Two Major Sports Media Stories, Three Different Responses, and One Crowded Marketplace

Kyle Koster
Oct 23, 2017, 9:37 PM EDT

Two major sports media stories involving three disparate companies hogged headlines on Monday. The Athletic, ESPN, and Barstool all found themselves under the bright lights of scrutiny and reacted in different ways, highlighting the dissonant approaches flooding a shared space.

Each reaction was instructive in revealing both the aspiration of the company and the real-world realities of its ecosystem.

Alex Mather, co-founder of The Athletic, laid bare the startup’s bloodthirsty agenda in an interview with The New York Times.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Mather said. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

When the predictable blowback came, Mather initially dug his heels into the sand.

Several hours later, he apologized for his tone.

The Athletic has been on an all-out blitz to announce new and big-name talent in recent months. These announcements double as advertising and move subscriptions. In an ideal world, the Times story today would have been another way to get the website out into the marketplace and drive awareness.

A cynic could be forgiven for mistaking Mather’s blustery comments as intentional early on, as something to stir the pot and raise profile. The sincere apology, however, makes that less plausible.

It’s unclear how many subscribers canceled today as a response. It is safe to say that every single one is precious for the company, which eschews other traditional revenue streams in search of the monthly or yearly fee. As a relatively new outfit, they are still looking to prove themselves to the public.

There is also a dynamic with the staff worth noting. Most of The Athletic scribes have some newspaper experience in their background. Mather gleefully discussing the industry’s demise and ultimate extinction surely rubbed some the wrong way.

The other major story involved the cancellation of Barstool Van Talk by ESPN president John Skipper after only one episode. Skipper said he erred in assuming ESPN could distance the show from Barstool as a whole.

The announcement answers a question that’s been asked so many times since the partnership was made public. How much due dilligence did ESPN do in hitching its wagon to Barstool, a website steeped in controversy after a decade-plus of freewheeling internet behavior?

All signs point to … not much.

Founder Dave Portnoy’s past comments about Sam Ponder were no secret, nor were other ones made toward several of ESPN’s male NFL reporters. Speaking in a live press conference shortly after Van Talk‘s plug was pulled, Portnoy failed to strike a conciliatory or remorseful tone – -to no one’s surprise. He doesn’t apologize. He instead waves the flag of a pirate ship steered toward stormy seas.

One of the reasons why: Barstool doesn’t need to apologize. Offending people is part of the ethos. They embrace it and their fans expect it. It’s as “authenticity,” love it or leave it. Perhaps no site has a more regenerative audience. Those who choose not to return will quickly be replaced with new fans. And finally, perhaps most importantly, the Barstool staff is on board with this approach.

ESPN, of course, operates differently. They operate under Mickey Mouse’s all-hearing ears, a massive and dynamic company full of different viewpoints. Shareholders and sponsors must be considered. So too must the internal dynamics, including a small but vocal faction deeply displeased with the Barstool sponsorship.

Weighing all that, it is not surprising Skipper grounded the project. What is surprising is that it was allowed to get off the ground at all. All of those aforementioned considerations — and spate of past transgressions — were present or accessible when the green light was lit.

Three companies. Two eye-raising events. Three different responses.

Monday was a stark reminder that companies competing for eyeballs in the sports entertainment sphere are as different in their make-up as they are in presentation, that they are chasing the same thing but in wildly different ways, responding to stimuli in unique ways for unique reasons. At no other time have such strange bedfellows been sharing common space.

And the space is only going to get more diverse.