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I was an early subscriber to The Athletic back in 2017. My friend Brandon turned me on to the site, which offered a unique approach to coverage. Everything was behind a paywall, but The Athletic put an emphasis on local sports coverage.
They secured the best reporters for Georgia Bulldogs and Atlanta Braves coverage, and they did the same for other cities as they grew. There was less focus on national reporters at first as well.
Another thing I’ve loved about The Athletic from day one has been some of their deeper dives. More detailed stories (you know like you can get as a PJ Media VIP subscriber) and longer exposés of different aspects of sports were fascinating to read. I’ve particularly loved their extensive coverage of the troubles in minor league baseball.
But I knew there was trouble brewing when the New York Times bought The Athletic at the beginning of this year for a whopping $550 million. The Times has turned The Athletic into one of the things I hate the most about ESPN. Nope — not wokeness. Instead, The Athletic has become heavily focused on New York teams.
Since the beginning of the year, the majority of the notifications I get from The Athletic app on my phone have centered on the New York Mets, particularly pitchers Jacob DeGrom and Max Scherzer. Anytime one of those two pitchers sneezes, I get a breaking alert.
At the same time, I have to dig for news about my Bulldogs or Braves — the reasons I signed up for The Athletic in the first place. It’s also abundantly clear that The Athletic is placing more emphasis on reporters and columnists who cover stories nationally instead of the quality local coverage that was its bread and butter at first.
It’s also come to light recently that The Athletic is losing money hand over fist.
Operating Losses for @TheAthletic
•2019: $54 million
•2020: $41 million
•2021: $55 million
(Source: New York Times)
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) May 5, 2022
Media insiders are certain that The Athletic is in for some big changes at the hands of the corporate overlords at the New York Times. But what? Sam Amico muses about the possibilities over at Outkick.
“Several insiders have suggested to OutKick that the Times intends to keep only the most noted writers with larger social media followings, turning the site into solely a national brand,” he writes.
This is a mistake. It’s the local writers that make the site more appealing, and it would be easy for The Athletic to cull national stories from local ones.
“Others say the Times intend[s] to keep the local coverage, but with considerably fewer writers and editors in each location, doing away with “beat” coverage of teams and sticking solely to longer, more in-depth and timeless feature pieces,” Amico continues.
The deeper stories generate more clicks on the website and more hits on the app, but they’re not helping generate revenue. What’s going to save The Athletic is the same principle that will help our country as a whole: federalism. Give subscribers local coverage, podcasts, and live Clubhouse-style calls; those are the things that will encourage sports fans to pony up.
Brandon put it well when he texted me, “Most sports fans care more about deep dives on their teams and players. I don’t care much about anything else and I’m as big a sports nut there is. I just keep up; I don’t need saturation of a national perspective.”
Besides, if we want national coverage, we’ve got plenty of other outlets for it.
An insider told Amico that The Athletic “as we know it will soon cease to exist. … That version of The Athletic is dying a slow death.” It’s a shame, but I understand why.
If the Times can’t steer The Athletic back to what it used to be, more subscribers will lose interest, including me.