Kevin Draper profiled The Athletic in the New York Times today, and the piece is making the rounds on sports social media due in large part to this quote from co-founder Alex Mather:
“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Alex Mather, a co-founder of The Athletic, said in an interview in San Francisco. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”
These quotes are obviously brash, and just begging to be thrown back at him if the endeavor does not ultimately make it. While The Athletic’s mission to eliminate intrusive interstitial ads and autoplay and to empower writers with competitive salaries and the instruction to produce rich work with a lot of context is admirable, even in their comparative skeleton states newspaper bundles provide a lot of critical information to their communities.
And a lot of those big name hires at The Athletic probably still have a lot of friends in those newspaper sports sections Mather wants to suck dry.
Mather sought to clarify his remarks on Twitter, amidst the backlash:
Further context on some less than humble quotes in the NYT: we pay writers well, we treat them well, we ask them to change how they write. This makes life very difficult for our local competitors. Surviving in media is very difficult with the amount of aggregation, the algorithms of FB, etc.
We‘re going to stay very small and let others spend on video, machine learning, sponsored content. We’re going to focus on doing good work. And we are rooting for local papers to get the message. Their actions generally defy rationality and lead me to believe they wont. And I stand by the brashness of my comments. we have to fight to survive and we will. And definitely the last time I have 3 cold brews before a NYT interview.
In the NYT piece, Mather also had what I believe to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the marketplace:
“In a city like Chicago, there are 100,000 die-hard fans,” Mather said. “That is a very lucrative subscription business. There are over 100,000 die-hard fans of Chicago teams outside of Chicago,” he added, and he says they aren’t served well. “Bleacher Report is empty calories. SB Nation is empty calories. The newspapers are doing nothing.”
I live in Chicago and I’ve enjoyed reading people The Athletic hired like Jon Greenberg, Sahadev Sharma, and Sean Highkin (though, Highkin, who in disclosure is a friend of mine, was let go a couple months ago, which would seem to go against some of Mather’s rhetoric). There has been a lot of deep work you can’t find in other places.
But, for the same reason you’re not seeing Doritos go out of business, a huge segment of sports fans wants empty calories in their sports content. I look at traffic meters all day. For every naysayer on Twitter who asks why it’s news that Blake Griffin went to dinner with Kendall Jenner, thousands of people click through to the site, and those same people are not reading our deeper dives into pure sports commentary. I know clicks aren’t the mission at The Athletic but there is a lot of silly, short, empty calorie content that their readers might enjoy as supplements to rich reporting. (As an aside, Bleacher Report launched a magazine vertical that pays writers quite well, and has deep reporting.)
As we’ve said before, we want The Athletic to succeed because it’s good for the whole industry to have more players in the marketplace, especially ones that pay well and give space for deep story ideation. But these quotes in the New York Times come off as unearned arrogance about a business model that from the outside doesn’t seem to be as much of a slam dunk as Mather is touting it as.