the athletic

For many people in sports media, The Athletic arrived like a sort of savior, swooping in when the industry was reeling from mass layoffs and hiring up qualified reporters who deserved comfortable jobs. The average reader subscribed to The Athletic because of the deep roster of writers producing strong content, but many writers subscribed for another reason: for the good of sports journalism.

With that in mind, it was a bit jarring to see, in a New York Times feature about The Athletic published Monday, one of the site’s founders conveying a dramatically less “kumbaya” message about the future of sports media.

By the time you finish reading this article, the upstart sports news outlet called The Athletic probably will have hired another well known sportswriter from your local newspaper. In a couple of years, once The Athletic has completed its breakneck expansion, perhaps that newspaper’s sports section will no longer exist.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco.“We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

[link_box id=”81189″ site_id=”94″ layout=”link-box-third” alignment=”alignright”]That kind of imperialistic sentiment might be dispiriting, but it should not necessarily be surprising, given that Mather and co-founder Adam Hansmann come from a tech background and not a journalistic background. Like most people who launch companies, they’re doing so with the intent of making money and stealing market share from competitors.  You can see that spirit again later in the Times’ piece, when Mather criticizes Bleacher Report, SB Nation and, again, local newspapers.

“In a city like Chicago, there are 100,000 die-hard fans,” Mather said. “That is a very lucrative subscription business. There are over 100,000 die-hard fans of Chicago teams outside of Chicago,” he added, and he says they aren’t served well. “Bleacher Report is empty calories. SB Nation is empty calories. The newspapers are doing nothing.”

Maybe the most aggrieved party in The Athletic’s rise has been Dejan Kovacevic, founder of DKPittsburghSports, who was openly upset when The Athletic moved into his city. According to the Times, Kovacevic claims The Athletic’s founders initially promised they would stay out of the Pittsburgh market.

In an email, Kovacevic said Mather and Hansmann approached him to be an adviser but they couldn’t agree on compensation. The Athletic, he said, promised not to start a Pittsburgh site. Instead, The Athletic Pittsburgh hired a second writer away from DK Pittsburgh Sports recently. Kovacevic also said that Mather and Hansmann were unhappy when he sold a copy of his publishing platform to Greg Bedard, who launched a subscription sports site in Boston this summer, because they said it raised their cost of doing business.

Mather said that when The Athletic’s executives spoke with Kovacevic they had no intention of expanding into Pittsburgh in the near term, and that he and Hansmann “only make ‘promises’ to our customers, employees, investors and partners.”

“We are doing great work,” Mather said. “We treat our writers really well, we pay them well, and we are doing amazing journalism. If someone has a problem with that, that’s on them.”

But as of Monday, The Athletic might have a lot more enemies in sports media. Let’s just say Mather’s highly combative tone is not sitting well with reporters, at local media outlets and elsewhere.

Even some Athletic contributors aren’t thrilled with Mather’s attitude.

At least one Athletic competitor is making a play at the site’s audience.

And lest you think it’s only journalists who are uneasy about the quotes…

Mather has begun responding on Twitter to the widespread criticism of his comments, simultaneously taking back and standing by the sentiments he offered, while suggesting (humorously) he might not have been sober for the interview. [NOTE: Several readers have suggested Mather’s comment about “cold brews” was a reference to coffee, not alcohol, which would probably make more sense.]

One of The Athletic’s highest profile writers rushed to Mather’s defense.

The Athletic has been thriving on a combination of solid content and goodwill. As of Monday, the goodwill might have run out.

UPDATE: Mather tweeted a statement explaining that, contrary to what he told the Times, he is “not rooting for newspapers to fail, but rather hoping to build a product that will give readers more choices, whether that’s in their local market or nationally.”

[New York Times]

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports, MLB.com, SI.com and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.

  • culby

    A pristine example of “You’re not wrong, you’re just an asshole.”

    Yes, everyone pretty much understood that traditional outlets were cutting back their teams, and that The Athletic giving them an outlet to write (and their fans a way of supporting them nearly directly) was an excellent model. So much so that it began to attract writers who might not have been in danger of losing their gigs, but might have felt overshadowed in their particular newsroom (there’s a whooooole lotta hockey writers in the mastheads). It goes unsaid that The Athletic was benefiting from the missteps of the print world.

