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The Internet Guys Shredding the Sports Page

Will the Athletic take down the competition, or turn into yesterday's news?

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Former Mercury News columnists Tim Kawakami (right) and Marcus Thompson II have become the marquee players of the Athletic’s Bay Area site.

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It's a little more than 24 hours after the founders of the Athletic suffered what they’re now jokingly referring to as their “light-years” moment. Adam Hansmann, the 30-year-old cofounder of the sports media startup, is sitting outside a café in the Crocker Galleria mall downtown, a few blocks from his office on Jessie Street, as he gives a tentative chuckle before slowly, and carefully, trying to explain. “We’re intense and competitive people,” he begins. “We want to win. That doesn’t mean we want to kill off newspapers…. I’m a New York Times subscriber!” One day earlier, his cofounder, Alex Mather, had described to the Times the Athletic’s attitude toward daily newspapers in less charitable terms: “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” he boasted. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

The quote did not go over well. “Douchey,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion responded on Twitter. Said Buzzfeed’s Tom Gara, “As we all know, it’s important to come across as a vulgar sociopath when promoting a new media venture.” ProPublica’s Vignesh Ramachandran tweeted, “It’s a shame when this kind of idiotic arrogance (rightly so) taints the external view of Silicon Valley.”

Here, it seemed, was proof that this latest media upstart was not, as its founders claimed, some great leap forward for sports journalism but yet another parasitic startup specifically engineered to crush its real, human competition. The Athletic’s young, venture-funded techies, who first worked together at the fitness-geared social network site Strava, have zero publishing experience between them. And, it seemed, zero regard for the industry’s standard-bearers. Henry Schulman, the longtime Giants beat reporter for the Chronicle, fired back with perhaps the most vigor. “I’ll bet you $100 the Sporting Green will write your site’s obituary, Mr. Mather,” he tweeted.

Tim Kawakami, the longtime Mercury News columnist who was poached in July to be the Athletic’s Bay Area editor-in-chief, smiles a bit as the controversial quote is brought up. He’s the one who likened Mather’s impolitic sound bite to Warriors owner Joe Lacob’s famous claim to the Times about his team being “light-years” ahead of its NBA competition—a bit of typical Silicon Valley hyperbole widely interpreted as billionaire hubris. But where others see in the statement a lack of self-awareness, Kawakami sees a winner. “These are the people you want to be with,” he says. “They’re the ones looking ahead…I want to be the one who says, ‘I am going to destroy everybody.’ I don’t want that to happen, but I want to be with the guy thinking it.”

He’s betting that, like Lacob, the Athletic will ultimately be vindicated. Here’s why: For all its techie swagger (and its $7.7 million in venture funding), the Athletic is built on the profoundly simple premise that people will pay for quality sports journalism. Where other websites and newspapers rely largely on advertising to fund free content, the Athletic offers zero ads and few, if any, holes in its subscription paywall. Instead, its founders are betting that a critical mass of die-hard readers in each pro sports town where it operates will be willing to shell out $8 a month to read high-quality stories on the teams they love.

The Athletic isn’t the only such operation making that gamble, either. A growing number of sites across a range of disciplines are pursuing subscription-only models. Nationally, sites like the Information (tech) and Politico Pro (politics) have found success while eschewing ad revenue. Scout and Rivals, two subscription-based sites (covering college and high school basketball and football), each boast six-figure membership figures. “The idea that news would be paid for by the readers instead of from ads is definitely not crazy right now,” says Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard. “People are talking about that model as ad revenue dries up.” The play is to offer superfans a level of Xs-and-Os chalk talk, Moneyball-inspired analytics, and glossy magazine feature writing that the local dailies can’t. To do that, the site has sought to burnish its journalistic credibility through name recognition: At every turn since launching in January 2016, the Athletic has aimed for the splashy hire. Among its biggest have been former Sports Illustrated editor Paul Fichtenbaum and Fox Sports writers Stewart Mandel and Ken Rosenthal. It has also hired away from ESPN, CBS, and countless local dailies. As of press time, the rapidly expanding editorial team numbered 60, with some 100 freelance contributors also writing frequently.

