Rumours have swirled around The Athletic’s UK launch since football writers up and down the country began handing in their notices earlier this year and hinting at a part in something new to come.
Today the US sports news website has officially arrived on this side of the pond, promising dedicated coverage for every Premier League football club in the country and more besides.
Heading it up is Ed Malyon, ex-sports editor at the Independent, who will oversee UK operations as managing director, and ex-Times sports editor Alex Kay-Jelski, who is in charge of editorial content.
The Athletic’s aggressive hiring spree has vacated some of the top jobs in football journalism across the national and regional press – covering the beautiful game is its singular aim for the moment.
“We had a short period in which we had to hire a lot of people,” Malyon explains to Press Gazette.
Journalists ‘didn’t need much convincing’
Some reports claimed The Athletic had doubled journalists’ salaries in a bid to entice them over. “Ludicrous,” the 29-year-old says of the claims.
“I can’t think of anyone for whom that’s true. We didn’t rifle in asking people their salaries, we offered them what we know they’re worth.”
Malyon says the journalists he approached “didn’t need much convincing”, despite some having never heard of the US sports news service, and “got on board with the concept from day one”.
The Athletic UK will have some 55 editorial staff once all final notice periods have been served by its new hires (see full list).
All staff are offered equity in the San Francisco-based company, which launched in 2016 and now has some 450 full-time writers and editors.
‘The positivity has been infectious’
One new staffer told Press Gazette anonymously: “It wasn’t a particularly hard sell. Every journalist wants the time and resources to do good work, and this puts quality front and centre.
“With other sports websites engaged in a depressing race to the bottom, this feels like a timely attempt to raise the level… the positivity has been infectious.”
But while it seems to have convinced journalists of its merits, the challenge for the Athletic UK now is to convince readers, whose subscriptions will provide its only source of income.
It has already amassed more than 500,000 subscribers in North America (including Canada) who pay from $5 a month, according to Bloomberg, and aims to double that by the end of this year.
In the UK, subscribers will pay £59.99 for a year’s access (£4.99 a month) or £9.99 for one month’s access.
To mark its UK launch, subscriptions have been discounted to £29.99 for a year, or £4.99 for a month, throughout August. UK subscribers will also get access to all of The Athletic’s North American content.
Taylor Patterson, the Athletic’s director of communications, said the digital newsbrand was hoping to capitalise on consumers’ “subscription-based headspace” that sees them pay for the likes of Netflix and Amazon.
The Athletic, which publishes online and has a mobile app, will run “no ads, no videos, no pop-ups” and no sponsored content either, she says.
Patterson says ad-funded journalism models result in priorities shifting to “what would work for the advertisers” around content.
“At the end of the day the group most under-served there are the readers. I think that is what we’ve aimed to return to – how we give sports fans and consumers a product that they want, that they deserve and that goes back to the fundamental tenants of quality journalism,” she adds.
“The model is really simple and it’s working.”
The Athletic UK’s big sell is localised sports coverage, with at least one dedicated reporter for every Premier League football team and up to three on clubs where there’s more competition for stories.
There will also be coverage of select Championship clubs, including Leeds, Nottingham Forest, Derby County and West Brom.
Football coverage ‘has to be the best out there’
Says Malyon: “It’s very much a local-based strategy. I think what we are going to see is a real interest from clubs like Norwich and Southampton.
“Teams that don’t really get covered at the moment by the national press are suddenly going to have loads of coverage that they never had before.”
Malyon says the reliance on subscription revenue means the Athletic UK “has to be the best out there” when it comes to football coverage, for fans both at home and abroad.
“Premier League teams have hundreds of thousands or millions of fans around the world and if we’re providing the best coverage of their club then I fully believe the fans are going to come and they’re going to subscribe,” he says.
“If no-one else is offering even a half-decent effort in terms of covering Southampton, or Derby County, or Leeds, then that’s a huge opportunity for us.
“It’s not because people don’t want to cover these clubs properly, it’s just that certain business models have made it impossible to do so and that’s just a gap that’s opened up and these guys [at The Athletic] have seen an opportunity.”
‘Upstart news outlet’
But The Athletic’s approach has drawn criticism.
A New York Times article from October 2017 described The Athletic as an “upstart news outlet” and warned its targeted hiring and “breakneck expansion” could result in local paper sports sections disappearing.
“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” the NY Times quoted Alex Mather, The Athletic’s chief executive, as saying at the time.
“We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”
Mather co-founded the sports news subscription service along with its chief operating officer Adam Hansman. Both previously worked at Strava, the social app for cyclists and runners.
Patterson told the BBC that Mather had apologised for his remarks and that the newsbrand’s “position has really evolved” since then.
The Athletic’s move into the UK has been aided by declines seen across the local news industry, where sports desks are often among the first to face cuts amid falling ad revenues and shrinking print readerships.
‘Sport is never the top priority’ on a newspaper
Malyon says football journalists have been downtrodden by an industry that has “depressed” salaries for years.
“People will always want to write about football [so] you can get away with paying them not very much,” he says.
“If you’re going to work for a newspaper on a sports desk, what you know is that sport is never the top priority. It’s probably never the second.
“I think that’s probably how it should be because newspapers are there to hold people of power to account and talk about politics and talk about news and stuff, which is actually important, and sport most of the time is a welcome diversion but it’s not necessarily important.
“What I’ve found is that if you’re trying to get money to cover a football match or a cricket tournament, then sometimes you’re not going to be able to get that at a newspaper because priorities are elsewhere.
“This is a sports media company, all we have to think about is covering football as well as we can and that means all of the resources we have – travel or whatever – can be diverted exactly into those stories and then those stories in return drive subscribers.”
‘Very British enterprise’
Despite The Athletic’s American credentials, Malyon says its UK arm will be a “very British enterprise”.
Nearly all of its editorial staff are British and its head office will be located in Southwark, London, with reporters mainly based near their clubs.
“It’s British coverage of British clubs,” he says. The website will publish at theathletic.co.uk for a UK audience, rather than the .com of its progenitor.
Once all staff are on board up to 150 stories out of the 1,500 published each week by the newsbrand will have a UK focus. However Malyon says it will take a couple of months before his team is at full capacity.
“There’s loads to do to,” he says. “But it’s really exciting at the same time because we get to do it all from scratch.”
Picture: The Athletic