Will flush sports start-ups like The Athletic give older media players a kicking?

A rare journalistic poaching spree by the US subscription site has raised eyebrows

A new season of the Premier League dribbles into life this Saturday and with it comes some eye-catching changes to how its lucrative fixtures are covered in the media.

It's not just that Premier Sports (in the Irish market) and Amazon Prime Video (in the UK) now have rights to a batch of matches under the latest three-year broadcasting deal. The line-up of sportswriters reporting on the main action and its many side-circuses has also been subject to unusual levels of pre-season transfer activity.

Enter The Athletic. It's an ad-free US sport news subscription service that since 2016 has merrily been covering the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and other acronyms representing major US leagues. Now its tendrils have well and truly crossed the Atlantic after an unprecedented poaching spree of journalists employed to cover the Premier League.

Confirmed signings include the Guardian’s chief football writer Daniel Taylor, the BBC’s football correspondent David Ornstein, the Times chief sports correspondent Oliver Kay. This hack hat-trick is just the tip of some frantic transfer business. With as many as 50-55 jobs at its first overseas base, The Athletic appears to be splashing more cash than a striker hitting the pub after their first contract.


Well, those essays on the shortcomings of VAR won’t write themselves. But as The Athletic UK managing director Ed Malyon put it in a post, “if you were designing a sports website or app from scratch to be the best it could be for a reader, it wouldn’t feature a homogenous gaggle of miserable graduates sat in offices hammering out rehashed transfer stories from dubious sources”.


Transfer opportunities

There’s an amusing novelty in this. Journalists, even sports journalists whose job is the envy of many, have a tendency to feel unloved. Even medium-money transfers are rarer opportunities than most would like. A fully fledged transfer window, one that causes secondary hiring ripples as sports desks race to replace lost personnel, can understandably spur feverish levels of industry glee.

For media outlets that either can’t or won’t pay up enough to keep their star names, the immediate risk here is that they will shed readers who have more loyalty to individual journalists than the masthead.

It’s a bad ball to drop. Sports journalism, more than any other segment of the media, encourages a style that is replete with heightened emotion and almost literary levels of pondering. In broadcasting, this can come across as pompous, even tedious. But the best exponents of the written word are able to take this latitude and have a field day with it. Their insight, turn of phrase and ability to be creative in mid-sentence wins them an elevated reputation with readers.

Everybody can be replaced – at a cost. But The Athletic is about more than the team it assembles. Just the fact that it exists poses a threat to a model of news media – the bundling of hard news with softer topics – that has existed for so long, it’s easy to be assume it will be around forever.

Sport is reliably commercial. If this wasn’t the case, newspapers wouldn’t devote so many pages to it and general news sites and apps wouldn’t showcase it so prominently either. Hard news bundled with sports news is simply more saleable than hard news on its own. But if outlets like The Athletic keep popping up, mass market news titles will be put under pressure – more pressure – from this debundling trend.

There’s already a plethora of sports content sites, apps and podcasts chipping away at the audience for older news media companies, usually thanks to the underpaid labours of early career devotees, aka Malyon’s “gaggle of miserable graduates”.

The phenomenon of sporting organisations pumping out in-house content, often while making themselves less available to independent journalists, also has potential to hurt, as does the fact that sportspeople can and do communicate directly with fans via social media platforms – an everyday example of disintermediation.

None of these developments have been especially good news for journalists who pride themselves on a contacts book built up over years of dedicated specialism.

Venture capital

But The Athletic is a different kettle of competitor in origin as well as style. A start-up based in San Francisco, it is situated beautifully close to all that nice venture capital money that might otherwise be wasted on apps with single-syllable names, vague mission statements, no obvious revenue streams and highly dubious rationales for existing.

Investors have duly poured more than $90 million (€80.7 million) into its brand of sports journalism, with backers including Founders Fund and Comcast Ventures.

The company told Bloomberg last week that subscriber numbers exceed an impressive 500,000 and that it makes an average of $64 per subscriber a year. (The site costs $10 a month in the US, though many signed up at promotional rates.)

Alex Mather, its chief executive and co-founder, says it is now targeting close to a million subscribers by the end of 2019. At least some will come from The Athletic UK, which costs less than £30 annually (a 50 per cent discount rate) in the first year.

Ambition doesn’t guarantee success, of course, and it’s possible that The Athletic will wind up collapsed in a heap of hubris and debt, its writers out of work, its funders out of pocket. But equally, by investing in journalists, it has the capability to make a big impact on this tilting pitch.