A New Sports Authority

Issue 07-31-17   |   Reviewer:   Bob Cohen, MBA


While the biggest names in sports journalism are struggling, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, founders of The Athletic, an eighteen-month-old online sports publication, see opportunity by scooping off laid-off writers and put them to work building a new kind of sports news operation as the traditional industry leaders are in retreat. Their plan is simple. Instead of relying on ad revenue, The Athletic charges subscribers $40 annually for in-depth coverage of local sports focused on the kind of coverage readers can’t find either online or in print media. And who would be willing to pay for content online? People who are fanatically devoted to their favorite sport and team or, as Mather calls them, “the maniacs.”

Mather and Hansmann developed their philosophy about sports journalism while working at Strava, the social network for endurance athletes. Strava consciously ignored the priorities of casual runners and bikers and focused on the die-hard enthusiasts. Believing that the “true” fan has become tired of the “fluff” they get at ESPN or in the local paper, it became simply the case of convincing readers that it's making something good enough to justify the price tag. The company first launched in Chicago in 2016 on the hunch that it was finally the year for the Cubs. Good call. When it launched in Cleveland earlier this year, it poached one of the most well-known local writers covering the Cleveland Cavaliers and signed 1,000 subscribers within forty-eight hours. The Athletic also set up operations in Toronto, where it found its most fertile audience among the city's hockey fans. The company says the city is its most successful market, with more than 10,000 subscribers. It's also the only city where it turns a profit.

The Athletic's business strategy is reflected in its product design. Instead of concentrating on clickable content to generate advertising revenue, its editorial focus is on analysis rather than breaking news, with only a few articles posted for each city every day. Subscribers select teams they are interested in and see news about only those teams. With an influx of new capital, The Athletic plans to triple its editorial staff to seventy-five and launch in three to four cities by the end of the year, including San Francisco and Philadelphia. But it is also diving deeply into the NHL by launching hockey coverage in six cities in Canada that have teams in the league and beginning coverage of NCAA football and basketball.

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