The sudden rise of The Athletic has been one of the most interesting stories of 2017. As the sports media industry pivots to video and huge mainstream companies like Fox Sports decide to abandon the written word, The Athletic is going against the grain.
With signing the likes of Stewart Mandel, Ken Rosenthal, Seth Davis, and many, many other well-known writers, The Athletic certainly has one of the most impressive casts for a start-up in recent times. And they’re hoping that a subscription based service can reach those fans who really enjoy good sportswriting to create a new ecosystem not driven by video ads.
What also makes The Athletic unique is their two-pronged approach. While that national emphasis in college sports and Rosenthal’s signing have gotten a lot of headlines, it’s the local sites that are the core of their business.
Currently, The Athletic has sites for six cities/regions – Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, Cleveland, and the Bay Area.
In an interview with Digiday, The Athletic says it’s not stopping there. The company appears to be very ambitious in their plans to continue to expand:
“Our strategy has shifted quite a bit,” The Athletic co-founder Alex Mather said. “We believe that every market is big enough to justify our model.”
Every market?? That might sounds like a stretch at first, and the questions might turn to whether or not fans in every market would be willing to pay to a subscription-based site. But when you think about how many fans pay for services like ESPN Insider or message boards or even now print newspapers and maybe it makes some sense. Right now the Montreal site only has the Canadiens listed in the team section, so perhaps it’s possible to see The Athletic: Oklahoma City somewhere down the line or other markets with just one major pro team.
Sure enough, more portals are on the way. Philadelphia appears to be next on the horizon and plans to do three of the biggest markets in the country – Los Angeles, New York, and Boston – are coming as soon as 2018.
However, it’s interesting to note that The Athletic is only profitable in one city thus far.
The Athletic covers teams in the Bay Area, Chicago, Toronto, Detroit and Cleveland, and will launch in Montreal and Philadelphia shortly. But it is only profitable in one — Toronto, where it has over 10,000 subscribers — because entering new markets is expensive. Mather said he likes to have at least 1.5 staffers covering each team in a given city. That’s why it’s stayed out of big markets. The Athletic expects to enter Los Angeles, New York and Boston in the next 18 months, though.
Make no mistake, it will be a challenge. We’ve seen ESPN go into the regional portal visit and ultimately abandon the concept. There are many, many newspapers and blogs that provide local, regional, and team-specific coverage out there as well. The big markets like Los Angeles and New York, which are so inundated with coverage options, may be the biggest test. It could be that the mid-major markets like Toronto and Cleveland – ones with multiple professional teams that don’t always get a ton of attention from national outlets – could be the sweet spot for the company.
Ultimately The Athletic will succeed based on whether or not they can get enough subscribers to become profitable. The central pitch they’ll have to make readers is that they have enough unique analysis and reporting to encourage fans to lay down that subscription fee. Can readers get content at The Athletic that they can’t get anywhere else, whether it’s local or national?