Changing philosophy to change an industry
My interviews were complete, I devised a plan of attack, and wrote; the latter a cathartic experience for anyone who contemplates a singular topic for an unhealthy amount of time. One week after my initial draft, I stumbled on an article by the New York Times regarding the very topic I labored over.
I was drawn to co-founder Alex Mather’s tone regarding local newspapers and his visions of supplanting them. His phrasing was more contentious than I ever expected. Mather’s company is The Athletic, a fresh take on internet sports blogs with distinct features that seek to alter how you and I consume sports reporting and analysis. Mather wants to “bleed” the thin slabs of recycled matter and wood pulp generations past relied on for last night’s scores and league updates until his organization triumphs. But words themselves, removed from the context of questions asked and responses given, can be deceiving.
Four days before Mather’s claims appeared in Kevin Draper’s column, I was digesting Michael Reiss’ thoughts on his career and The Athletic’s ascension. A renowned ESPN NFL Nation reporter who covers the New England Patriots, Reiss transitioned from the Boston Globe to ESPN Boston to launch ESPN’s attempt at a local venture back in 2009.
“It wasn’t to take over and eliminate the [Boston] Globe or Herald, we didn’t come in with the idea of domination. That’s hard to do with four writers for each of the big-four sports and one columnist. So you’re just providing what you hope is an alternative that does things differently; that has some voices and mixes elements of writing, video, and podcasting… all of us could coexist.”
Reiss built the second of what became six ESPN local sites, each tipping their cap to areas littered with fanatics hungry for hyper-focused opinions removed from the national flow of news.
“It was awesome because we brought the resources of the national brand to the local level; provided a different perspective.” Reiss acknowledged a symbiotic relationship between his venture and former employer. Mather’s aspirations leave little room for comradery. For every similarity drawn between ESPN’s past local venture and The Athletic’s current strides, this deviation of how each organization perceived – for Mather’s venture, still perceives – its competition is confounding.
Reiss and I considered what failed in trying to make ESPN-branded local sites routine for consumers.
“From my perspective, it seemed to come down to cost. There is a significant cost to covering local sports and that cost is balanced against how much revenue can be generated. The cost-versus-revenue equation wasn’t going to be at a level that made the local model extremely profitable for [ESPN].”
The Athletic is young and burgeoning, nearing its second anniversary during January of 2018. That youth shields Mather’s organization from the tribulations that vexed ESPN as time and expense scarred their attempt at local popularity. Whether Mather and his partner, Adam Hansmann, built a foundation with foresight to resist a similar fate remains to be seen.
“The issue of how to monetize content is one that has perplexed [journalists] for a long time,” Sean Lahman, a Rochester Democrat and Chronicle database journalist with roots in baseball’s statistical revolution admitted. “It’s a difficult question to answer, it’s not just a business question, it’s about how do you build a brand people will pay for when there is so much content out there for free.”
The Athletic affixes itself with a business model relatively foreign to sports media. $48 per year, or $8 billed monthly, allows one to consume anything The Athletic publishes across its platforms. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other entertainment innovators, in an identical manner, prompt payment prior to consumption. Marketer’s target generation has embraced this shift, but mimicking this strategy on unproven ground provides little precedent for consumer reaction. While The Athletic’s desires to rewire habit are daunting, the entertainment industry’s streaming predecessors have already won.
With innovation, one has to spread an idea before selling the associated product. All Mather and Hansmann have to do is keep the snowball rolling towards another form of entertainment: journalism.
In the past, success was gauged through how well sites drove traffic to promote on-page advertisements. Impressions and clicks meant revenue; more revenue meant happier bosses. As businesses enlighten themselves with evolving consumer behavior, dollars have shifted off webpages towards promise of greater conversion rates on alternative mediums; particularly podcasting and video. The written-word journalist must adapt to survive.
The Athletic is replacing advertising revenue of yesteryear with subscription revenue. Mather’s organization maintains the belief that superior, quality journalism is paramount. The absence of ads declutters pages and enhances this perception of quality. But is quality alone enough to break the fixation on free content rooted in a generation of sports-column consumers?
