The Athletic set out to do nothing less than replace newspaper sports sections. “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” founder Alex Mather told The New York Times in 2017.
Thursday, the paper that printed that boast bought The Athletic for $550 million, according to a scoop by The Information. The Athletic didn’t preside over the death of newspapers. It became one. This isn’t just a fun little irony. The Athletic has been becoming more like its would-be prey for years.
In 2016, founders Mather and Adam Hansmann styled The Athletic as a purer alternative to the sports page. If you had to pay to read the site, it would be free of ads. The Athletic would serve as an ark for haunted newspaper sportswriters who had the bad luck to come of age in the era of Alden Global Capital. Mather and Hansmann’s lieutenants knew just how to entice them.
In 2018, when NFL writer Nicki Jhabvala joined The Athletic, she’d come off a week at The Denver Post when she filed more than 25 articles. “I wanted to continue to get better as a writer,” Jhabvala, who now writes for The Washington Post, told me. “But I got to the point where I was like, ‘Man, I’m getting worse.’”
The Athletic offered beat writers jobs in which they could file, say, three articles a week. Athletic writers could free themselves from newspaper style. They didn’t have to write traditional “gamers.” They didn’t have to chase micro-scoops. Best of all, they could make real money—what counts as real money in journalism, anyway.
Between 2017 and 2020, the “Why I Joined The Athletic” announcement became a core product of sports Twitter, eclipsed only by gambling advice and NBA trade rumors. In 2019, I went to lunch in London with Ed Malyon, the sports editor of The Independent, to check on the state of sportswriting in the U.K. A few weeks later, Malyon signed on with The Athletic. Talk to a newly hired Athletic writer and they sound like the site’s suspiciously upbeat comment sections: I love this journalism start-up very, very much! It’ll last—right?
The Athletic pried away Malyon, baseball writer Andy McCullough, and other talents from newspapers. In another irony, The Athletic didn’t just benefit from the bleeding of local papers. It benefited from the bleeding of cable TV sports networks like ESPN and Fox. That downsizing allowed The Athletic to hire free agents like Jayson Stark, Ethan Strauss, Bruce Feldman, Stewart Mandel, and baseball writer Ken Rosenthal, who one Athletic writer told me was the site’s most valuable employee. “It was like getting David Ortiz on a waiver claim,” the writer said.
One of the best compliments you can give The Athletic’s team of reporters is they won back almost all the goodwill that Mather’s 2017 declaration pissed away. You could read The Athletic without rolling your eyes at its founders.
In 2019, Evan Drellich and Rosenthal broke the news of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scheme, one of the biggest and juiciest sports stories of the decade. Last year, investigative reporter Katie Strang had a run that included stories about former Mets manager Mickey Callaway’s behavior toward women (in which she shared the byline with Brittany Ghiroli) and the state of the Phoenix Coyotes. When The Athletic published its 2021 best-of list, the site listed its investigative pieces first.
Athletic writers reimagined long-standing sports-page templates. During the 2018 NBA playoffs, Cleveland writer Jason Lloyd filed numbered lists of reporting tidbits, observations, and quotes, a format that was more readable and information-packed than a traditional gamer.
The Athletic developed its own go-tos, as well. A few days after a major news event, you can count on The Athletic to deliver a how-it-went-down story (sometimes revelatory, sometimes with only a kernel or two of insight) that almost always adheres to the Three-Example Headline Rule. (“A ‘hibernating’ bear. Drinking water. And corny road maps: How the Grizzlies are thriving without Ja Morant.”) You know Kawhi Leonard once said “board man gets paid” because of an Athletic oral history—one of a number of times The Athletic used supporting players to define major stars.
I really like The Athletic’s Dallas coverage. Rangers writer Levi Weaver, a former musician, is probably my favorite beat writer of any kind because it feels like he came to Arlington from another planet. Jamey Newberg, his teammate on the beat, brings a pure, fan’s-eye view of baseball he poured into an email newsletter for years. Bob Sturm writes Cowboys game breakdowns that help me actually understand football. Mavericks writer Tim Cato, who wrote the Haralabos Voulgaris–Luka Doncic–Mark Cuban story with Sam Amick, scored the biggest scoop in Dallas sports last year.
