The Athletic has signed a deal with Bloomberg to offer extended free trial subscriptions to its site to those who sign up for Bloomberg’s own monthly or yearly packages. As per Sara Fischer at Axios, this deal will see Bloomberg’s annual All-Access subscribers given a free six-month subscription to The Athletic, while Bloomberg’s monthly subscribers will gain a free three-month subscription to The Athletic.
Bloomberg’s subscription page currently lists those prices (which include Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg TV streaming, the Businessweek magazine, event access and more) as $1.99 a month or $330 a year. Both are introductory rates, with the monthly rate rising to $39.99 a month after three months and the yearly rate rising to $475 after a year. So this isn’t a cheaper option to get The Athletic; it’s normally $4.99 a month, $29.99 for three months, $59.99 for a year or $119.99 for two years. (There are frequently discount offers for all of those terms, though.)
But this is a way for Bloomberg to add some perceived value to their own offering. That’s something they’ve been looking at in the past; Fischer notes that they previously did a bundle deal with The Information in February. And this is also another way for The Athletic to boost its own subscriber numbers; they recently did a deal with T-Mobile, offering a year’s free subscription to T-Mobile cellphone customers, and they regularly offer all sorts of other sign-up and free trial promotions. This adds to their other efforts to boost subscriptions.
This also comes with some content crossover. As per Fischer, “The two companies are piloting an ongoing relationship where journalists from The Athletic are featured on Bloomberg Media’s digital news network QuickTake to do reporting on the business, culture and technology of sports.” That makes some sense for both sides; The Athletic has a strong group of reporters covering those subjects, so that could provide some good content for QuickTake, and this gains The Athletic and its journalists some more video exposure. But the larger impact here seems to be on the subscriber side.
And boosting those subscriber numbers could be quite important for The Athletic. Last July, The Athletic co-founder and CEO Alex Mather told Bloomberg’s Ira Boudway that his site had crossed the 500,000-subscriber mark and that “We’ll end the year somewhere close to a million.” In January, Fischer reported that the company had raised another $50 million in Series D financing and that they were close to that million mark, but still hadn’t hit it.
Since then, there have been some less positive stories about the site. They made some big changes in February, including parting ways with national managing editor Melissa Geisler and also their once-highly-hyped video team. And the pandemic, its economic effects, and the sports shutdown all had an impact on The Athletic; the main site is ad-free (although some of their podcasts have ads), so it wasn’t necessarily as hard-hit as other sports media entities by the drop in the advertising market, but the amount of under-employed and out-of-work people in the larger world presumably led to some subscription cancellations.
The Athletic tried some moves to retain subscribers during the sports shutdown, including having their writers write longer pieces on interesting past events, unlocking each writer’s favorite article, and providing three-month free trials for new users. But they still wound up making some cuts, both with contract non-renewals and with outright layoffs of 46 people in June. And while they’re far from alone in conducting recent sports media layoffs, it’s notable to see layoffs of that scale happening at a site that had previously taken pride in scooping up talent that had been laid off elsewhere.
Subscription bundling definitely makes some sense as an approach. For one thing, it gets you on the radar of a somewhat-new group of customers; there’s obviously some overlap in people who subscribe to Bloomberg All-Access and to The Athletic, but there are also some Bloomberg subscribers who don’t already subscribe to The Athletic, and this particular packaging (no extra cost and a longer free trial than they would receive through The Athletic’s regular offers) has some logic there. And some of those new subscribers may like what they see and stick around after that free trial ends.
It’s worth mentioning that some partnerships and content-bundling deals have eventually led to acquisitions, and Bloomberg is certainly a company with the resources to acquire The Athletic if they felt like it. Bloomberg does have a history of acquisitions, including Bloomberg Radio, Businessweek, CityLab and more. But there’s nothing currently reported on Bloomberg picking up The Athletic, and a deal for a free
This particular setup also seems to thread the needle between getting more people in the door and cheapening the perceived value of the product, and that’s a line The Athletic has to be very careful with. The frequent discounts and bundles and free trials and so on are key to drawing in new subscribers, but if not handled carefully, they could diminish how the product is seen and annoy those who are paying full price. But a three- or six-month free trial with a subscription to Bloomberg All-Access doesn’t feel like it’s undermining the company’s full-price offerings too much, and it could help juice The Athletic’s subscriber numbers for the moment. However, the real key will be how many of these new subscribers stick around for the long term.