To date, The Athletic has focused most of its (massive amounts of) hiring on grabbing beat writers to cover specific pro teams in different cities, with their college sports coverage instead mostly taking a national approach under Stewart Mandel (college football) and Seth Davis (college basketball). (There’s also been some college coverage in cities where The Athletic has a presence for other sports, but most of the NCAA coverage has come from the national sites.)
It appears they’re about to expand the beat writer approach to college football as well, though, with Mandel announcing Wednesday that they’ve hired David Ubben and Seth Emerson to cover Tennessee and Georgia respectively, and that further hires are in the works. Here’s more from his (non-paywalled) piece:
Today, I’m excited to reveal that expansion is coming to The Athletic’s college football coverage as well, with dedicated beat writers for major programs around the country. And we’ll begin that push with the conference that placed two teams in last season’s national championship game.
We’re thrilled to welcome distinguished writers Seth Emerson to cover the University of Georgia and David Ubben to cover the University of Tennessee. Seth’s first story for The Athletic ran today. David will begin writing for us next month.
… We couldn’t ask for a better group to kick off The All-American 2.0, but we’re by no means finished growing our roster. Over the next several months you’ll see more announcements like this one for coverage of other major programs in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and more.
Those are interesting first hires, as while Georgia won the SEC title and made the College Football Playoff championship game last year (losing 26-23 to Alabama in overtime), the 2017 campaign marked their first conference title since 2005. Tennessee went 4-8 last year and fired head coach Butch Jones, and they haven’t won a conference title or a national championship since 1998. There’s certainly plenty of passion around both schools, and plenty of interesting storylines, but they’re not necessarily the first two programs you’d think of when starting this kind of endeavor. And that, combined with hiring these guys as school-specific rather than conference-specific writers, is a further suggestion that there’s a whole lot more to come here.
It’s notable that The Athletic may face more subscription-focused competition in covering college football than it does in many other areas, though. Like other sports, college football has significant local newspaper coverage with a variety of eventual paywalls, but it’s also one area of sports where paywalled team-specific sites have already taken off, with Rivals, Scout, and 247 (the latter two now both owned by CBS) all having a presence in that market.
On one hand, that may be helpful for The Athletic, as they could potentially hire people from those sites as well as from local newspapers (which have been the main source of their hires for many of their other positions), but it does mean there’s already extremely-focused subscription-based competition. And those sites have especially done well with a focus on recruiting and with a focus on forums, both elements that could be difficult for The Athletic to duplicate.
Now, there certainly could be plenty of fans willing to pay both for a Rivals/Scout/247 subscription (or multiple subscriptions there, even) and an Athletic subscription, so this could still work out fine for the site. And further college football coverage could help make The Athletic a better sell to sports fans in general as well, especially if they’re adding beat writers for a whole lot of big teams (which it seems like they’ll be doing). But it is notable that this is one area of sports where The Athletic’s selling point of “Pay us for detailed digital coverage of your local team” is already successful for others, and where there’s already significant digital subscription-based competition. We’ll see how this works out for them.