The Athletic’s Commitment to Engagement is Attracting Investors and Readers to its Ad-Free Publications

The Athletic’s Commitment to Engagement is Attracting Investors and Readers to its Ad-Free Publications

If you’re a diehard sports fan, you’ve probably at least heard about The Athletic by now.

Those who have subscribed for U.S. $3 to $4 per month have discovered a rich trove of city-based sports coverage that has begun to fill the void left by the dwindling number of newspapers that historically provided a daily sports fix.

Since going live in January 2016, The Athletic has expanded to 47 cities in Canada and the U.S. It’s also diversified beyond written online stories with podcasts and video products — all without a single dollar of ad revenue. Investors have taken note, likely enticed by the strong and growing community The Athletic has engaged.

The Shifting Sports Media Landscape

The company earned headlines from the get-go when it announced the U.S. $2.3 million in seed funding that its founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann had landed. Then again for its gradual recruitment of top-tier sports journalists from older, more established companies like Sports Illustrated and The Globe and Mail (both of which have seen their sports pages reduced in recent years).

Traditional media’s shrinking page count doesn’t mean there’s no competition for The Athletic. Established broadcasters such as ESPN, TSN and theScore carry big-time brand recognition online, and more sprawling media brands, like MSN and Yahoo, offer free sports content through various platforms.

James Mirtle, editor-in-chief of The Athletic Canada, says The Athletic’s stories gather “a different slice” of sports fandom compared to other media companies. “We’re doing something more analytical than what you’d do at a free website. You can tell because the comment section is usually more civil,” he says.

Those readers are regularly engaged through means that most will find familiar in 2019 — each reporter is active on social media (table stakes in modern journalism). But The Athletic has also formalized a Q&A regimen that regularly invites subscribers to connect with its experts.

“Initially, it was ad hoc,” says Taylor Patterson, director of communications at The Athletic. “A writer and editor would tackle a live Q&A for an hour, with the editor fielding the questions and the writer responding in real-time.”

But the company soon invested in expanding the in-house tool its product engineers built to facilitate this discussion, improving the UI and making it look “more professional,” Patterson says. The marketing team also hired a full-time community manager to oversee Q&As and build a calendar to coincide with season starts, playoffs, and other chat-worthy events.

The discussions are now a fleshed-out editorial program that averages 15 discussions each week across the network.

Active Subscribers = Retention

Mirtle says that the company has found that when “subscribers are active, taking part in the Q&As and the comment section, they’re much less likely to cancel their subscription. So we’re really invested in that.” Patterson also explains that approximately 80% of the subscriptions that come due each year are getting renewed.

The Athletic crested the 100,000-subscriber mark in 2018. At that time, industry watchers did some quick, back-of-the-envelope math and estimated average annual subscriber revenues between U.S. $6 million and $8 million.

It’s also worth noting that in the 12 months since breaking 100,000 subs, The Athletic has expanded to a dozen new markets to offer local coverage on every team in the NBA, NFL, and NHL and has added NASCAR to its mix.

Even if that revenue doesn’t cover costs yet, investors have not been hiding their checkbooks. Investment and funding information platform Crunchbase pegged The Athletic’s total funding (so far) at U.S. $89.5 million following its sixth round in May 2019. Whatever data those investors are seeing, it’s keeping their wallets open.

Overall, the company is confident that regular engagement with its passionate readers is the key to growth. As Patterson puts it, “when people feel they can connect on a personal level with something they read about every day — and can express their opinions on the topic — people are inclined to stick with it.”

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