June 14, 2023

RIP The Athletic: It isn’t Dead, Just Forgot Its Purpose

In the sports world, The Athletic just went through another round of layoffs. With their layoffs focusing on “less popular local coverage” – with their MLB, NBA and NHL coverage hit the hardest.  I think a lot of people are still waiting to see who is gone, but that seems to be the where the bulk of the layoffs have been.

The trend

I think largely the issue is the assumption that every industry will be massively profitable. Sports drives a lot of content, but not everyone will become rich from it – those large deals do seem to come at the national level, but that doesn’t mean local sports coverage isn’t valuable.

The Athletic isn’t alone in pivoting away from local coverage. That’s been the trend in sports media layoffs over the last decade – and increasingly so in the last year. There’s no money in local sports, we’ve heard. Whether it’s SBN shutting down their local blogs, or Diamond Sports Group filing for bankruptcy.

I’ve watched/listened/read national coverage of sports, and it’s exhausting only getting the greatest hits day in and day out. If you like basketball, but aren’t a LeBron or Lakers fan, good luck. Most of the coverage, no matter how the teams are doing, will focus on the Lakers. Same with the NFL covering any team Tom Brady is on and the Cowboys regardless of their season.  In the NHL, it’s bringing up the Blackhawks even if they have nothing to do with the games being discussed.

While it will appeal to a lot of people, it gets tiring and predictable. There’s no real insight when you’re repeating the same thing about the stars of a sport time and time again.

So what we lose is content that focuses on rosters local fans care about, insight that informs them and actually discusses their strengths and shortcomings without bypassing them to talk about someone more recognizable.

What went wrong with the Athletic

What went wrong with The Athletic? The original business model was pretty aggressive with their recruitment and growth. I’ve long felt the deep discount for new accounts created a sentiment that the full price of a subscription wasn’t worth it. But they kept trying to hold true to their business model rooted on the idea that local markets were what kept sports fans going.

Then, as they were trying to prepare for sale, they had another round of layoffs. They started doing more national level pieces, more interviews to get clicks and attention.  I’m still not sure of the timing, but I cancelled my subscription when they had an interview with OJ Simpson. It was clearly designed to get rage clicks, and that’s not a company I want to support – which hurt, because I did appreciate the coverage of the Dallas Stars they provide.

The NY Times owns the Athletic now, and it’s clear, that they’re missing what drew people to the site. In their cost saving measures, they’re gutting what it offered that nobody else did.

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