“I am not a religious person or one of these people who read self-help books about fate,” Greenberg said recently. “But it was amazing timing. I was thinking that I would have to look outside of sportswriting for a job.”
In the four years since it launched, the Athletic has offered lifelines to hundreds of journalists. When Fox Sports fired all of its sportswriters in 2017, the Athletic scooped up many. When ESPN had layoffs in 2017, the Athletic was there. Last year, when the entire staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune was laid off, sports editor Jennifer Armstrong “was pretty afraid that my sports journalism career was going to be over,” she said. Instead, she landed at the Athletic.
The Athletic is an ever-expanding behemoth at a time when many of its competitors — daily newspapers, magazines, websites — are shrinking or shuttering. Last year alone, Deadspin imploded and Sports Illustrated laid off more than a third of its staff. The Athletic kept hiring, and it now employs around 430 journalists in the United States and Britain, likely the largest stable of sportswriters and editors in the industry. (ESPN has around 400 comparable reporters and editors, plus hundreds more who work in TV and other parts of the newsroom.)
As a result, it can feel like the future of a fabled profession — the sportswriter — rests on the shoulders of a company whose co-founder, Alex Mather, once clumsily promised to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed” and whose prospects remain shrouded in mystery.
The Athletic has raised $140 million, is approaching 1 million subscribers and is valued at about $500 million, according to the company. But it’s not yet profitable. It hasn’t released any revenue figures. And it has continued to raise money, including a recent buy-in from actor Matthew McConaughey. In other words, it could represent the idyllic future of sports journalism, a venture capital-backed mirage or something in between.
What’s certain, though, is what the Athletic means to the profession right now. And what it would mean if its jobs went away.
“I’m more optimistic than I have been, but you shudder to think about it,” said B.J. Schecter, a former editor in chief of Sports Illustrated and current head of the Seton Hall sports media program. “All this talent on the market — where are they going to go? It would be catastrophic.”
The beat writer’s demise
For most of the 20th century, sportswriting consisted largely of newspaper beat reporters and columnists who traveled with teams and pounded away on typewriters in smoky press boxes. The Internet democratized the craft by the 2000s, with bloggers churning out more relatable content, often from a fan’s perspective. (And often cribbing newspapers’ original reporting.) The newspaper industry, meanwhile, was — and still is — being gutted by declining ad revenue, putting sports journalists out of work.
The start-ups filling the void have mostly combined fan-driven blogging with traditional coverage done cheaply. SB Nation built a sprawling network of low-paid, part-time sportswriters. Rivals built college sports sites around fan-driven message boards. The new bosses at Sports Illustrated are hiring part-time contractors to cover pro and college teams, betting it can grow its audience without professional journalists.
“What we’re looking at right now is sports journalism as a career having a 10-year arc,” said Jane McManus, director of Marist University’s sports communication center, who was laid off from ESPN in 2017. She stressed that she thinks things will turn. But for now, “you can have a job out of college creating content for someplace, and when you need benefits, a better salary, you’ll have to leave the business,” she said. “It’s a business that’s eating its young, that doesn’t offer young writers a future, and that’s incredibly depressing.”
Unless, that is, you believe in the Athletic. The company is not just a lifeline for a specific kind of sportswriter. It’s a bet that that same sportswriter still has value to consumers — that even in a world where leagues employ their own beat writers, where hobbyist bloggers and podcasters flood the Internet with content, enough fans remain who will pay for coverage from professional sportswriters.
Flush with venture capital cash, the Athletic offers those journalists attractive salaries: $50,000 a year for entry-level reporters and mid-six figures for more accomplished writers. (Full-time employees get equity in the company, too.) It has even managed to raise the salaries of writers it hasn’t hired: It offered one prominent ESPN writer more than $500,000, nearly double that writer’s salary, according to people familiar with the negotiations; the writer ultimately stayed at ESPN for less than the Athletic’s offer but still got a big raise.
All that venture funding brings a Silicon Valley ethos to the company. A dashboard tracks how stories perform against expectations, and every writer gets goals for how many subscribers their articles should convert. A corporate travel system spits out the average cost of hotels and provides Amazon gift certificates to employees who book cheaper accommodations. Aaron Reiss, 24, who left the Kansas City Star to cover the Houston Texans, praised another perk: an editor who specializes in helping develop young writers. “What newspaper would have that?” he asked.
