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.”

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,, and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.