If you aren’t a reader of The Athletic, a subscription-based and regionally focused conglomeration of sports sites, then you’ve probably at least heard of them after they went on a massive hiring spree and loaded up on writers who fell victim to layoffs that swept through the industry. They’ve grown rapidly over the past six months, and the New York Times’s Kevin Draper dropped an in-depth look at the company today (A disclosure: Draper used to spout vile Warriors takes for Deadspin.) The profile shows a company run by insatiable executives with little interest in hewing to norms or playing nice. This is, somehow, the point, since The Athletic is fundamentally offering newspaper stories yet needs to present itself as something more.
The Athletic was founded by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, who come from the technology industry and most recently worked together at Strava, a social network for endurance athletes. The most attention-grabbing line comes early from one of the company’s co-founders who regards the sportswriting industry as a mosquito would an exposed vein:
“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”
“In a city like Chicago, there are 100,000 die-hard fans,” Mather said. “That is a very lucrative subscription business. There are over 100,000 die-hard fans of Chicago teams outside of Chicago,” he added, and he says they aren’t served well. “Bleacher Report is empty calories. SB Nation is empty calories. The newspapers are doing nothing.”
These are rude things to say, and using the space allotted to you by a paper like the Times to call your competitors morons and openly wish for their demise (especially when you are new to the industry, as The Athletic’s founders are) is something an asshole would do. They’ve drawn a ton of criticism from reporters, observers, and subscribers, who (fairly) feel threatened by people who plainly present themselves as vultures picking over the carcasses of once-noble outlets.
The thing is, though, that’s how the entire industry works. As the market for sportswriting slowly shrinks and executives siphon off resources and jobs for noxious video concerns, the competition for eyeballs will only grow more ruthless. Everyone in this industry wants to see writers get paid, but if you think that urge comes at the expense of self-preservation, I have a bill of goods to sell you. Of course The Athletic wants to reach the top of the heap! So does the New York Times. So does Bleacher Report. So does the New Yorker. So does Deadspin. Mather calling for the blood of newspapers to run through the streets is ghoulish bullshit, but they are his direct competitors, and that’s how competition works across all industries. Nobody who claims to be trying to fundamentally alter the structure of an industry can really see that industry any other way.
Where Mather’s overly dramatic indictment of the system misses the point is where The Athletic enters the picture. The Athletic now has 65 editorial employees and an expanding roster of region-specific sites. The work they produce can be very good (I learned a lot from this breakdown of the surprising Cal defense, for example), which is no surprise given the roster they’ve assembled. Ken Rosenthal even breaks news for them now. They are launching nationally focused college sports sites soon, and their local writers work their beats, pen columns, and break down tape.
In every sense of the word but the physical, they are a newspaper. There isn’t much that’s revolutionary about the whole venture, other than the subscription model (which has worked on smaller scales for local sports) and the lack of ads. Paywalls are nothing new, nor is a network of team sites orbiting around a hub. The Athletic is a fusion of old-timey newspapers and sports blogs, whether their founders want to admit it or not. This quote, for example, is a drastic misread of how bundles (The Athletic is also a bundle) and also newspapers work:
Newspapers are a classic example of a bundle. Subscribers might read just one section, but their subscription gets them the entire paper. Mather and Hansmann believe sports is an undervalued part of that bundle, and that there are tens of thousands of sports fans in each city who don’t care about the other sections, and would rather jettison their subscription and pay for The Athletic instead.
“I think the sports page has carried local papers for a while, and they don’t treat it well,” Mather said.
Mather also conflated a lack of advertisers with a surge in quality, which is a fundamental misread that assumes breaking beat writers free of their newspaper chains to do the exact same sort of coverage for The Athletic will lead to better writing:
“The advertising business model does not align with quality,” Mather said. “It’s hot takes instead of objective analysis, it’s short-term instead of long-term, it’s serving sponsors instead of users, it’s thinking big instead of great.”
Mather and Hansmann are using the rhetoric of Silicon Valley thinkovation to sell what is essentially an evolution of the existing model of sports journalism as a paradigm-shattering breakthrough. It’s not like they are actually making money yet. As they admitted, only two of the sites break even. So how can they afford to hire Rosenthal, Stewart Mandel, and Seth Davis?
The Athletic raised $5.6 million in venture capital financing in July to take advantage of the moment, adding to the $2.3 million seed round it raised in January.
This explains why the project is growing like a virus, with already-rapid expansion speeding up even further than planned to take advantage of the unexpected influx of unemployed writers. The sustainability of the model feels dubious—it’s not really that much VC money, and, meanwhile, the very first story on The Athletic Winnipeg was about how they had failed to make any hires for that site—but sustainability maybe isn’t the idea.
Mather and Hansmann are very straightforward that this is a startup venture, and while they make noise about wanting to become the next Spotify or Netflix, the life cycle of most successful new companies ends with them getting sold to and absorbed by a larger entity within two or three years. The playbook is the same; grow as rapidly as possible with the help of VC funding, focus on adding users rather than on being profitable, eventually prove to a larger competitor that you’re worth being scared of, and cash a big check. Whether or not this is The Athletic’s ultimate goal isn’t clear, and for their part, Mather and Hansmann deny that they just want to sell their company after it swells to a sufficient volume. It’s clear that they want to produce work and stake a claim to a large piece of an increasingly divided industry pie; whether they can do so untethered from VC money, and whether that’s even in their plans, are two separate questions altogether.