'Is The Athletic Right?'

I attended a session at the Associated Press Sports Editors conference in Nashville called, “Is The Athletic Right?” The Athletic is an online, subscription-based sports source with “no ads, no clickbait, no auto-play video – just stories with substance.” You choose which sports, from which state, you want to see, and its content will be front and center on your specialized page. It has a paywall and a “mountain of venture capital” funding it. This significantly differs from how “legacy” sports media is financed – and functions. It was co-founded by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann in 2016, and has drawn the ire of legacy media because it has hired away many of the industry’s top talent. In fact, in an Oct. 23, 2017, New York Times article, Mather was quoted saying, “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.” Boston Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan, The Athletic chief content officer Paul Fichtenbaum, ESPN’s daily domestic content overseer Lauren Reynolds, The Athletic senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, and Tampa Bay Times sports editor Mike Sherman discussed The Athletic’s business model, their thoughts on its long-term potential for success, the movement of talent from legacy media to this online-only source, and if it was “really” out to bleed local newspapers dry and suck them of their talent. Rosenthal said that he and many others working at The Athletic spent most of their careers in newspapers, so no, they have no desire to see the medium suffer. But they also come from a different “world” than the startup’s creators, and that Mather spoke to staff internally about how his quote’s tone and his intentions. Rosenthal said he saw the rise of competing sports news sources as a plus for the industry, creating more jobs and increasing competition, which results in better content from everyone. Someone raised the question of how The Athletic differs in resource distribution, particular among previously under-covered sports. For example, Fichtenbaum said if enough people want something (e.g., Minnesota Lynx coverage), the Athletic gets someone to begin covering it; that since people are paying for content, they are going to get quality writing from the sports they want, no matter how the mainstream media covers that sport.