By Prince Robinson
SJI Class of 2020

The Athletic, a subscription-based digital sports media company, has taken a hit as the nation-wide pandemic has brought sports to a grinding halt. 

Early in June, the company had to lay off 46 of its staffers.

“In order to ensure we can be a viable business for many seasons to come, we have to make decisions that won’t jeopardize our future,” said Taylor Patterson, Senior Director of Communications of The Athletic.

The company was designed as an alternative to the struggling advertising-supporting business models. The Athletic relies on subscriptions, not advertising revenue, to support the business.

But without sports, the company has experienced a slowdown.

In January 2020, the company had raised a total of $139.5 million since its launch in 2016 and was valued at roughly $500 million after a $50 million raised in a Series D funding round, according to Axios.

Sherrod Blakely, NABJ Task Force Chair and Celtics writer for NBC Sports Boston, said The Athletic would likely continue to grow despite the pandemic and when sports resume.

“Their approach is different,” Blakely said. “They have a target audience where they focus on storytelling. The Athletic does not lean on live game coverage as a means for revenue, which has served as a benefit for them in these times.”

Patterson said the company also had to cut down in other areas because of the pandemic.

“No question that The Athletic is part of an entire sports media ecosystem that has had to weather severe impacts felt by the stoppage of sports due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Patterson said. “As a result, we’ve had to make some tough decisions, including pay cuts for more than 40 people on our HQ team, a pause on our freelance talent, a total reduction in marketing spend, and much more.”

The Athletic is sports only. Other news organizations cover many other topics, which can sometimes make them expendable, especially during this pandemic. In an effort to boost subscriptions, the company offered new users a 90-day free trial on March 16 in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. The site usually offers a seven-day trial.

Like any free trial, it was intended to bring more eyeballs to their content in hopes that newcomers will become subscribers.

“Even without live sports, our editorial team continues to produce interesting, creative and engaging content including mock drafts, offseason previews, and well-reported features,” Patterson said. “Our audio team continues to provide in-depth analysis and unique storytelling to our listeners, and our community team has facilitated a number of fun, thought-provoking and insightful Instagram Live interviews, and more. 

“Our entire team works hard every day to bring our readers and listeners the very best of sports storytelling. With or without live sports, we know our subscribers continue to love what our team is producing The Athletic.”

Also, the company has added COVID-19 updates and the daily impact it has had on sports on the website. Whether it’s NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s ideas on jump-starting the league, or college football players potentially beginning training, The Athletic has reported it.

The Poynter Institute’s website lists furloughs, pay cuts, shortened hours and/or other impacts on news organizations. The Athletic was one of the last names to appear on the list.

Blakely said newspapers should find alternatives to drive revenue back to their organizations.

“Newspapers and digital properties have to figure out what is resonating and how to leverage it so it could make business sense for the organization to thrive,” Blakely said. “… There needs to be a plan of attack. There has to be an innovative mindset.”

Since the site’s launch in January 2016, The Athletic’s strategy has been to hire top-tier sports journalists in local markets and get people to pay for high-quality journalism.

In an interview with Axios in 2018, Alex Mather, co-founder of The Athletic, said that 80 percent of subscribers stay past one year.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced more sports-thirsty fans to subscribe to the journalism giant. 

For other news organizations, the model needs to be as versatile as possible.

“You saw the layoffs and then we feel the connectivity from all of us,” Blakely said. “Nobody cares about that bar across the street until they lay off people. Nobody knows how connected we are until something like this happens. We have to be as multifaceted as possible.”

The Athletic has continued to grow in its diversity.

In 2018, Gregory Lee, a former NABJ president and former Sports Task Force chairman, took to Twitter and posted research that found The Athletic’s staff was majority white. 

Lee – a longtime advocate for media diversity – is now the senior managing editor of The Athletic’s Washington D.C. and Baltimore sites.

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