoop or unique angle, there are a dozen glorified game-story write-ups or rote trade breakdowns. The Athletic is not experimenting with the form in the way that, for example, Bill Simmons and Deadspin did in the 2000s. There is only so much room to be unique while still writing a traditional sports story. Most of the Athletic’s content reflects that challenge.

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In some ways, the question of the Athletic’s value can be reframed as a familiar Silicon Valley question: Is the Athletic primarily a media company or a tech company? (The co-founders met while working together at Strava, an app for endurance athletes that makes its money through a premium subscription product.) Mather, when posed with this question, replied, “At the core, we are a user-centric company.” There are times it will invest more heavily in editorial staff, he said, and other times it’ll invest in technology. “But the DNA of the company, each sort of atom in our body is built around tech and data. That user-centric core of our business will continue to drive and build a bigger technology organization over time.” Surely Mather has noticed that for a company whose DNA is “tech and data,” 9 of out of 10 employees work in editorial, producing written articles.

Like any startup, the Athletic feeds off the hype and breathless coverage of the kind given to other self-appointed industry-revolutionizing companies. Some of this intensity is stoked by the people who work for the Athletic, with their often over-the-top “Why I Joined the Athletic” introductions, which, read ungenerously, can feel rote in their cultish indoctrination. (“I am so ___ and ___ to write for a site with such a ____ reading experience.”) In my interviews, the biggest difference I could detect between those who accepted an offer at the Athletic and those who didn’t is that the ones who did are evangelists. They see the site not merely as a business but a necessity, an existential requirement to condition readers to pay for their work and keep sports writing sustainable. The reporters who didn’t already have that view—or who think newspapers are still capable of figuring things out—were generally content to keep putting their stock in the papers.

Ultimately, both extremes when it comes to evaluating the Athletic miss the point. To argue that the Athletic is rescuing—or killing—sports journalism is to imply it is somehow different or apart from sports journalism. Granted, it’s a sports site that more than 100,000 people are willing to pay money for. But it is very plainly derivative of the industry from which it spawned. Its diversity issues are sports journalism’s diversity issues. Its content is what some of the sports industry’s most veteran minds consider good content. This may change over time as the Athletic’s writers and editors deprogram from a life of publishing game stories on deadline, something several staffers told me they hope will occur. But that would be a bold departure for an editorial staff that has basically written and edited the same types of sports stories for their entire careers and, by and large, made nice livings doing so.

It’s also likely subscribers want this version of the Athletic. Standard-fare sports coverage has always served as a release valve for people, much as the bleacher seats are a relief from the worries of work and home. For generations, Americans have yanked the sports section from their Sunday paper, tossing the rest aside. The Athletic shrewdly realized it could capitalize on that and clean it up for a 21st century.

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But it doesn’t hold a monopoly. The company’s user-friendly moves are already being copied by competitors. Some newspapers have reduced the number of obtrusive ads to mimic the Athletic’s reading experience. The Kansas City Star and Miami Herald have started offering a sports-only subscription for $2.50 a month, a few bucks cheaper than the Athletic. It’s reasonable to suspect others might do the same. The Athletic’s die-hard supporters, inside and out, have to believe its content is special. Otherwise, it’s just another sports section.