With funding rounds and coverage expansions (both in existing sports and into new sports), subscription site The Athletic is regularly in the news, but how many people actually subscribe to the site hasn’t been stated publicly for a while. Now, The Athletic is saying that the site has more than 500,000 subscribers and that they expect to almost double that number again by the end of the year. That’s as per comments The Athletic co-founder and CEO Alex Mather made to Bloomberg’s Ira Boudway, which also include Mather saying they make $64 on average per subscriber and that most of their markets are profitable:
The Athletic, a sports-news subscription service launched in 2016, said it has reached more than 500,000 subscribers and expects to nearly double that total by year-end.
The site, which attracted 300,000 subscribers last year, crossed the half-million mark in June, said Alex Mather, co-founder and chief executive officer. “We’ll end the year somewhere close to a million,” he said.
The Athletic, based in San Francisco, is an ad-free, online-only network for local sports coverage. Subscriptions cost $10 a month or $60 a year, though many customers have signed up at lower promotional rates. The site’s average annual revenue per subscriber is roughly $64, Mather said.
…The site has yet to show an overall profit but is profitable in all but a few markets, and new cities routinely achieve profitability within a year, Mather said.
The biggest piece of news here is the 500,000 subscribers, as the site’s subscriber numbers haven’t been stated publicly for a while. Last March, around a funding round, Mather told Benjamin Mullin of The Wall Street Journal they had “six figures” in subscribers, and another Mullin article last June included “the site says it has more than 100,000 subscribers.” But “more than 100,000” seems to be the main thing anyone went with for a while; in October, a Sara Fischer piece at Axios on another funding round included “The company has 300 full-time employees, over 100,000 subscribers and a 90% renewal rate,” but it’s unclear if that was an updated number or based off the June report. At any rate, the site now saying they have more than 500,000 subscribers is significant news, and it illustrates just how far The Athletic has grown.
Mather’s comment of “We’ll end the year somewhere close to a million” is also a bold one, and it’s interesting to ponder. In order to do that, The Athletic would have to bring in almost as many people as currently subscribe over the span of the remaining five months of the year, and they’d have to do so without losing a lot of subscribers along the way. (If there’s significant subscriber churn, they’d then have to bring in even more new people.)
The site does have some big launches planned, including the English Premier League one. Maybe that will help them attract a lot of new subscribers in the United Kingdom (which has a population of 66 million people, and most of them probably aren’t existing Athletic subscribers). And given the popularity of the Premier League, covering it may also boost their appeal in the U.S. and in other areas of the world. On the stateside front, it’s also possible they’ll pick up more people in the U.S. once the college football and NFL (two areas they’re again expanding) seasons start. But it will be interesting to see if they’re able to bring in new subscribers on the scale Mather thinks they can.
It’s also notable to hear Mather say the average annual revenue per subscriber is $64. That’s higher than the $60 a year rate (before any promotional discounts), and it would imply they have a lot of people on monthly subscriptions who wind up keeping the site for longer than six months. We’ll see if that average annual revenue stays as high; it would seemingly be logical for it to be lower (it would make financial sense for monthly subscribers to convert to an annual subscription if they’re going to keep the site longer than six months, presuming they can afford a one-time $60 payment), but the lower commitment of month-by-month may have its own appeal to some. There also may be some people who signed up on a month-to-month basis and then never bothered to cancel.
The Premier League expansion in particular may be a crucial move for The Athletic. They’ve reportedly brought in a lot of talent there (so much so that it’s attracted attention from UK writers who appear to have never read anything about The Athletic), and there’s certainly a large market of fans in the UK and around the world who are interested in that league. Will they be interested enough to sign up for The Athletic and further boost these subscriber numbers, though? That’s the million dollar, or million subscriber, question.