Will The Athletic give traditional sports titles a run for their money?

The Athletic: paid digital subscription model
The Athletic: paid digital subscription model

With a punchy ad campaign, an extensive bench of social media star writers and a cut-throat approach to competition, The Athletic is hoping to convince British football fans to pay for quality journalism.

In the wake of its UK launch, sports news site The Athletic has kicked off a £10m awareness campaign promoting its ambitious assault on the world of football writing via a digital-only subscription model.

Following a successful three years in the US covering more than 280 teams across a range of sports, The Athletic has leaped across the pond to create what it has called "the best team of football writers ever assembled". 

The San Francisco-based site has recruited a total of 55 sports writers from magazines, regional newspapers and national titles, including Ed Malyon (former sports editor at The Independent) as managing director and Alex Kay-Jelski (former sports editor of The Times) as editor-in-chief. 

The brand has come under criticism for a lack of women in the editorial department, with just two female writers and three senior women on the team – a structural problem that Malyon described as a "pipeline issue".

Having received £60m in investment from venture capitalists – including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, as well as Bedrock Capital, Comcast Ventures, Evolution Media and CourtsideVC – to plead its case as football journalism’s answer to Netflix, will The Athletic win over the British public?

"It’s a really simple model – when you have the very best writers in the business, people are willing to pay to have a premium experience," Taylor Patterson, The Athletic's director of communications, who is based in San Francisco, tells Campaign.

"There was a point in time where Ed stood in front of a whiteboard and wrote down what his dream team of reporters would look like, and we were able to connect with all the folks we thought would be able to make the ultimate soccer – er – football team," she says, correcting herself.

This team includes FourFourTwo’s former editor-at-large Andy Mitten (159,900 Twitter followers) as Manchester United correspondent, The Guardian’s Amy Lawrence (91,900 followers on Twitter) as Arsenal correspondent and Liverpool Echo’s James Pearce (488,200 Twitter followers), who will continue to cover the Reds as Liverpool correspondent.

"These are writers who not only know their clubs but are really able to connect with fans in a way that almost no other group can," Patterson remarks.

The writers’ strong relationships with their followers form a key part of The Athletic’s promotion strategy in the UK – something that Patterson says "relies pretty heavily" on writers tweeting out their latest reads and talking about their work across all available social platforms in an attempt to increase awareness of the brand. 

Within weeks of The Athletic's UK launch on 5 August, its UK following has already surpassed that of its US counterpart, racking up 69,500 followers since March. However, it has a long way to go to compete with the likes of Mirror Football (555,000) and BBC Match of the Day (2.8 million).

An ad-free experience

The Athletic's £10m awareness campaign includes ads in local publications and radio, paid promotion on social media and billboards across London. The activity was created in-house, with outdoor handled by TBS.

One billboard reads "No ads. No clickbait. Just the best football writing in the world", reflecting the ad-free approach that The Athletic believes differentiates it from other sports content. Football fans are well served by free online content – from regional newspapers to nationals and online sites such as SportBible and Copa90.

The site claims that it will steer clear of pop-ups, videos and sponsored content. However, it might consider placing sponsored content ahead of the paywall at a later date, as well as preceding any audio content on the site.

"We see the reading experience as a really sacred experience for subscribers and we don’t want to do anything to inhibit their ability to access content in a really clean way," Patterson says.

"We know that, in many cases, the ad-based revenue model is declining, and by removing this model we get to the basics of producing great content in a way nobody else is and people will follow."

The campaign directs football fans to The Athletic’s website, where they can sign up to the service for £4.99 per month for the first year (or £2.49 a month for the year if they sign up in August) or £9.99 as a rolling monthly fee.

After signing up, fans can pick their favourite teams and writers to build a modified home page, before gaining access to the site’s 1,500 article-per-week content base.

In the US, The Athletic reached half-a-million subscribers in July, 300,000 of whom were attracted to the brand in the past 12 months. If those 500,000 subscribers are paying at least $4.99 a month, the site’s annual income could be in the region of $29m. In comparison, Copa90’s turnover was £6.7m in 2017 (its latest accounts) and SportBible’s parent company, LadBible Group, generated revenue of £15.3m in the year ended 31 December 2017. 

A digital-only approach

Despite raiding many titles with a strong print presence for their talent, The Athletic has opted to forgo a print product. The latest circulation figures from ABC provide a clue as to why this might be. During the first half of 2019, total average circulation of the top 50 actively purchased titles fell 8.7% to 9,643,340, with the two biggest hitters (TV Choice and What’s On TV) suffering declines of 4% and 6% respectively.

Meanwhile, a number of publications have had success with digital subscription models. At the end of June, The Times and The Sunday Times had 304,000 digital subscribers, up 19% year on year. The Financial Times announced that it had reached one million paying readers in April, with digital subscriptions accounting for more than three-quarters of its circulation.

The Athletic is not the only upstart to bet on paying readers. Among others, the self-styled "slower, wiser" news organisation Tortoise – founded by former Times editor and BBC News chief James Harding – charges £250 for two years or £24 a month (although it publishes a print quarterly alongside its online and live offerings).

Alongside reportedly offering journalists huge salaries, The Athletic’s cut-throat attitude was outlined by the site’s founder Alex Mather in a 2017 interview with The New York Times: "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." 

Although the quote itself has since been deemed "regrettable" by the brand, a similar air of arrogance has been expressed through The Athletic’s out-of-home campaign, which describes the site as "the only football writing that matters".

"Fundamentally, the point he was trying to make was that the traditional media industry in the States, and I believe also in the UK, was a point where it treats its writers and editors and others in a way that’s probably less than fair," Patterson says.

She points to poor wages and a lack of opportunities for advancement as the motivation behind Mather’s quote: "I think those remarks are really born out of the frustration of many journalists about the conditions that they have to deal with in the workplace."

In an attempt to counteract the shortcomings of sports writing in the mainstream media, The Athletic made a point of paying its editorial team "what they’re worth" – an endeavour that involves competitive salaries as well as a stake in the company as part of their package. 

However, Nick Wright, managing director of Havas Media content division Jump, believes The Athletic’s approach to the British market has been "short-sighted".

He explains: "For a brand like this to work, it has to have a very strong brand that shouts ‘football’. It has to be a very strong product that isn’t available anywhere else and it has to grab and sustain its audience.

"The Athletic hasn’t thought about how to take this American model into British culture and it sort of smacks a little bit of that."

Wright believes a strong editorial team isn’t enough to convince consumers to pay for content they can otherwise read for free.

Citing the brand’s name as its first stumbling block, Wright concludes: "I don’t believe The Telegraph nor SportBible are having panicked meetings about The Athletic right now." 

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