Heralding its arrival as a “new chapter in British sports journalism,” The Athletic has landed in the UK to both buzz and scrutiny. Having scooped up top writing talent it’s hedging its bets on a subscription-based model, but will British readers buy into it?
Since launching in the US three years ago, ad-free digital sports publisher The Athletic has garnered 500,000 subscribers to its website and app and expanded into Canada. Now, it’s bringing its coverage to UK shores – promising in-depth, quality football reporting with a heavy focus on the Premier League.
Charging a subscription fee of $10 a month (or $60 per-year) in North America, the site has already grown at an astronomical rate, drawing interest from investors like Comcast Ventures and Founders Fund and raising a $90m warchest.
Ambitious in its targets, the company is hoping to end 2019 with “somewhere close to a million” subscribers, according to chief executive Alex Mather, who co-founded the company with Adam Hansmann – his former colleague at tech fitness giant Strava.
Success in the UK will be pivotal to making good on that seven-figure prediction, and it's reportedly sunk £10m into the launch. Leading its efforts in the market is Ed Malyon, former sports editor at The Independent. As managing director, he’s been involved in an aggressive hiring spree, poaching talent from BBC (David Ornstein), The Guardian (Amy Lawrence and Danny Taylor), The Times (Oliver Kay), and more over the last few months.
Accused of “setting off a bomb” in the industry by gutting sports desks like a “journalist transfer window,” the reverberations from the site’s recruitment drive are likely to be felt across national and local titles.
A chunk of the 55 staffers The Athletic has acquired from rivals will be tasked with covering the Premier League, with a writer assigned to each of the 20 competing teams. Though he can see a way the title could make a success of cricket or rugby coverage, he says he hasn’t thought much further than the Premier League-focused debut.
“It’s a natural place to start,” says Malyon, explaining that the hyper-local strategy will see reporters work out of its London HQ or from their own cities – like Leeds. Other journalists will be tasked with covering wider remits like the women’s game or the Scottish championship.
Will readers buy into it?
With the lure of “highly competitive” salaries, equity in the business and the chance to work with “increased freedom to write what they are passionate about,” Malyon believes The Athletic is entering the UK market armed with the “greatest team of football writers ever assembled”.
He adds that, by design, the platform will offer an ad, auto-play and clickbait-free alternative to what he describes as the “alarmingly regular drip, drip, drip of bad news” coming from the sports desks of UK nationals.
To access the site and app in the UK, fans will have to pay £9.99 per-month, or a yearly lump sum of £59.99. As part of the launch it’s offering a discounted starting price of £29.99, which will also give them access to coverage (including podcasts) from 50 US cities across 260 teams from the NFL, NBA, MLB and more.
For football fans, though, it’s getting increasingly expensive to keep pace with the beautiful game – which could pose a problem for The Athletic’s model. Both Sky and BT Sport hiked up prices at the start of the year, and while UK viewers are willing to shell out £800 a year for TV subscriptions, they’re less inclined to pay for news with Reuters finding that just 7% of Brits are willing to stump up for publisher content.
To convince readers to part with their money, The Athletic is launching an awareness campaign in the UK across local publications, out of home and radio stations, pushing itself as the ‘New Home of Football Writing’ and targeting cities based on their teams.
Malyon says: “It’s about [telling readers], we’ll have ‘the best coverage of your club’ – the ‘your’ being emphasised because we’re changing the way clubs are covered. Newspapers and websites cover the bigger teams first and dip into the smaller clubs and gear it towards a national audience.
“What we’re trying to is cover all of the clubs for fans, which results in a different kind of coverage and a more engaging product.”
It’s also relying heavily on its writers (who boast hundreds of thousands of Twitter, Instagram and YouTube followers themselves) to push the launch.
A tough time for digital news
A cursory glance at Twitter shows the marketing is already paying off: The Athletic is off to a buzzy start, with the sports Twitter community widely lauding its launch.
However, as well as having to complete with other subscription services the offering is entering the market at an increasingly difficult time for young digital publishers which are facing off competition from the Facebook-Google duopoly and grappling to assuage those who have financially backed them.
One-time investor darling BuzzFeed was forced to lay off almost half of its London newsroom earlier this year, owing to shareholder jitters over its lack of profitability. Vice, meanwhile, has been reducing its editorial headcount after investor Disney wrote down its stake by 40%, and elsewhere HuffPost and Yahoo owner Verizon cut staffers by 800 at the turn of 2019 after struggling to gain market share.
The Athletic is hoping its subscription-based model and dedication to quality will help it circumvent the challenges its digital predecessors are currently battling.
With tenures at The Indy and The Mirror under his belt, however, Malyon isn’t convinced the ad-supported model is broken; it’s just “getting harder to do”, he says.
“I’ve been on the other side where you’re trying to make quality work for the business and there are ties where you have to commit to quality even though you know it’s not going to pay itself back.
“In the US, I’ve seen some of the things happening behind the scenes at The Athletic and how much money they’re spending to make great content that actually drives subscriptions and makes money.
"I’ve gone from an environment where producing high-quality stuff was a loss-leader, to a place where producing that kind of content is the whole business model.”