Image: Unsplash / Ben Hershey
Image: Unsplash / Ben Hershey

How The Athletic is disrupting sports journalism

Founded in the Windy City four years ago, The Athletic has never been afraid to make bold proclamations about the future it envisages for sports journalism. The Athletic’s 2016 Chicago launch promised to change the way that sports fans consume media; pledging to provide unrivalled coverage of the Blackhawks and Cubs to those willing to part with a subscription fee. It did, and The Athletic’s success has changed the game.

The Athletic has complied a dream team of writers on day one, but has the site delivered the golden age of sports journalism it promised?

By the time The Athletic had landed in Blighty, it’s UK Editor-in-Chief, Alex Kay-Jelski, announced that he had been instructed to “build the best football writing team in the UK”. Alex Manther and Adam Hansmann’s creation is now trans-Atlantic, spanning 47 North American markets – as well as the UK, but The Athletic’s message remains unchanged: “we’re the best”, but are they?

My attention, like much of The Athletic’s UK following, was drawn to the site in August last year, as swathes of the country’s most well-known football writers swapped the established names of print journalism for an American app free of adverts, but behind a paywall. On face value, Kay-Jelski had done as instructed: with Raphael Hongistein, the Bundesliga expert; David Ornstein, famed for breaking exclusives pertaining to Arsenal; and Michael Cox – the founding father of Zonal Marking – on board, The Athletic has complied a dream team of writers on day one.

The Athletic’s business model is predicated on un-bundling sports journalism from local publications, and reaching supporters away from traditional markets. Simply put, subscribers have access to all of The Athletic’s content, but are invited to filter their newsfeeds to provide tailor-made reading lists, specific to each subscriber’s interests. The Athletic can therefore justifiably target Manchester United die-hards, and West Ham-supporting, MLS-loving, Toronto Maple Leafs-watching Londoners simultaneously. 

Unlike traditional outlets, The Athletic has shown no interest in publishing short-form, match-reports or previews. Instead, subscribers are able to interact with writers after the game through the app, bridging the gap between writer and reader.

The Athletic’s product, however, has not been immune from criticism. Upon its UK launch, some early adapters berated the site for publishing articles that were simply too long, too wordy and too self-indulgent. Removed from its output, widespread cynicism from industry experts plagued The Athletic until it broke soil in the UK – for years it was assumed that Hansmann and Manther’s project would implode. Explosive expansion to new markets and sports placed a strain on The Athletic’s charge to a million subscribers, but it is now a matter of when; not if the site makes it over the line.

The Athletic is here to stay, which leaves just one question unanswered: has the site delivered the golden age of sports journalism it promised?

Time will tell. 

Unlike traditional outlets, The Athletic has shown no interest in publishing short-form, match-reports or previews. Instead, subscribers are able to interact with writers after the game through the app, bridging the gap between writer and reader. Roshane Jones, The Athletic’s West Ham correspondent, was especially responsive in the wake of Manuel Pellegrini’s sacking, taking to the app to discuss what the future could hold for the Hammers. 

The charm of interacting with The Athletic’s writers is alluring, but it certainly doesn’t justify paying the subscription fee. Twitter, duh. 

However, for as long as the site continues to boast an array of in-depth, long-form articles that can cut through the bluster to analyse sports as varied as golf, ice hockey and football, The Athletic will continue to appeal to its base. 

Dominic Fifield’s piece on Brentford B shone a light on a potentially ground-breaking change in English football. Dom Luszcyszyn’s analysis of netminders in the NHL underscored criticism of recruitment in hockey. Andy Naylor’s exclusive on Brighton’s aborted trip to Dubai highlighted the genuine security concerns Premier League clubs face every day. Each of those articles, commendable in their respective field, was published within the space of 72 hours. 

In the age of clickbait and sensationalism, The Athletic is a breath of fresh air. 

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