There is certainly continued angst amongst those making a living in media these days. ESPN and Sports Illustrated layoffs, sites rolling up, newspapers well…that we know. Then there are new offerings like Oath and Stadium and the continued watching of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We still have Bleacher Report and others humming along and Player’s Tribune boasts all its big names.
Into that mix comes The Athletic. An outlier of sorts, The Athletic launched in the mega-market of Chicago and has expanded to other cities, with a mobile and online offering of great storytelling; most of it paywalled. While many have tried the paywall and failed, The Athletic is thriving and expanding into other markets, with well-funded backers and a growing stable of household names. Click bait it is not. Great information for core fans it is.
How is it going? We asked Athletic Chicago mainstay, founding editor/columnist Jon Greenberg to show us the way.
You were a big part of ESPN Chicago. How has The Athletic thrived where many hyper local sites with big media companies have not?
I think we’re thriving because my bosses came in with the right idea of providing quality coverage, not cheap coverage with a local focus. We didn’t go into this trying to game SEO. We don’t do any aggregating (but we’re not afraid of crediting our competitors) and we have experienced reporters (along with some new faces) on every beat. We also travel, which has helped legitimize us.
Because they did the legwork (before approaching me) to prepare and then set up funding through investors, the money allowed us to grow with some certainty as we picked up subscriptions and built our name.
It really helps to have smart people in charge and my bosses, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, are incredibly bright, hard-working and also, very nice. That’s not to say I don’t get Slack messages challenging me every so often, but that’s good too. I can’t stress enough how much it helped to have someone who is a UX expert working on your team, and that’s Mather. I mean, check out our app and our website.
Chicago is a big market with lots of attention. What has been the niche that The Athletic has been able to capitalize on in such a crowded space?
Honestly, I think people were excited for something new. We’ve shown we have staying power.
We’re not Baseball Prospectus with our analytics, but we tend to look at some stories in analytical ways, which makes us a little different than some of our print competitors.
Chicago’s a big market with a shrinking media. I mean, I moved here in 2003 and it’s depressing to think of how big the local papers were then and what their staffs are like now. So, there was room for us to grow and thrive, particularly in certain beats and in certain parts of those beats.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of working as hard as you can. In September, I went to Houston to cover Cubs-Astros and the Bears opener. That Sunday, I did Bears first and then Cubs-Astros Sunday Night Baseball. During the NLCS, I realized Derrick Rose’s civil rape trial would be ending while I was in L.A., so for two days, I did double duty in court and at Dodger Stadium. I was the only Chicago reporter to go to Rose’s trial (he was obviously gone from the Bulls), but I’d like to think people noticed.
The second site, Toronto also took off and now Detroit and Cleveland have launched. Were there best practices learned in Chicago that were refined in the others?
One think we definitely learned in Chicago, and this will surprise a lot of people, is that there is a paying audience for hockey. No, hockey will never surpass football, baseball or basketball and it won’t do huge web traffic outside the Stanley Cup, but hockey fans are clearly underserved in a lot of markets. And even in Toronto, where hockey is everywhere, Leafs fans are willing to pay for a premium-style product.
In hockey, and in the other sports, we’ve learned that hardcore sports fans want analytical, deep dives into a how team works, from power plays to pick and roll defense.
How important are established media members on the site vs. people who are new faces with say, a bigger social following?
I think it helped a ton that we had instant name recognition, and it helped that fans/readers generally liked our writers. We started with me, Sahadev Sharma and Scott Powers. Now, we’re not the biggest names in Chicago, but we had significant followings and it’s pretty incredible to see how our names have grown at a start-up, particularly Scott and Sahadev. The good thing is fans had positive feelings about those two. I had a few more detractors (because I’m sarcastic on Twitter), but I had a decent following from ESPN. Our Bears guys Dan Durkin and Dan Pompei had solid to sizable followings as well. Lauren Comitor is getting big here, as I expected.
I was on CSN Chicago’s daily show “Sports Talk Live” on the day of our launch. I think I did the Sunday night sports show on the NBC affiliate in town right away too. Our writers go on the sports talk radio shows all the time. Radio and TV have been great to us here.
We’ve had success with “new faces” as well, like Stephen Noh, who was known on Twitter and SB Nation as “Hungarian Jordan.” His Bulls stories do very well for us.
Has the pay wall stunted growth at all? Any thought into offering more to lure an audience?