    But there’s a difference between “we’re attracting top talent because we feel we have a better model” and “WE’RE GONNA DUNK ON EM BRO PARADIGM SHIFT WHOOOOOO”.

    • namingrightsforsale

      This.

    • Everything I say is correct

      again…They can hire whoever they want here in the Bay…The fact is were not going to be paying a million dollar company for “news” when we can get it for free. I could careless about a sports writer grammar skills…I care about breaking stories and opinions

  • I would argue that any site with Mike Freeman and Howard Beck and Mike Tanier is not empty calories. I would argue that any site with Grant Brisbee and the vast, vast amounts of insightful coverage of the nexus of sports and politics is not empty calories.

    And given that I can read SB Nation and Bleacher Report for free at the moment, and that the latter is also really good at connecting me to all the sports sites I don’t go to regularly, I see no reason at all to subscribe to The Athletic.

    I will admit, however, that as much as I rely on the NY Times for news – and I actually do pay to read it – I haven’t really been using its sports pages much lately. The Times really does either need to step up its game or stop bothering.

    • namingrightsforsale

      The lack of nuance in that line revealed a lot about his self-awareness.

  • sportsfan365

    My local papers haven’t had people with writing talent since the Internet ruined their revenue model. All they seem to have working for them now is content aggregators and people who quote tweets.

  • John Danknich

    Is it wrong that I hope The Atlantic fails miserably? Not that I want to see it fail. I hope it does well, but after reading that article, I want it to fail just to spite some guy who probably uses the word “bro” 50 times in a five minute conversation and thinks -his- model will reinvent the wheel. I have two words for Alex – The National.

    • CreightonRabs

      Not at all. I’m especially rooting for these carpetbaggers to fail in Pittsburgh. I don’t like how some “tech bros from SFO” think they know more about how the Pittsburgh market rolls than people who actually live in Pittsburgh.

      • John Danknich

        Being a native of Pittsburgh myself, I’m in complete agreement.

    • Everything I say is correct

      I want them to fail….This is not the worst thing these people have done..Since they came to SF I heard some who covers The Raiders gets DM’s saying that Athletic was going to “destroy them” the only person to stand up for themselves is The Raiders Daily. It’s an actual great match up. Million dollar company vs this one guy. Certainly the Million dollar company should be able to destroy him by now but nope. I used to love Radio Wars but those are on equal playing field. This war, is like 1 town in Idaho vs Russia yet Athletic can’t kill off The Raiders Daily.

  • Definitely not ‘aggrieved,’ Alex. Our business has demonstrably never been in better shape, both financially and editorially. But I get your context up there.

    If I’d wanted to be part of that other process, I would have. Had no desire. And now, people are seeing why.

    • namingrightsforsale

      In other words, it took you all of ten seconds once you talked to them to realize that they were run-of-the-mill tech bros who have bought into the culture of noxious narcissism that is endangering America?

      • John Danknich

        I think that pretty much sums it up. Alex and co. are just waiting to be bought out by a bigger entity. That’s their end goal.

        • namingrightsforsale

          The dream of every “visionary” to try their luck on the roulette wheel that is the tech industry.

  • Lyle Delp

    Sad to have just cancelled. What an arrogant prick.

  • BobLee Says

    I am a recent Athletic subscriber. I love it. No pop-ups… no auto-videos… no chopped up stories … just stories about who won and why and roster moves and …. …. and thus far no harumphing about the writer’s political POV.
    For decades monopoly newspapers had a license to print $$$… now they are all on life support begging for digital subscribers. Payback is a bitch… ain’t it.

  • Everything I say is correct

    So I can either support a 2 Rich A holes from the Valley that run a Million dollar corp or I can support a guy like Stephen Michaels who runs “The Raiders Daily” who is just 1 guy that has a family and puts out better and more Oakland Raiders content, breaks more news, has an awesome podcast and is more entertaining than the entire SF ATHLETIC staff combined or I can give MORE money to the 2 rich guys from The Athletic? Hmmmm…Tough Choice!