As a nearly two-year-old sports media start-up, The Athletic sold itself as a vulture hovering over the carcasses of local newspapers left to die in the digital age. The website’s cofounder Alex Mather went so far as to claim that The Athletic’s goal was to hasten the extinction of local news by poaching the most talented beat reporters from local sports sections—one of the few areas in which these antiquated publications continue to thrive. “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Mather said in 2017.
In hindsight, it seems Mather was broadcasting his plan to the local paper—albeit local in name only—that would one day buy him up. On Thursday, The New York Times announced it would be purchasing The Athletic, which has succeeded in building a robust roster of writers to cover nearly every notable sports town in America, for about $550 million. Despite its impressive masthead, The Athletic has, at times, been a money-losing venture, operating more than $20 million in the red in 2019. However, it boasts a paid-subscriber base of 1.2 million—a number that gets the 8 million–strong Times closer to its 2025 goal of 10 million.
Aside from the subscription boost, the Times’ marriage with The Athletic makes sense in a future of mega-conglomerates. Both outlets have succeeded in establishing brands in major cities where local news is dying. In an article for the Columbia Journalism Review published in July 2020, Tony Haile reported that the “Times has more digital subscribers in Dallas–Fort Worth than The Dallas Morning News, more digital subscribers in Seattle than The Seattle Times, more digital subscribers in California than the L.A. Times or the San Francisco Chronicle.”
For most contemporary news start-ups, the biggest challenge is living past infancy, even if their services are in demand. Those that do survive are often only able to do so after being purchased by major investment firms, as was the case with Gizmodo and the Daily Beast, or swallowed by competitors, as Vice did to Refinery29 and Condé Nast—which also publishes Vanity Fair—did to Pitchfork. Between 2019 and 2020, The Athletic hemorrhaged nearly $100 million, per The Information. In the summer of 2020, The Athletic appeared to be bleeding out after some four years of existence; 46 staffers were let go that June. Speculation ramped up the following year over whether the site would receive a lifeline from online gambling companies, or from the Washington, D.C.–based news site Axios. A merger between Axios and The Athletic might have made sense: The former has also sought to beat local papers at their own game by launching city-specific verticals in Austin, Charlotte, Denver, and elsewhere.
But instead of joining forces with a fellow start-up, The Athletic—following a path well trodden by many of the “disruptive,” “scrappy” digital outlets that preceded it—made a savior out of the same institution it sought to overtake. Sports Illustrated senior editor Jason Schwartz drove home this point while reacting to the news on Thursday. “So in the end, The Athletic basically consolidated sportswriters from local newspapers to the one big mega national newspaper so a lot of VC guys could get rich,” he tweeted. “Sort of feels like the modern news ecosystem in a nutshell.”
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