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22 January 2020

The American sports start-up the Athletic is disrupting papers as Sky did the legacy broadcasters

It is all about quality and original content.

By Mark Damazer

The motto of the age, or at least since the general election, is that we must all do more to celebrate British success wherever we can find it. So hats off to the English Premier League. On the face of it, embarrassment follows embarrassment. For too long nobody could be found to succeed Richard Scudamore as chief executive, and then when someone was found (the former Guardian chief executive David Pemsel), he had to resign before he had even begun (following allegations of sending inappropriate texts to a younger colleague). Before this, there had been an eye-watering and, for many, offensive, £5m cheerio payment for Scudamore, who had been in the job since 1999. Meanwhile, terrace racism has made an inglorious comeback, and the whole Premier League apparatus is palpably beholden to the power and voracious financial appetites of the “big six” clubs.

But, still, the league is a triumph. The spectacle on offer is, on the whole, exhilarating – energetic, balletic, skilful, noisy, dramatic and a great deal less violent both on the pitch and off than in previous eras. And the money is still pouring in – the TV rights alone from domestic and international deals amounts to more than £3bn a year. The English game is certainly not what it used to be – it is a great deal better. Much of the world loves it.

But it has taken an intruder from America to provide the fervent fan with football journalism and analysis that is fit for purpose. It is not that any section of the home-grown press has turned its nose up or failed to put resources into covering such vital matters as the national emergency that is Harry Kane’s injured hamstring, the unintentionally hilarious debut of VAR (the new video assistant referee system), the endless transfer tittle-tattle or the often eccentric managerial news conferences that together fill the longueurs between match days.

All such coverage is fine in its way, but we now have something much better. The Athletic, a subscription-based website, arrived from the US less than six months ago as the great digital disrupter, with good ideas and a lot of money to spend. In a short time the site has redefined football journalism by working out that those of us with a hopelessly irrational interest in the game want more material, and with a far greater range and sophistication.

So whether you are devoted to say, Tottenham (and bad luck if that’s your disease), or Norwich City, you are served up several long articles a week by journalists who follow your club full-time, craft properly researched and well-written features, mediate a fan forum or two, and now also present podcasts. Their “take” provides far sharper insight than the breezy clichés of most football writers, whose technical grip in match reports often does not extend much beyond the waffle of poorly performing players having “a crisis of confidence” or “showing signs of fatigue”.

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The Athletic doesn’t bother with match reports, and its journalists are not told to obsess about updating their personal social media sites with news-in-brief items. It is all about quality and original content. And investing in content is the editorial formula that has worked in the helter-skelter, fissile digital market, whether for the apparently sedate New York Times or, albeit with a rather different set of journalistic values, the celebrity-based stew that is Mail Online.

But there are some clever twists to the story. The Athletic serves the unfashionable fan base of, say, Wolves, or from a league lower, Nottingham Forest, as well as the ripe-to-be-plucked supporters of Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal.

Many established journalists have joined the site, including Amy Lawrence (formerly of the Guardian), Oliver Kay (the Times) and David Ornstein (the BBC). Recruiting such talent must have cost a fortune, with some estimates putting annual staff costs for the 55-strong UK team at around £4m.

Experienced journalists from local papers have also been hired, such as Phil Hay, a Leeds United expert. The Athletic does not have, quite, all the best writers. Barney Ronay and his recently arrived Guardian colleague Jonathan Liew (also a New Statesman columnist) are not there.

It has taken until now to find the right editorial formula to discomfort the “print” incumbents. On TV, the heritage broadcasters, the BBC and ITV, were disrupted and diminished many years ago. Once upon a time the heads of their sports departments and the holders of the rights (the Football Association, the All England Club, the England and Wales Cricket Board, and so on) put on their blazers and met to sort out who would end up broadcasting what.

But BSkyB and Channel 4 (when it won the rights to cover Test cricket in England from 1999 to 2005) showed up the frugal and primitive coverage of their predecessors by adding different camera angles and microphone positions, and sharper analysis, statistics and graphics. They developed a group of commentators and summarisers who were able to convey far more technical insight than the charming, but mostly vague, gentlemen-amateur commentators of my youth. Phrases such as “Oh, I say!” (at Wimbledon) or, after a goal was scored, “One-nil”, soon sounded ridiculously inadequate.

It comes at a price – a few hundred pounds a year for my Sky subscription. But Sky is very good at what it does. I pay less than £60 a year for the Athletic – and oddly worry it may be too little. The enterprise has been launched on a sea of debt – the established digital start up model – and the Athletic will only say, a little coyly, that it is “exceeding expectations” in Britain. That sound-bite is not bankable. I hope it sticks around. 

Mark Damazer is a former controller of BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people