The Athletic has launched in the UK — and I’m nervous

I always get a bit nervous about big new journalism projects. This is partly because I expect them to fail, and it’s never nice to see your industry unable to deliver results. But it’s also because it makes me feel like a real tinpot operation, which gets me all worked up and defensive. So, with that disclaimer in mind, here follows my thin-skinned ramblings.

This morning, The Athletic, a US-based subscription sports site with over 500,000 paying readers on their home side of the Atlantic, launched a football (soccer, to you Yanks) version for British readers. But they didn’t go in with a softly-softly approach, they went straight at the competition (route one, as their analysts might say). According to Buzzfeed, they’ve hired 57 of the UK’s top football journalists to launch the new project — poaching from The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times (basically any prestige publication that has a sports section).

I tweeted straight away about how I thought they were demonstrating “feckless extravagance” and made a pithy comparison to Fyre Festival, which I won’t repeat. I immediately got messages telling me that I was being way too hard on them and that they were a good business, and, crucially, valuable to the future of journalism. So I thought I’d look more closely.

Their launch has a very different strategy from, say, their near namesake, The Atlantic, who opened a London/UK operation in 2017 (building slowly through the last year and a half) with 10 people working across editorial and business, despite being a magazine with a long history and vast audience. But The Athletic is not your grandma’s media outfit. Last October they raised $40m in a fresh funding round, and were valued at c.$200m. They have cash to burn and cannibalistic appetites: they’ve already become known in the US for their aggressive hiring strategies and their no-prisoners business strategy. Their founder, Alex Mather, told the New York Times that the company “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.”

They offer writers more money than competitors (on average $70k, according to Slate; which would be £57k in GBP but likely much lower here as industrial standards are lower) and build their empire through the two-pronged, single-missile attack of getting in high-profile staff and draining their competitors of their best writers (the definition of killing two birds with one stone). They cover all American sports that I can think of, and reportedly have half a million subscribers — which is good but by no means stunning. The UK is a way smaller market and football is only one sport. But it’s clearly enabled them to generate more VC confidence and expand globally.

So why does it make me nervous?

It makes me nervous because I don’t see how this is a sustainable business model, but it re-calibrates the entire business ecosystem of British journalism. The most apt comparison is, I think, WeWork. WeWork has hit stormy waters of late, as it fails to convert its VC-backed potential into something more tangible. And the biggest issue is that it’s actually a super traditional real estate company. It has some perks (office ping pong, beer on tap) but really it’s just selling expensive desk space in nicely furnished offices in big cities. So why did investors act like it was a tech company with exponential potential to expand? WeWork’s value was always tied to the value of real estate, and that’s so wildly outside of their control that the model was never unlimited in the way that the best tech companies are. Yet they marketed themselves to investors like a tech company, and the money flowed in. The imbalance between The Athletic’s resources and the rest of UK sports journalism is like letting a burmese python loose on your pondlife; suddenly, if you’re not a 23-foot, 200-pound snake, there’s little you can do to compete. The terms of the pond have been rewritten; the age of the duck is over.

I find this all the more worrying because The Athletic does not have an interesting model, in journalism terms. It may be a really well run business, putting together a great combination of editorial and corporate talent, but it’s not doing anything new. A friend explained why they thought The Athletic would be a good thing because they were introducing a subscription-based online service. What, like every British publication with the exception of The Guardian? Paywalling isn’t new, subs-only online magazines aren’t new. They’ve had mixed and limited success in the past, and The Athletic may well be in a strong position to do better, but there’s nothing breaking the wheel here. When I see a company like, say, Luminary (or, better still, Medium) come along, I might not think they’re going to be a multi-billion dollar company by teatime, but I can at least see what they are trying to shake up. The Athletic is doing the opposite of shaking things up: it’s doubling down on the prestige commodity of writers, and doubling down on the historic precedent of people directly exchanging money for journalism. Neither of these things are inherently bad ideas, they’re just not ‘million dollar ideas’ (as the old saying goes).

I also feel sorry for the publications who are having their milkshakes drunk by The Athletic at this moment. Not least, in my own field of podcasting, people like Muddy Knees Media, who broke out of the cycle of sports podcasting being pegged to prestige publications. Perhaps they, or others like them, will throw their lot in with The Athletic — what’s clear is that they have the talent and resources to make a blockbuster football podcast for the new season (though conspicuously absent in their hiring has been an experienced audio producer (this is not me suggesting myself; I have never made a sports podcast)).

Most of British journalism works under the basis that it pretty much has to wash its face, or, at the very least, prove its product to audiences before and as it grows. There have been some big money publications launched in the last few years (I’m particularly thinking of Tortoise, whose launch The Athletic’s most closely resembles) but generally we’ve seen an industry in decline, where online sites (be they subscription or ad driven) have wracked up debts (to both creditors and staff) before slashing jobs or shutting up shop. If I ran a smaller football website in the UK right now, I would be feeling pretty gutted. The Athletic hasn’t had to prove their product. They haven’t started with a few writers and editors in an office, like The Atlantic. They have smashed straight in, on the eve of a new season, as the single biggest show in town.

If they’re paying their UK staff anything like their US counterparts, then we’re looking at an annual wage bill in the many millions. An annual subscription to the site costs £30, so we’re talking about a subscriber base of 100,000 plus before you even start to cover just your basic staffing costs. To me, that’s a scary disconnect between the publication’s clout and its value; its spend and its income. Here in the UK, investors are very nervous about ‘content only’ businesses, and whilst that can be frustrating for people who, um, run content only businesses, it keeps the market sensible.

The Athletic’s launch has seen the arrival of silly money in football journalism. I don’t doubt the quality of the product (these are, after all, writers I’ve been reading for years), but I don’t see it doing the overall health and plurality of the market any good. As ever, I’m happy to be wrong and think there’s a non-zero chance I will be.

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Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in politics and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.

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