“It’s this idea that you can have a stable job and a career that makes the Athletic so valuable, at least psychologically,” McManus said.
As a product, the Athletic is both a disrupter and a nod to the past. For $10 per month or $60 per year, a subscription gives readers access to the entire site, which feels like a bundle of local sports sections from a healthier era. Reporters churn out old-school beat coverage, which is buttressed by analysis and feature stories, plus the work of such national experts as former Fox Sports baseball writer Ken Rosenthal and former ESPN hockey columnist Pierre LeBrun. All of it is available on an app and online ad-free.
Last year, the Athletic expanded overseas, hiring a team of soccer writers to cover the English Premier League. It has more than 100 podcasts and plans to add more. And it’s landing bigger stories every year: Rosenthal, along with Evan Drellich, broke the Houston Astros sign-stealing story. The scoop netted several thousand new subscriptions, Hansmann, the Athletic’s co-founder, said in an interview.
“Our fundamental perspective is whenever there are layoffs somewhere else that it’s depressing,” Hansmann said. “But our business perspective is that interest in sports remains at close to an all-time high. So even as you have everything falling apart, the decline in the industry isn’t about the demand for content.”
Looking for an off-ramp
With its growing subscriber base, the Athletic already has been more successful than early skeptics predicted, taking advantage of a fractured media environment and effectively serving the passions of local sports fans. But it also has spent millions on salaries.
Eric Jackson, founder of EMJ Capital, a tech and media venture capital fund, worried about the company’s cash flow and valuation. “Usually people disclose revenues when it’s good news,” he said. “Another thing is: Why did they need to raise more capital? Because they’ve spent the rest of it and they need to keep paying people? At a $500 million valuation, they’re hoping this is going to be like a unicorn and then some. But it’s a media business, and I don’t see that.”
Ultimately, though, its balance sheet may not matter as much as its scale, at least to the company’s investors. As with any venture-backed start-up, its clearest path to success is through a sale.
There has been some momentum recently for acquisitions. Streaming audio service Spotify paid some $200 million for Bill Simmons’s the Ringer. Gambling operator Penn National paid $450 million for a major stake in Barstool Sports, the divisive sports-media brand. But those deals may not be useful harbingers for the Athletic. In the Ringer, Spotify saw a sprawling and popular podcast network. In Barstool, Penn National saw a rabid audience of current and potential sports gamblers. The Athletic said it has no plans to pursue gambling content or partnerships.
In interviews, multiple investors, along with media executives and industry insiders, said companies that value local consumers could make interesting potential buyers for the Athletic. Among the companies they mentioned: Sinclair Broadcast Group, which just spent more than $10 billion on more than 20 regional sports networks; Fox Sports, which doesn’t have much of a digital footprint after eliminating its writers; Comcast, which owns a handful of regional sports networks; and ESPN, because it’s ESPN.
No substantive negotiations have taken place, a person at the Athletic said, though some media companies have reached out. According to three members of the industry, conversations took place with Fox Sports but didn’t advance. The Athletic declined to comment on that, as did Fox Sports. A senior employee at ESPN said the company had no interest in the Athletic, particularly at its current valuation.
“It’s too soon to know if it’s just a good idea or if it’s a long-term viable business,” one investor of the Athletic said.
Investors and others said the range of outcomes for the company and its army of journalists still varies widely, but they believe its future hinges on a sale. If it’s bought by a company that wants to expand the model, the Athletic could help stabilize the industry for the long term. Someone else could buy the company and cut costs, leaving the fate of the fabled beat writer uncertain again. Or the disaster version: The company can’t find a buyer near its valuation, the capital runs out, and the thing goes upside down.
“If the Athletic doesn’t succeed, it would have a chilling effect because it would be a lost bet that people will pay for high-quality sports journalism,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst who runs the website Newsonomics.
Hansmann said he appreciated what the Athletic means to the industry right now. “I think as far as the pressure of that, we don’t think about how things might go wrong,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve built a large company and raised outside funding, plenty of it. We’re stretched as founders, sure, but we feel like we control our destiny.”
For their part, writers said they weren’t thinking too hard about what they cannot control.
“I’m about to turn 40. I have two kids in Catholic school,” said Armstrong, the New Orleans editor. “I could worry about those things, but I’m just going to focus on the fact that I have a job that I love.”