The Athletic’s business model is shortsighted and stale
On The Athletic’s home page, a heavy font proclaims it loudly as: “The New Standard of Sports Journalism.” Above it are the topics you can explore: from the USA to Canada, the site boasts exclusive hockey, football, baseball, and college sports coverage. Even just glancing at the contributors, there are plenty of instantly recognizable names for even casual purveyors of sports media. For all intents and purposes, it seems like a sports fan’s dream.
Except that it costs $60 a year.
So what is the new standard of sports journalism exactly? And why are the founders so confident they can convince sports fans across North America to reach into their wallets?
Part of this confidence draws directly from the entire reason The Athletic is able to boast such an impressive roster. In mid-2017, sports writers across the country were laid off as some of the bigger networks, like ESPN and Fox Sports, started the process of pivoting to mostly video content. These writers, left without anywhere to go, immediately latched onto The Athletic, founded in Jan. 2016. Although the site began in Chicago, it has since spread to 38 markets, covering nearly every major sports team in the country.
By all accounts, the writing at The Athletic is strong. There are almost 150 writers on staff, and nearly all are well established in their field. A limited selection of articles are released free to the public, but these often show a high level of journalism that is thought provoking, if not worth the investment.
Especially within Pittsburgh, the idea of a subscription sports website is nothing new. Sports writer Dejan Kovacevic launched DK Pittsburgh Sports in 2014, marketed as a subscription-based website providing sports coverage for the greater Pittsburgh area. For a while, this was a revolutionary business plan, and he received much of the same criticism now directed toward The Athletic. According to Kovacevic, The Athletic promised not to start a Pittsburgh site. However, the site premiered their Pittsburgh coverage earlier this year, and currently employs two previous employees of Kovacevic.
The problem is, The Athletic doesn’t challenge any of the conventional tropes of mainstream sports journalism. They do not offer their subscribers anything that cannot be provided from local papers. And yet in a 2017 interview for The New York Times, co-founder Alex Mather stated, “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.” This predatory mindset has become a rallying point for critics of the subscription site. While writers across the board continue to insist The Athletic is merely meant to be another option of finding sports coverage, the attitudes of the founders and the site itself are extremely aggressive.
But when perusing The Athletic web pages, the coverage looks incredibly similar to those of corresponding local paper sites. Also noteworthy, The Athletic does not provide any different or diverse voices. The website employs primarily white men, something pointed out time and time again by critics. Writers for the site tend to respond in the same way — that they realize this is an issue, and are looking into fixing it. However, a year into their big boom, nothing has changed. In fact, a new hire was announced recently: a man to run and improve their fantasy sports coverage. And yet The Athletic still has no writers or mechanisms in place to cover women’s sports.
The lack of women on staff continues to be a concern for critics. In a Slate article published this month, Aaron Gordon puts it well: “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...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.”
So why, then, can The Athletic claim to be the future of sports writing? The only revolutionary piece of their formula is charging people to read the same content they had been reading for years. There is no new perspective, as they continue to give jobs to those already established in the industry. In fact, thanks to The Athletic, you are more likely to find new, fresh voices at your local papers as they replace those who have moved on.
For sports that are not as heavily in the mainstream, such as hockey or MLS, The Athletic is certainly something new with its more focused, specific content. Perhaps that is why the site has done particularly well among fans of the NHL, with nearly every premier hockey writer transitioning to The Athletic in the past year and a half, with multiple websites now focused on every Canadian market. But for old standards, industry veterans continue to carry the flag, leaving new, promising journalists in the dust.
There are many avenues a site like The Athletic could take. They could pioneer a focused method for writing on women’s sports, something that right now is mostly supported by espnW. They could give new writers a chance to excel in a format that prioritizes emotional and novel stories. They could use their now influence to try something new.
Until then, The Athletic will continue with the same trite formulas established for years by sports pages across the globe. Sure, the writing is good, but does that matter when it’s stale?