The Athletic, the subscription-based sports news startup aiming to make local newspaper sports sections obsolete, has all the momentum in the world. It’s raised more than $90 million in venture-capital funding, has expanded to nearly 50 cities in the U.S. and Canada, and is now launching English Premier League coverage across the pond. From one angle, it’s a shining example of Silicon Valley success. From another angle, the numerical one, it scans as a much fishier operation.
Last week, Bloomberg published what was essentially a press release for The Athletic, reporting that the subscription-based sports news startup had reached 500,000 subscribers. The article was based entirely on statements from The Athletic co-founder Alex Mather, who told Bloomberg that the average annual revenue per subscriber is roughly $64, and that “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 also says that the site will double its number of subscribers to reach one million by the end of the year. This is either confidently ambitious, or the claim of someone who’s taken in nearly $100 million in venture capital and is under immense pressure to continue to grow and/or turn a profit. Let’s do some math:
- 500,000 subscribers x $64 per subscription* = $32 million in revenue
*The cost for a one-year subscription is $4.99/month or $59.88/year. The Athletic also routinely offers discount codes, bringing this cost down even further. The cost for a one-year “gift plan” (which The Athletic’s website says is the “most popular”) is $47.99/year. How all of this adds up to make each subscription worth $64 is a bit of a mystery.
The New York Times reported a year ago that the site has more than 300 full-time editorial employees. The Athletic has continued to hire at a steady rate since that article was published, launching a sports business site with a dozen writers and editors and hiring a swath of reporters to cover the English Premier League. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll be conservative and follow Temple University professor Aron Pilhofer’s lead:
(The rumors about what Athletic staffers make are legendary—and to pry big names away from legacy media jobs, The Athletic has had to shell out a lot of cash—so that $75,000 average salary could be on the very conservative side.)
As Philhofer points out, the cost for salaries and benefits alone is about $32 million per year, and that doesn’t include “office, support, tech, sales, travel, and a zillion other costs of doing business.” Mather said The Athletic is not profitable, and that tracks.
Everything else he said in the Bloomberg press release doesn’t line up as neatly. If The Athletic did indeed reach 500,000 subscribers this summer, nearly four years since it was founded (in November 2015), it would have to match that number in the next six months to reach 1 million subscribers by the end of the year. Even with the launch of The Athletic UK, that seems unrealistic.
But this is how venture capital works: A startup grows and grows and grows, or gives the illusion of growth, counting on the big payoff at the end. Until and if it reaches that payoff, it needs to keep bringing in investor money, and investors only want to invest in businesses that are, or at least present as, successful. Given the numbers and expectations Mather shared with Bloomberg, it seems increasingly likely that The Athletic is going to hit a big payoff or collapse under a mountain of debt. Here’s hoping for the former.