This week, the three-year old US startup, which is fresh from a $90 million funding round, launched in the UK following reports of high-profile signings from the top flight of British football media, including writers that had held senior positions at publications such as The Times, The Guardian, The BBC, and The Independent. The journalists appear to have been hired with extremely specific beats, with at least one writer for each team in the English Premier League with some teams covered by two or three writers.
So sweeping was the hiring spree that sites such as the Press Gazette took the unusual step of publishing the entire team sheet of the site’s UK staff. Though the company has not disclosed the terms of any of these writers’ deals, it has admitted that salaries were “extremely competitive”.
Speaking to the Press Gazette, Managing Director of UK Ops, Ed Malyon (formerly sports editor of The Independent), played down reports that The Athletic had doubled writers’ salaries. “We didn’t rifle in asking people their salaries, we offered them what we know they’re worth,” he told the trade paper.
This said, he added that they “didn’t need much convincing” despite the fact that many had never heard of the site. With this new hiring round complete, The Athletic will boast a 450-strong editorial department globally.
It’s not the first time the well-funded startup has come after newspapers. In the US, its method saw it poach multiple writers from the same paper, meaning that some local papers were left with gaping holes in their sport departments. In 2017, CEO Alex Mather told the New York Times that the strategy was to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.” He later apologised for the tone, if not the content of his comments.
The model hinges on the ability to sell subscriptions of £9.99 a month or £59.99 per year (there is currently a 50% off deal for annual subscribers). The site will run a “no ads, no clickbait” service in return.
In the US, the service has largely worked, said Daniel Gulati, MD of Comcast Ventures, a backer of the company, as around 80% of The Athletic’s US readers renewed their subscriptions for a year. The company and its backers argue that despite the wide variety of general interest and specialist publications covering football, readers are currently under rather than overserved.
The Athletic is pursuing a lucrative audience, according to The Athletic’s COO and Co-founder Adam Hansmann. “We see ourselves soon in a class with companies like the FT and Wall Street Journal that have proven subscription models.”
However, its USP is its local strategy, meaning coverage of the smaller clubs that the national dailies have neither the resources nor the readers to justify writing about. “I think what we are going to see is a real interest from clubs like Norwich and Southampton”, says Malyon. “If no-one else is offering even a half-decent effort in terms of covering Southampton, or Derby County, or Leeds, then that’s a huge opportunity for us.”
While discussions of subscription fatigue are ongoing, the economics of membership models has become an area of sober industry discussion. It boils down, however, to quite a simple number, according to Sam Jordan, EVP, Media and Membership at Manifesto Growth Architects, engagement is the element that allows companies to maintain subscribers and then drive additional revenue sources.
Of course, unlike many media-based subscription models, The Athletic’s bread and butter is coverage of sport – specifically football. It’s difficult to overstate the level of fanaticism that fans feel for their club, matched only by the quantities of money they spend on tickets, shirts, and travel to see their club. If The Athletic is the only place they can read about their teams mid-week, those fans may just be unable to resist.
Sourced from the Financial Times, Press Gazette, New York Times, WARC