“I think it is. There has always been an appetite for writing a small reflective; writing that is more analytical,” Lahman continued. “I can go a lot of places to find who just got released by a team, but I want somebody who can give me insight. That is an important way to differentiate between other sites, but it’s also tough; it’s hard to find good writers.”
Sports naturally foster disagreement, so it’s only fitting that Edward Egros, FOX 4 Dallas’ weekend sports anchor, takes another perspective.
“You have to stand out; do something different. And I’m not sure if good, quality writing is enough. You have a lot of great writers at the Dallas Morning News and elsewhere. It’s not going to be just writing that makes The Athletic stand out; something else needs to be done.” When prodding Egros to consider whether writing with an analytical focus was enough to differentiate, he agreed.
Lahman and Egros reached different conclusions, but in the context of their interviews, possessed a similar belief: differentiation can be achieved. The subjective nature of quality lines the road to success with obstacles. Given the sheer quantity of sports blogs attempting to carve out time slots in lunch breaks of America’s workforce, their maxim needs to become what nobody else has. The Athletic’s real mission is finding common ground among diverse fanbases and convincing them this price is worth it to avoid a world without their content.
While ESPN’s local model congregated around the largest sports-dominant cities – New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago – The Athletic mimicked ESPN by establishing a foothold in the Windy City, but filled out with a different supporting cast: the Bay Area, Cleveland, Toronto, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
Was this a strategic plan to avoid three of the United State’s largest cities, where elevated levels of both competition and costs exist? Or were these five cities chosen because Mather and Hansmann genuinely believed the quality of coverage did not meet consumers’ needs?
“Having a local approach has changed the way I write,” Eno Sarris, a writer for The Athletic’s Bay Area division and the in-depth baseball blog Fangraphs, admitted to me. “It allows me to do stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily do at Fangraphs. If you love the [San Francisco] Giants, you want to hear about Ryder Jones and how he learned to launch the ball better using a potato gun with [his teammate] Hunter Pence. If you’re a national audience, you don’t know who Ryder Jonesis.”
Every team has their own “Ryder Jones” and the hesitancy national outlets show to prove they care about players exclusive to a close-knit community leaves a sour taste in local sports fan’s mouth. Sarris’ enthusiasm around a smaller community’s team is what The Athletic wants to project on each region under its umbrella when they hire journalists.
But even a website that couples quality with local coverage, showing consumers a new, pay-for-substance model, can restructure a strand of its DNA when opportunity presents itself.
When The Athletic chose to acquire one of the most reputable baseball journalists of the present day – Ken Rosenthal – questions about their long-term outlook arose. Shortly after, the announcement of a long-form offshoot called “The Athletic Ink” emerged; Stewart Mandel, a visionary in the space of NCAA Football, took the reins of college football coverage; Seth Davis, the “Stewart Mandel” of NCAA basketball, spearheaded a college-hoops initiative. Without blinking, The Athletic looked drastically different from the grassroots, city-specific network it once was.
Were they content with dominating smaller, local markets? Or were aspirations for more spurred by high-profile layoffs in the industry?
“I think the national approach is still being fleshed out. From now on we’re going to think about what [Rosenthal] wants to do and what The Athletic wants to do nationally in the other sports.” Sarris continued.
Opportunity presented itself and The Athletic pivoted; for better or worse, consumers will dictate.
Blueprints for growth, even if they were reactionary, have become clear: pay attention to the local fan, establish credibility, and present national coverage as an option. If there was ever a model for raising a local fan’s interest in a sport on the national level, earning their trust on local beats is a promising start. But is this strategy abandoning what initially felt like a unique entrant to the sports media field?
“I hope it works…”
The genuine hope that existed in the voice of Sarris when I asked him to predict The Athletic’s fate was captivating. Three more times this sentiment was reiterated from each individual mentioned herein.
At first, I wondered whether each simply refrained from prediction, but then I realized, in a way, this was prediction. Each journalist voiced how much the stable subscription revenue and push for quality journalism could strengthen an industry some thought was decaying.
“I’ve talked to more people who are interested in what was happening at The Athletic in the past month, than I have in the last six years… everybody is interested in it.” Sarris was the first of many to express this hope.
Success will answer questions swirling around The Athletic’s vision. Can we rewire habit? Will quality differentiate? How do we balance local and national coverage?
Is this the future of journalism?