In 2017, Alex Mather, co-founder of the then-new sports website The Athletic, gave this infamous quote: “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.”
On Thursday, The Athletic was sold — to a newspaper.
To be fair, The New York Times is more than just a newspaper. It’s a multimedia powerhouse whose hands are in just about everything: print, digital, video, audio, newsletters. And now they are the owners of The Athletic. In a story first broken by The Information’s Jessica Toonkel, the Times has agreed to buy The Athletic in a deal valued at $550 million.
There’s a lot to unpack here and it will take a while before all the details are ironed out. Let’s start here: The Times has a goal of reaching 10 million subscribers by 2025. They will now add The Athletic’s 1.2 million subscribers to their approximately 8.3 million, giving them a major leg up in clearing their hurdle.
The Athletic’s owners have been looking to sell for a while now. They were engaged in talks with Axios last year, as well as the Times, who reportedly walked away from negotiations. But those talks heated up again recently and culminated in what Axios’ Sara Fischer reported as an all-cash deal.
Founded in 2016, the ad-free, subscription-based sports site made a splash by going after many of the top sportswriters in local markets, which led to Mather’s quote about bleeding papers dry. They hired reporters to cover practically every team among North America’s four major sports, as well as major colleges. They also made an extensive push into Europe to cover soccer.
Overall, the journalism has been solid. It has broken big stories, most notably the Houston Astros cheating scandal. It also, led by sensational investigative reporter Katie Strang, has produced major investigations about sexual abuse and harassment in sports, as well as dysfunction among sports franchises such as the Arizona Coyotes hockey team.
As a sports fan and subscriber and regular reader, I can tell you that their team coverage is solid as well, as it concentrates more on features and analysis as opposed to day-to-day transactions.
The business side of The Athletic had been less impressive. To date, The Athletic has raised about $140 million and has hired about 600 full-time staffers, including 400 for editorial. It put its value at $500 million, although it has said it doesn’t expect to be profitable until next year at the earliest. Like many news outlets, it has had layoffs and pay cuts, especially when COVID-19 hit businesses everywhere. As subscriptions waned, The Athletic gave away start-up subscriptions at an extremely low rate.
But in her Axios story, Fischer called the sale “a huge victory” for The Athletic.
So that’s what we know for now. What don’t we know?
We don’t know exactly what The Times will do with The Athletic. We don’t know if The Times will look to enhance The Athletic’s bottom line by making cuts. Meredith Kopit Levien, president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company, said The Athletic would be a “subsidiary of The Times Company and continue to operate separately.”
She said in a statement, “Acquiring The Athletic puts us in a position to be a global leader in sports journalism and offer English speakers around the world another reason to turn to the Times Company to meet their daily news and life needs. The Times already provides distinctive sports coverage for a general interest audience as part of our core report. As a stand-alone product, The Athletic will enable us to offer much more — extensive coverage for fans who seek a deep connection to and understanding of their favorite teams, leagues and players. With one of the largest dedicated teams of reporters covering sports globally and a commitment to everyday reporting, The Athletic is a great complement to The Times.”
In their story for The New York Times, Lauren Hirsch, Kevin Draper and Katherine Rosman wrote, “The deal will bring hundreds of additional sports reporters to The Times’s current staff of about 40 sports journalists. Their added expertise could do more to attract readers who may not have been inclined to become subscribers.”
What does that all mean? It doesn’t sound as if The Athletic will become the new Times sports section. However, Times subscribers will be able to access Athletic content. My guess is there could be scenarios where occasional Athletic content could run on the Times’ website or in print, or there could be ProPublica-like projects where staffers from The Times and Athletic join forces. Otherwise, for now, the Times sports section and The Athletic will be separate.
Mather and The Athletic’s other co-founder, Adam Hansmann, will stay on with the company. They will share co-president duties, with Mather also serving as general manager and Hansmann as chief operating officer. They will report to Times executive David Perpich, who will become publisher of The Athletic.
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming days, weeks and months.
But, writing for Defector, Ray Ratto remembered Mather’s quote about bleeding newspapers dry. It should be noted that Mather has walked back on that quote since he said it. Still, Ratto wrote, “What we know now, though, is this: If you’re trying to bring an industry to its knees, you should always be mindful of the ones who fly overhead. The Athletic was a potential revolution that was eventually subsumed by something called The Old Gray Lady, and the ones who planned to eat the entire table ended up on the old menu anyway, a new item right below Appetizers and above Entrees.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the sentence “We don’t know if The Times will look to enhance The Athletic’s bottom line by making cuts.” The original sentence said, “We don’t know if The Times will look to slash The Athletic’s bottom line by making cuts.”