Back-to-basics sports site The Athletic began, could have ended in Chicago – Chicago Tribune
This latest splash for The Athletic was huge, a veritable cannonball. The addition this week of Fox Sports baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal (no relation) to an already formidable staff of sports journalists was a sit-up-and-notice moment.
But before the quickly expanding subscription website could start to establish its bonafides as a national sports media presence, it had to sell in Chicago. Before it could plant its flag in the San Francisco Bay Area, Detroit, Cleveland and Toronto with localized coverage, it had to show its approach could work here.
The Athletic launched with a modest operation here in Chicago at the beginning of 2016, providing smart and timely news, features and analysis of this city’s sports stars and teams.
More to the point, the experiment — and whatever it has the potential to become or at least be remembered for — very easily could have ended here, too.
Launching in Chicago not only was a sizable bet on the potential for a historic baseball season by the Cubs to drive interest among already engaged fans, but also a bet that former ESPN Chicago columnist Jon Greenberg and the team he helped assemble could produce the sort of content people might pay a few bucks a month to see.
“I felt a ton of pressure,” Greenberg said Thursday, a day after the announcement that Rosenthal had joined the site. “It wasn’t just pressure for the company. … It was personal pressure.”
Greenberg’s job at ESPN was lost to a cost-cutting purge. He was a new homeowner in the suburbs. He could ill afford to fail on several levels.
Producing solid work wasn’t just necessary to convince readers of the quality and value of The Athletic, however.
It was absolutely vital if San Francisco-based co-founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, who had no previous experience in journalism, were to advance their strategy and see a return on their investment.
But it also was necessary to establish the legitimacy of the nascent venture to local sports organizations wary of credentialing a site with no history despite the fact that they had been working with Greenberg, fellow ESPN Chicago vet Scott Powers and others for years.
“The fact that we made it through that makes me pretty proud,” Greenberg said.
While the site considers its subscription data largely proprietary, it has done well enough to continue both winning over investors — it added $5.8 million in new capital just last month — and broadening its scope without cluttering its content with click-bait or ads piled on ads.
“We are definitely happy with the numbers,” said Greenberg, who allowed the Chicago coverage has steadily picked up new subscribers every month. “The guys who started the company are really bright. If they weren’t I wouldn’t have done this. I wouldn’t have wasted time trying it, if I thought these guys were jokers or they didn’t have any plan.
“These guys are skilled at getting investor money and strong in venture-capital circles,” Greenberg said. “They knew the people and it really went from them going to people, giving the pitch to people and companies coming to them to invest. So that’s when we knew it was good.”
Subscriptions — priced at $10 a month, $60 a year and sometimes available with introductory discounts — mean the site doesn’t have to dangle click-bait and hot takes for the broadest possible audience in the same way that cable TV programs supported by subscription fees survive with niche audiences. But that means they have to be especially attuned to what their audience is passionate and curious about.
If Rosenthal joining The Athletic was an eye-opener, so too was Paul Fichtenbaum, who stepped down as the Sports Illustrated Group’s editor-in-chief last summer.
Fichtenbaum initially served as a consultant before embracing the role of chief content officer for the site. In a letter to readers posted Wednesday, he said the site will add Philadelphia to its roster of cities next month.
Beyond the local initiatives, it’s not hard to read between the lines of his plans to take on a national presence through The Athletic Ink, a showcase for feature, enterprise and longform journalism, and to open bureaus soon in Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Winnipeg while increasing hockey coverage on this side of the border.
Fox Sports, where Rosenthal will continue to contribute on TV and video, has decided the future of its website is in video and has moved dramatically away from text, writing, words.
ESPN, trying to streamline operations and cut costs, has put a premium on punditry and star reporters while cutting back on others areas such as coverage of pro hockey.
Meanwhile, even traditional industry stalwarts such Sports Illustrated have had to rein in expenses in the face of diminished revenue.
Staff reductions at SI and Fox Sports made people such as Seth Davis and Stewart Mandel available to The Athletic to handle college basketball and football, respectively. There’s also a plan to reduce the number of issues SI publishes each year, which would mean others could step in to provide its audience the kind of stories the magazine once reliably produced weekly.
But that presumes there’s an appetite for that sort of involved storytelling.
“Our best performing stories are actually our longer stories,” Greenberg said, citing an example from last week by Cubs reporter Sahadev Sharma on how Anthony Rizzo is a throwback in that he’s a power hitter who gets walks more than he strikes out.
It’s not splashy, but it apparently is working.