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Inside The Athletic UK's subscriber growth strategy

The Athletic crossed the Atlantic in August 2019

Sports publisher The Athletic is best known for its rampant pursuit of journalistic talent and its stand-out belief that fans are willing to pay for better coverage. Having breached a million subscribers globally, its UK wing is now looking to hit the big leagues with the launch of a creative platform, including its first TV advert.

The Athletic crossed the Atlantic in August 2019, first connecting with punters when their favourite sportswriters moved behind its paywall. 57 football journalists joined the launch team – many of them big names with big followings. For the subscription fee, they were freed up from the conventions of sports reporting to go deeper. The talent acquisition marked the first marketing campaign from the UK wing, but now it is time for something more.

Sinead Bunting, the European vice-president of marketing at The Athletic who was previously at Monster and The Telegraph, admits “we’ve grown really well so far, organically”. She won’t reveal current UK subscribers but will be likely more comfortable doing so after the flurry of brand-building coming over the next few months. “We created the best team of sportswriters in the UK and many brought their followers along.”

That it has taken so long to come to market with a fully-fledged, bespoke UK marketing campaign illustrates how well this initial flood of football fans worked. The success of this marketing push will shape the fortunes and expansion of the UK business.

The Brief

Having worked with agency collective Harbour when she was at Monster, it made sense for Bunting to tap the group for The Athletic UK’s first marketing output. “We needed someone like us, a scrappy, scaling-up startup that is agile and flexible. All those things that Covid-19 makes you realise you need in an agency partner.”

And the group is now tasked with a brand-building exercise “to reach people who know nothing about The Athletic“, she says. Now is the time to go broader than word of mouth and the fans of its writers.

Kevin Chesters, owner and founder of agency network partner Harbour, says The Athletic required a very certain type of partner. “It has a strong in-house social team, because – surprise surprise – it has a lot of bloody good writers. It knows its tone of voice and positioning, so it’s our job to take that external.”

This positioning is very telling. Internally, some of the strongest voices in UK sport operate, but that needs to meet the reality that most know of The Athletic as the US startup that splashed the cash on the top writers.

Chesters says that it has had a very American tone so far, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the UK operation. A more grounded, British approach could land better – especially if its plans to add more sports are realised in 2021.

He says: “The Athletic came to us for big brand thinking, but then we can play them into any number of the partners within Harbour's collective. It needs a strategic creative platform in the UK.”

The TVC

So Harbour put its studio, Happy Days, to work putting together a creative platform for over the festive period.

The new campaign looks to illustrate the football knowledge grapevine, with a series of comedic situations show a reader of The Athletic doling out wisdom. It will land during the pivotal festive football fixtures and during perhaps one of the most laboured transfer windows in history.

The first execution, on Sky Sports this Saturday, will see two women chatting in church about their football team. One gets her gossip through a dubious connection to the club kitman. The punch lands when it is revealed said kitman actually reads The Athletic to get closer to the action.

Heavy Premier League fans will be retargeted in the Sky ecosystem. More broadly, there is a deal – buy one subscription, gift one for free. This is smart. It makes Athletic consumption a group activity. And if word of mouth will be the catalyst, this structure could super-charge that.

The goal

The US business has been aggressively chasing subscriptions with deep discounting, recently breaching a million globally. Part of this is a proof of concept that premium sports coverage can carry a price. Another part is that it is a long-term play.

On this, Chesters reflects that he is a decade into his Spotify subscription, which started with a trial. “The question is, how do we sell into people something that adds value in their life? At the end of the day, it’s like a tenner a quarter. It’s not like we are trying to sell someone a new car.”

It’s a long-term play, admits Bunting, on the £1 for a year Black Friday offer. What initially looked like a quickfire attempt to juice subscriber numbers could actually be the opposite. The Athletic was willing to cede the value of a year of subscription, confident it could retain readers in the long-term.

Bunting says: “People who subscribe to the Athletic really like it. They just think it’s really fantastic writing and trusted insight. They think it’s pretty good value as well, but what we wanted to do was just continue the growth of the business and raise awareness of it, because people don't know enough about it.”

In her experience, the retention rate is particularly high in comparison to the rest of the market. ”People tend to stick. They love their club, it is like a religion, and we have the best coverage.”

But with the rise of the internet, information and news coverage hasn't exactly hit premium pricing. Now, however, a handful of high-end publishers are growing subscriptions. The Athletic is betting its house that fans will actually invest in knowing what they are talking about – so much football coverage is lacking in depth.

Will enough fans invest in learning more about the game, or will the slurry of deadline day speculation and ‘buy new players’ analysis win out the day? Chesters believes he has a product that will sell itself once it gets a chance to spread. With advertising, he concludes, you can only sell a bad product once.

Watch the debut ad below.