The Athletic

In a previous article, I shared my thoughts on The Athletic, as the site expands rapidly in terms of both the cities and sports it covers. For that article, I hopped on the phone with COO Adam Hansmann, and although I managed to fit only one of his quotes into the piece, I thought there was enough in our conversation to warrant publishing a full Q&A. Here are some highlights from my 30-minute interview with Adam, with his answers only lightly edited for clarity.

On whether The Athletic will need more money beyond the $20 million they recently raised:

I can’t comment on whether or not we would ever potentially be looking to raise more money. I think with this round, we were very confident that we can execute our vision, which is to get into as many markets as we can and cover major sports at a national vertical level and build a big profitable business without any additional funding. 

On how and why The Athletic became so much more aggressive in terms of both raising capital and hiring:

I would say one of the earlier catalysts for us in terms of really leaning in and just being as optimistic as ever about the idea of The Athletic was really seeing the success we had in Toronto, which was our second market. That was kind of the early part of 2017, and I would say more from a macro standpoint, kind of in the spring and early summer of 2017, what started to happen outside of our walls was ESPN going through a huge editorial downsizing, Fox Sports pivoting to video and, as you know, some of those scenarios freeing up talent like Stewart Mandel, or Seth Davis, or Ken Rosenthal.

I would say it’s kind of that coming around the bend and over the summer with some of the bigger-name national hires that we made and continuing to see just strong growth in our local markets and giving us the confidence to make big bets on marquee national names. And then obviously, we launched a bunch of these new cities in the fall as well. It wasn’t one thing. I think we had conviction that local was performing, and we were really excited about that. But obviously, some macro factors probably accelerated the pace at which we were investing in some of the bigger names.

On the idea that The Athletic might eventually need to raise its prices — maybe getting into video to warrant higher subscription fees:

I think that I would disagree. We look at the markets in which we’ve been active for over a year, and we’re profitable in all of them already. So, in fact, if we just keep doing that, we’re gonna be in a place we could explore going into new formats like podcasts or videos, but we’re not feeling pressure to grow a big user base at one price and then flip a switch and have it be another price. We’re not feeling that pressure at all today.

On how The Athletic decides who to hire and what cities and sports to invest in:

There are a lot of spreadsheets with a lot of names on them in terms of journalists that cover Team X or Team Y. It’s a combination approach. We don’t want to be just sort of going out and trying to just recruit big names that everyone might have heard of.

We have found that there are a lot of underutilized young talent, especially in local markets, where finding an expert on a market really helps. Someone might be writing at a SB Nation site just part-time, but they might have extremely sharp insight and potentially even bigger potential in terms of going and doing reporting if we can get someone a credential.

So I think we’ve sort of taken a sport-by-sport approach. You saw us make a big push into hockey in 2017. This spring, a huge push into baseball with Ken Rosenthal and a kind of local crew. It’s a lot of conversations. From the public’s point of view, it looks like we just sort of snap our fingers and make a bunch of hires. But my co-founder and I, as well as Paul Fichtenbaum and multiple parties throughout the organization are on the phone every single day for multiple hours having conversations. I realize it’s become a meme for us to hire people and have them announce that on Twitter, but we don’t get everybody that we recruit. People have told us to go pound sand.

We have a pretty good hit rate and success rate, but there are certainly still some journalists who I would say have prudent concerns about if this model is going to work or is this the future. I feel like we try to address those concerns with data or internal testimonials from staff members who are already on our side that are saying, “Wow, this is great.” 

On which sports The Athletic is investing in most heavily:

Baseball and hockey are the sports where if you turn on a game that isn’t relevant to you in terms of your rooting interest, unless you are some kind of fantasy diehard, you’re probably not going to watch that game. So I’m a Reds fan and if I turn on Yankees-Red Sox, I’m not that interested and I’m probably going to move on.

From just kind of the way other publishers and outlets serve fans at scale, they focus on topics, teams, leagues, sports, that are relevant to a wide swath of people. Think about Fox Sports. You turn on TV programming and you see LeBron, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, etc. You don’t see a lot of talk about the local baseball or hockey teams. I think baseball and hockey are unique in that respect, and that’s why it’s sort of no coincidence that we’ve been able to invest heavily into both those sports.

I would also say that we got lucky in that we were able to recruit a truly world-class journalist like Ken Rosenthal to join us on the writing side, and he’s been instrumental in helping us build the team. Local baseball journalists in markets like Cincinnati or San Francisco… you look at the team you started to build, and they wanted to be a part of that, and that has absolutely helped us in terms of recruiting people away from mostly stable jobs in many cases.

On the balance between local and national strategy:

I would say we dipped our toes in early, opportunistically, when some of the bigger-name national writers became available. That investment has been critical to us in terms of raising awareness about us. When Ken Rosenthal breaks news and the news or the tweet has The Athletic in it, that’s just huge for us in terms of raising awareness.

I would also say adding national coverage to our bundle has dramatically improved the overall product. Readers are sort of consuming all of it. Not just the local. Not just the national stuff. I think continuing to improve the bundle is very strategic for us. If you think about 20 or 30 years ago, people might have subscribed to a local newspaper to get their local sports and Sports Illustrated or some other news magazine to get feature writing. We’ve taken the approach of combining those things at a very affordable price. We are seeing that users love it, and having Ken Rosenthal helps us grow in local markets because if Ken breaks a story about the Cubs or the White Sox, that sort of just nudges the market of Chicago along, as one example.

On the age-old question of whether The Athletic is a technology company or a media company:

We’re a media company. Period. I think we’re obviously geographically based in San Francisco, but we certainly leverage access to investors and a kind of tech DNA, in terms of we care a lot about the user experience and supporting the work we do with great technology. But we’re a media company. And we’re pretty proud of that.

On The Athletic’s valuation (my guess being that the company is probably worth close to nine figures):

We’re not going to share those details. I totally understand your curiosity, but we’re going to keep it close to the vest. Obviously, we’re not going to dilute ourselves by 90% or something crazy, but we are going to keep those details private.

On whether The Athletic could move beyond sports (given its reported interest in buying ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight):

So I definitely can’t comment on any of the rumors with FiveThirtyEight, but I think right now, to be honest, our focus is on expanding coverage for pro and college sports fans in North America. We’re on the clock, we have a lot of people who subscribe because of people like Ken Rosenthal and are like, “When are you guys gonna cover the Orioles or the Mariners?” We are literally spending most of our time addressing that, rather than worrying about anything outside of sports, most of the time.

About Ben Koo

Owner and editor of @AwfulAnnouncing. Recovering Silicon Valley startup guy. Fan of Buckeyes, A's, dogs, naps, tacos. and the old AOL dialup sounds