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The Athletic: Friend or Foe?

Jon Tibbs, chairman and founder of JTA considers the impact of The Athletic’s first move outside its US homeland.

Jon Tibbs

By hurling itself into a UK sports journalism market that has already suffered more than a decade of disruption, The Athletic has timed its run as perfectly as an Olympic champion’s sprint finish.

The position of primacy that newspapers have enjoyed for centuries as sport’s written word informers and entertainers has rapidly been overtaken by a digitally instant, social media world.

Many outlets have found themselves in a mortal fight for their very existence. The original FANG group of companies – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google – have bitten, eating away at the advertising revenues that had previously made the broadsheets’ and red tops’ expensively-maintained newsrooms viable.

And it was the staff who paid the heaviest toll. Cost-cutting redundancy rounds – an inevitable exercise in a new, parsimonious paradigm – left destruction and disaffection in their wake.

Running into this hurricane has come The Athletic, a three-year-old start-up from across the Atlantic, creating a whirlwind of its own. The US sports news website launched its football- dedicated UK site in August 2019, with Premier League teams as its current focus.

Disgruntled newspaper journalists have readily made the leap, allowing the online-only publication to assemble a writing team consisting of some of the brightest minds in British sports journalism at a breakneck pace. The speed of The Athletic’s UK expansion has itself been a very clever marketing strategy. The social media that have so undermined news outlets have also served to create individual brands among journalists.

And the seemingly daily tweets from one respected writer after another, announcing his or her departure from their long-held jobs, have created a buzz around this new big beast of sports writing among the target audience of digitally engaged football fans. It has been possible by offering meaningful salary and equity packages to journalists who have been feeling the squeeze of austerity longer than any public sector employee.

The Athletic’s commitment to covering every single Premier League club extensively, each with at least one dedicated reporter, will serve readers well. There is a large caucus of football fans whose teams have been underserved by a stretched traditional media who play the numbers game of focusing their attentions on the clubs with the biggest followings.

But it is not only here that The Athletic will differ from what the old school has become. Recognising that people are fed up with the invasive pop-ups and pop-unders that force feed readers with unwanted advertising content, The Athletic goes for a clean, ad-free design. To accommodate this, the revenue model is subscription only, charging readers an annual fee of around $60 (€55). Similar rates will apply in the UK after the initial discounted launch offer has expired.

The Athletic’s publishers know that, like the subscribers of SportBusiness, readers will pay for quality, specialist content from a trusted source. None of this though would likely have been possible without the $60m + of venture capital backing that supports the start-up financially.

And such money seldom sits silent. There is always a need for a return on investment in any business and the publishing industry is no different. Observing how The Athletic goes about that will be interesting.

There have been worthy pledges to eschew clickbait and transfer tittle tattle in favour of a more reflective genre of journalism.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that those less refined subjects are only so ubiquitous because they are hungrily consumed by so many people. However dispiriting people may find this fact, transfer news has become the opium of the football masses.

For all The Athletic’s worthy intentions, will there be a temptation to sensationalise? I know from my experience of working with a variety of high-profile clients that the pressure to deliver exclusive content can lead journalists not to triangulate and double source.

That is not to say there is any malfeasance or malice on the reporters’ part. But the impulse to get a story ahead of getting a story right might leave them vulnerable to being the vessel for the lies of some unscrupulous agent trying to make a market for their player.

It seems inevitable that traditional media, threatened by this ambitious upstart of a start-up, might start a turf war to protect their own patch. Will The Athletic’s new story-getters, used to leveraging the reach of big media brands, find exclusive news so easy to come by when serving a limited, subscriber-only audience? Might that in turn redouble the pressure to deliver fresh content, however questionable its provenance?

On balance there is no doubt that The Athletic adding its voice here is a good thing.  The launch of any serious and credible media offering that enriches sport and the fan experience should be welcomed by the business of sport. But after making its big splash, these are questions that its editors must contend with as they attempt to deliver an audience that can justify the initial outlay.

The race to take control of the sports media market is on. For some troubled outlets, it could be a race to the finish.

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