It’s one thing to say Athletic writers introduced more competition to Dallas sportswriting. They did more than that. They made it different.
The Athletic turned out to have a lot in common with the newspapers it wanted to outlive. The Athletic has the soul of a newspaper. I often go to The Athletic expecting to learn things but I rarely go there expecting to laugh. When the pandemic shut down American sports, the site’s chief content officer, Paul Fichtenbaum, announced that The Athletic had started a “#lets-get-weird” Slack channel to fill the void. Let’s just say The Athletic and I have different definitions of weird.
Early on, there was an industry-wide air of skepticism about The Athletic. Part of it was the disbelief that the site would last. The other part was that the site seemed to be repeating the mistakes newspapers had already made. The site tried to cover just about every team in a city instead of picking its spots. (This approach paid off with sports like hockey that were under-covered.) The Athletic was slow to roll out podcasts, and, for a time, put some of its podcasts behind a paywall. It tried a video project that was later abandoned.
When hiring, Athletic editors would tell writers the site didn’t care about clicks. But the site did care about “conversions”—stories that lead people to subscribe to The Athletic. The site set annual conversion targets for writers, a number that can hang over a reporter’s head. Even happy writers who’d migrated over from newspapers told me it felt like trading one Darwinian struggle for another.
For the last several months, the most newspaper-like thing about The Athletic was that many staffers worried about their jobs. The Athletic has more than 1 million subscribers, but it marked down subscriptions to bargain rates. (Today’s overworked Twitter joke is wondering why the Times paid $550 million for a site it could read for $1 a month.) “After raising about $140 million in venture capital funding,” Joseph Pompliano wrote, “The Athletic has hemorrhaged nearly $100 million in cash over the last two years, drastically outpacing the $73 million in revenue they brought in over the same period.”
Last June, The Athletic laid off 46 staffers. There were rumors of mergers or sales to Axios or a gambling company or, last spring, the Times. Over the last year, employees relied on media reports and the founders’ utterances (or lack of utterances) on Slack to see when the site might be sold.
The Times, which whipped out its Trump-era-fattened wallet to pay cash for the site, is probably The Athletic’s best landing spot. It’s also kind of a weird one. “The Times was always amused by having a sports section,” Robert Lipsyte, a former columnist at the paper, once told me. “They saw it as their comics.” The Times’ sports section is small (today, it included four articles and a Winter Olympics breakdown in my print copy) and long ago did away with nuts-and-bolts daily coverage of teams.
This makes the integration of The Athletic, which will function as a Times subsidiary, easier. There’s little overlap between The Athletic’s staff and the Times’ few dozen sports staffers. But it raises two big questions.
The first is: Why would the Times spend half a billion dollars to get into sportswriting? As Times executive Meredith Kopit Levien said in today’s announcement, the Times wants to grow from more than 8 million subscribers to more than 10 million—and it has to do so (mostly) without the help of Donald Trump. For maybe the first time since former executive editor Howell Raines tried to fatten the Times’ numbers by covering more college football games, management sees sports as a growth area.
But the Times has already profited from the bleed-out of local papers in a way The Athletic’s founders could only dream of. “The Times now has more subscribers in Dallas than the Dallas Morning News does,” a recent New Yorker story noted. How many more subscribers can a very good pack of Dallas sportswriters bring in? The purchase has the whiff of legacy media hugging a digital outfit, like Condé Nast buying Pitchfork seven years ago.
The Times reports that Mather and Hansmann will stay on; a Times executive, David Perpich, will be The Athletic’s publisher. The second question is: Who’s going to figure out how to make a horde of beat writers, investigative reporters, and draft experts operate inside an institution like the Times? The site’s founders? Sam Dolnick, who did a tour as deputy sports editor, and now has a spot on the masthead? Just about every writer at The Athletic I spoke to worried the site would lay off writers after a sale.
Then again, I’ve been listening to journalists predict that The Athletic would explode like a supernova for years. Mather and Hansmann deserve credit for piloting it into a safe harbor. Now, The Athletic’s future depends on how or if it can enhance the health of the 170-year-old Times. Welcome to the newspaper business.