Locally, the Athletic’s Bay Area segment launched in August under two longtime Mercury News columnists, Kawakami and Marcus Thompson II. Two other veterans of the Merc-owning Bay Area News Group, senior editor Jimmy Durkin and Warriors beat reporter Anthony Slater, are also on board. A roster of contributors round out coverage of other sports. From the jump, the site took advantage of each writer’s built-in readership: Kawakami has 86,000 followers on Twitter; Rosenthal, hired to cover major league baseball by the Athletic in the late summer, has 906,000. Readers are “very loyal to those writers,” Hansmann says. “We don’t win unless we get the best journalistic talent in every market.” Not everyone is sold on the Athletic’s premise, however. Owen points out that few, if any, subscription-only sites approach the scale the Athletic envisions for itself. (In just over a year, the site has launched bureaus in 15 cities and has two college-sports sections, with more in the works.) Says Mathew Ingram, a senior writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, “These are models that seem to work on a smaller scale. It’s not clear whether they’d work for a large media organization.” Most ad-free journalism models have tended to serve niche markets and have stayed small. They also certainly didn’t have investors to satisfy, Owen notes. “That seems risky,” she says.

Basically, Pulitzer Prize–winning ESPN reporter Steve Fainaru says, if you’re aiming to be a better version of the local sports page, “then you’ve got to be a lot better.” Kawakami acknowledges that. “Nothing dumb” is a credo for the site’s coverage. That means no rote game recaps, no daily “notebook” news dumps—the bane of the beat reporter’s existence—and no press release rewrites. “There’s got to be a purpose to a story,” he says. He points to recent posts by Ted Nguyen, a high school football coach who breaks down NFL game footage to offer highly detailed analyses, as emblematic of this new approach. Another highlight, Kawakami says, was a 4,500-word essay from Thompson about his feelings of survivor’s guilt brought on while following members of the Golden State Warriors staff to a friendly hoops game against inmates at San Quentin prison. “He never could have written that for the newspaper,” Kawakami says.

At its best, the Athletic reaches a level of insightfulness that other local outlets either can’t or don’t often meet. But on the whole, is it worth your $8 a month (or a $48 lump sum)? That’s the $7 million question. One veteran local sportswriter, when asked what about the Athletic’s coverage is new and different, offers a terse reply. “Nothing. It’s ‘Five Things to Watch Out For in This Weekend’s Matchup.’ It’s not particularly innovative.”

This is perhaps the most damning charge to level against the Athletic. “What are readers going to get from this that they aren’t from the many free options out there?” Owen asks. This inconvenient truth may arise from the fact that the people tasked with disrupting the local sports page have, by and large, spent their whole careers working on the local sports page.

Fainaru says he’s rooting for the Athletic, but that based on its early offerings, it hasn’t differentiated itself enough to feel like essential reading. “I feel like instead of trying to replicate the newspaper model and saying, ‘Well, we’re better,’ you’ve got to have some kind of other approach,” he says. “Like, be the local Deadspin.”

For all the hyperventilating about Mather’s Times boast (for which he apologized the same day), the Athletic may not be quite as revolutionary as it’s been made out to be. But that doesn’t mean it won’t make money. Given its modest back-end costs—writers work remotely, and the company’s headquarters employs just 10 staffers, with few marketing or sales people—it doesn’t take very many subscribers to turn a profit. Mather and Hansmann have said that they’re shooting for 11,000 subs by the end of 2017 in the Bay Area, and seem assured that they’ll reach that number. (They declined to provide current subscription figures.) By comparison, the Chronicle, one of the dying dailies the Athletic intends to put in the ground, has 220,000 paid Sunday subscriptions, lending more than a little credence to Schulman’s obituary prediction.

Still, even if it doesn’t morph into a newspaper killer—let alone an ESPN destroyer—there might well be a future for the Athletic as a niche site, especially for diehards and statheads. That’s already happened in some interesting and seemingly unplanned ways: One of the site’s strongest aspects so far has been its hockey coverage, particularly of Canadian teams. Could that be because the NHL, unlike football or basketball in the United States, represents a niche market starved for quality reporting? Perhaps.

Vasu Kulkarni, a managing partner at CourtsideVC, one of the Athletic’s backers, says that having a high ceiling is great, but having a high floor isn’t a bad backup plan. “Worst case, you have a mildly profitable business in each city,” he says. “And then if you have 20 or 30 cities, you still have a pretty nice media business.”

 

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco magazine

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