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14 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:40pm

How new sport website the Athletic is disrupting Fleet Street

By Leo Robson

On 5 August, in anticipation of the start of the new Premier League football season, the American sport website the Athletic launched its British arm with a staff of writers and editors – 57 in all – many of whom had been lured from national newspapers. The reasoning behind this – to all appearances – costly hiring approach was that writers such as Oliver Kay, Amy Lawrence and Daniel Taylor, formerly of the Times, the Guardian and the Observer, were sufficiently valued by readers to justify a subscription fee of £59.99 a year. Another objective was to cause a stir. Almost every British reader who had heard about the Athletic UK prior to it going live had done so because of the trickle of news stories about sign-on fees, equity offerings and all the big names jumping from sinking Fleet Street ships. The company has acquired a reputation for upstart – or start-up – ambition before coming anywhere near to proving its extravagant claims about the depths and rigour of its coverage.

If the idea of the Athletic sounds counterintuitive, then this has been part of its appeal to investors. One person’s zany idea is another’s “narrative violation”, in the words of Bedrock Capital, a venture capitalist firm – the narrative being that “mass-market readers are not willing to pay for written content online”. For the time being, the Athletic’s US subscriber base (more than 500,000, with a 90 per cent renewal rate) suggests that the founders, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, were right to pursue their hunch, and that companies such as Bedrock were right to back them. The site is profitable in the majority of its “markets” – nearly 50 American and Canadian cities, where it covers basketball, baseball and American football, among other sports.

When the Athletic started in 2016, it was pitched as the future of sports journalism at a time of dwindling coverage in North America – a state of affairs that the company wouldn’t only exploit but accelerate. Mather told the New York Times that he was going to let “every local paper” bleed, and – shifting metaphors – suck them dry. Ed Malyon, formerly of the Independent and now the Athletic’s UK managing editor, told Press Gazette that if no other outlet is “offering even a half-decent effort in terms of covering Southampton, or Derby County, or Leeds, then that’s a huge opportunity for us”. Huge? In the US, the Athletic was able to employ correspondents who had been made redundant, and whose coverage wasn’t being replaced. In the UK, it has needed to hire journalists, such as Leeds United specialist Phil Hay from the Yorkshire Evening Post. For the site’s Leeds “market” to turn a profit, by its own definition, it would require enough Leeds fans to subscribe solely to read Hay’s contributions.

Malyon notes that newspapers, in contrast to the Athletic, cannot concentrate solely on sport because of the need to “talk about news and stuff”, while also chiding them for failing to offer employees equity: “You still work your arse off, but you never have any tangible upside.” It might appear odd that the Athletic has appointed a senior executive with such an unworldly attitude towards current-affairs reporting and wage labour, but then the central aim of the company’s self-promotion is to make everything that isn’t the Athletic appear obviously defective and wrong. There’s been a bizarre emphasis on the ubiquity and irritation of online advertising, though the Athletic cannot rule out using ads in future, if it wants to achieve long-term sustainability, rather than expanding at a loss before selling to a conglomerate (as happened with Bleacher Report in 2012).

Then there’s the implicit promise that the Athletic UK will offer good British football journalism for the first time ever while providing the same kinds of articles its journalists were, until recently, writing for other outlets. Having hired editors and writers from mainstream publications, the website wants to suggest that the deficiencies of existing sports coverage lie solely with those institutions. One sin, a representative from the Athletic told the BBC, was forcing correspondents to attend “those post-match press conferences”.

Following the first Premier League weekend, the Athletic UK offered articles on subjects such as what Unai Emery must do to earn another contract as Arsenal coach, and how much Tottenham improved after Christian Eriksen came on from the bench. There was even evidence that journalists had paid attention to what managers had said after the game. It’s hard to resist noting that having reportedly failed to lure Barney Ronay from the Guardian or Jonathan Liew from the Independent, the Athletic UK has no one you could call a writer in the meaningful sense. Its best asset is the tactics analyst Michael Cox, who has already contributed eight articles, including an exceptional essay on the recently retired Dutch winger Arjen Robben – though it could easily have appeared at Cox’s previous home, ESPN FC. Every reader of football coverage will hope that the site overhauls the landscape as much as has been promised, and not provide – as initial indicators might suggest – the familiar mixture of rumours, myth-making, puffery and sporadic insight, only at far greater expense.

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This article appears in the 14 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy