The Athletic has made plenty of news lately, raising another $20 million in March while talking of plans to more than double their staff and expand to 45 markets from the then-23 (plus offer coverage of soccer in the U.S., the UK and Mexico), launching new sites in big markets like Boston, and since adding well-known names like Richard Deitsch and Rick Reilly.
Chief content officer Paul Fichtenbaum (the former Sports Illustrated Group editor, who joined The Athletic as a consultant in the summer of 2016 and came on full-time last summer) took an hour-long conference call with Mark Burns of Sports Business Chronicle for SBC subscribers Friday, and he had lots of interesting things to say about The Athletic’s strategy.
Fichtenbaum’s comments were especially notable on the subject of reaching fans of teams and sports that don’t always receive a lot of national or even local coverage, like hockey. That’s something The Athletic COO Adam Hansmann mentioned in an interview with AA’s Ben Koo earlier this year, and Fichtenbaum had some interesting things to say on that front. More information on the call (part of an ongoing series for SBC subscribers) can be found on the SBC site; here are a few highlights from Fichtenbaum’s remarks.
Fichtenbaum said The Athletic’s expansion is going well overall, particularly in some areas where there have been a lot of local media cutbacks.
“Things are going as we had thought it out and planned. We’re getting great buy-in in a lot of places. There’s a lot of markets that used to be three-newspaper towns, two-newspaper towns that have been consolidated into one-newspaper towns, and we knew in some of those markets where there are few choices for the local fan, we could make a big impact.”
He said their venture to Toronto, their second city site following Chicago, went especially well, and part of that was about gaps in hockey coverage in the existing media.
“When we launched Toronto, there was a great outpouring of support. Even in the capital of Canada [note: the capital of Canada is actually Ottawa], there was not as much coverage of their national sport as there used to be. And if you think about the newspaper industry in Canada and the industry in the U.S., the industry in Canada’s been hit even harder by pullbacks in support and consolidations than in the U.S.”
Fichtenbaum said that led to their push into hockey coverage across Canada.
“So there was definitely an opportunity, and we realized how little coverage there was for hockey across the board. So we started getting more aggressive. In September of 2017, we had a pretty big launch, we launched the national hockey vertical as well as coverage in the rest of the Canadian NHL cities that we did not have coverage in previously. And it’s been a raging success for us.”
He said that in turn inspired them to do more hockey in the U.S., where they’ve brought in well-known writers like ex-ESPNers Pierre LeBrun, Scott Burnside and Corey Pronman on the national level and have hired plenty of well-known beat writers at the local level. Fichtenbaum said hockey has been a selling point for their coverage in many cities, especially those where the local NHL team is seen as receiving short shrift in the traditional media relative to other teams.
“As we’ve expanded that footprint across North America, in the U.S., hockey is a very big stronghold for us because so many outlets, so many local entities, when they cut back on their coverage, a lot of the time, hockey is the first sport to go. Because of the major sports, it’s perceived to have the smallest fanbase. So we’ve been able to go into a lot of places and provide some really good coverage, and the response has been pretty excited.”
Fichtenbaum said their plan in each market differs, but their long-term focus allows to launch sites with just one or two writers and build from there. And in one particular spot, hockey was the natural jumping-off point.
“We definitely take into account the market size and the possibilities, but the really cool thing is that we’re always thinking long term. And that’s why sometimes we’ll even launch a market with one or two writers and then build out from there. We did that in Minnesota, we launched hockey coverage with Mike Russo, and three months later, we now cover every professional team and a bunch of college hockey teams in Minnesota. So the great part is that the founders have a long-term vision here. We’re not really concerned with the short-term blips, we feel that if we do the right thing, we can make a really good business out of it.”
He said some of determining a market’s coverage is about advance preparations, but some is about response from readers who tell them what they want, and that’s sometimes been more coverage of hockey and soccer.
“We definitely go in and we have the eyeball test and we determine what the coverage levels are across the board, and then we make decisions based on the best knowledge that we have, and then we roll with that. For example, in New York, we launched in New York in early February, and right after we launched, we had a lot of inquiries saying ‘How come you don’t have a dedicated beat reporter for the Devils?’ and ‘How come you don’t have a dedicated beat reporter for the two MLS teams?’ And we got enough of those inquiries that we said ‘Okay, we’re going to cover the Devils and the two soccer teams,’ so we went out and we brought people in for those beats. So, you know, we have our ear to the ground.”
Fichtenbaum said that kind of listening and reacting to what the audience wants is going to be key to keeping subscribers for the long term.
“Every market is different, they’re run independently by local editors and writers, so they know the markets best. But at a corporate level, we definitely have our ear to the ground. We take requests seriously, that’s part of our community. And we’re there to super-serve a passionate audience, and we know that if we can super-serve a passionate audience, we’re going to have a really strong business. We’re never going to be done, we’re always going to be evolving, and we’re always going to be listening to the readership, what they’re looking for, and then try and serve them the kind of content that would make them be a subscriber and eventually continue to be a subscriber.”
The Athletic started with a local focus, then dramatically expanded its national coverage last year with hires like Seth Davis and Stewart Mandel and the launch of national verticals for sports like college basketball and football in addition to hockey. Fichtenbaum said local is still the priority, and the national expansion was largely thanks to the writers that became available thanks to major layoffs elsewhere, but it allows them to offer much more content to draw new subscribers.
“We definitely super-serve the local fan and that is our bread and butter. The national verticals that we’ve launched have been opportunistic in a lot of ways, there was a lot of talent to be had because of the marketplace. And what we can do is create a product that overlays the national coverage and the local coverage. And the beautiful part is that the platform is customizable enough that you can choose the kinds of stories that you want, the authors that you’re looking for, the teams you’re hoping to get more information on. You can personalize it to your specs. …We think they work well together, and have not had any conflicts because of it. It’s just more choice for the subscriber.”
Fichtenbaum said some markets work quickly and some take more time, but even smaller markets can work for them in the long run.
“We want to make sure that we have a long-term plan for all of our markets. We know that there are some markets we’re going to go into that are going to be a huge hit immediately, and that happened for us in the Bay Area. We launched on August 1 and I have to say we have a best in class edit team there, they made dramatic movement immediately and have continued. There are some markets that we know are smaller and might not have as many passionate fans, yet we’re committed for the long term, and we think that over the long term, we can make even smaller markets with fewer than the full slate of professional teams, we still think we can make that a good business. And we have so many other local businesses around the country to support it, both on the business and the edit side, and these national overlays that we think we add tremendous value.”
Overall, he said The Athletic will find success by picking up the top talents that consumers want to read.
“It’s really finding the best talent in the market and seeing if we can bring that best talent on board. If we can produce things that are better than the competition, then we’re going to win.”