It’s stunted readership, for sure. But we don’t have ads and the lack of vanity retweets are the price we were willing to pay to grow a paying audience. But at first, a lot was free and we offer a ton of unlocked content (particularly game stories and breaking news that isn’t exclusive) and we plan ahead on making certain stories free to build an audience. Like when we do transcriptions of big interviews. We did one for Theo Epstein’s Yale graduation speech that did huge traffic numbers.
Right now, we’re making some of our White Sox coverage free, because our writer James Fegan (another former Baseball Prospectus local writer) is new on the beat this year and we want to drum up interest.
Speaking of an audience, who and where are the subs coming from and why?
It’s a real cross-section of Chicago sports. We like to think we skew young (40 and under, perhaps), but we have plenty of subscribers older than that. (I gave one high school kid a free password because he didn’t have a credit card.)
We’re getting subs through word of mouth, Twitter obviously, some advertising online and on Facebook and Twitter, Google searches. We can tell if people are subscribing after reading stories (you get five free if you download the app, for example) so we know what writers/kind of stories are driving subscriptions. If we have a big story, say an exclusive interview, and it’s locked, we use that to drive subscriptions.
We’re trying to really focus on producing the kinds of stories that will drive subscriptions and make subscribers want to renew.
How important will video be in the growth not just in Chicago but elsewhere?
Not that important honestly. We’re all about the written word. We actually got some subscriptions from a tweet mocking Fox Sports’ well-publicized website shift to video. We’ll expand our video as time goes on and hopefully make some money from it. Right now, in Chicago at least, our main focus are short iPhone videos at games that we can put on our app.
What has the response been like from teams, the leagues and those working with athletes?
Teams and leagues were skeptical at first, even those who knew us well. It was eye-opening to find out their opinions on “online news sites.” I guess there have been too many fly-by-night sites or just some people are a little confused about the changing nature of media consumption. But we didn’t complain about early credentialing problems (well, we complained politely in some cases) and we’ve built a lot of trust, I think, with our reporting and the quality of our site.
We’ve broken big stories and created some really original content. I’ll say out of all the teams in town, the Cubs have probably been the most supportive, from the start until now. Hey, not a bad franchise to emulate, everyone else.
Is hyper local content like college and even elite high school storytelling part of the mix in determining a market?
In some markets, like Detroit and Cleveland, there’s going to be a strong college angle. The two sites that are probably next will be more like Chicago, which is pro-centric. I think we’d be more likely to go heavy into high school basketball in Chicago than Northwestern or Illinois, or even Notre Dame. But we’ve dabbled in college and preps here, to limited success.
Some of your investors at Courtside have said the market choices are very tailored and take a lot of research. New York for example is not a short term target. How have the markets been picked thus far?
Chicago was picked because they wanted a launch market with winning teams, and obviously the Cubs were a major part of their plan. (Good call guys.)
We saw early success in NBA and NHL, so with the media shift (people losing jobs left and right) in Canada, that made Toronto our second market. (Technically the Bay Area was our second, but it’s a Warriors micro-site) My bosses liked Cleveland, because it’s another mid-sized market with fewer media options and one dominant team. Detroit goes along with our hockey-centric focus.
One thing these markets have in common is there is (at least) one team that drives them. In Chicago it’s the Cubs, Toronto the Maple Leafs, Cleveland the Cavs and Detroit the Red Wings. But each market has other teams that will do well, subscription-wise.
For Chicago specifically, what do you see coverage growth looking like for fans, even without a Cubs curse to break and celebrate?
We haven’t put a day-to-day beat writer on the Bears yet. That’s happening this season. We think there’s a ton of growth there. Three of the five teams in town, including the Bears, are in some stage of rebuilding, so we think we can grow with those beats and explain to fans what’s going on behind the scenes. The Cubs helped a ton last fall and through the winter, but we need to show we can bring in subscribers without a once-in-a-lifetime (so far) event.
Lastly, what have you enjoyed about the launch and the growth?
I got to watch ESPN Chicago grow (and die), but I was just a writer. With The Athletic, I’m kind of amazed at how much I was working for the first few months of our launch (I edited every story just about it and wrote about eight or nine a week) and how far we’ve grown since then. I was really nervous and unwilling to boast early on, but now I’m not. We have a fantastic staff, a top-notch website and it’s incredible to think we’re in four markets already. People know us in Chicago now. I’m not really introducing us on a daily basis. To think I was a 20-something freelancer covering preps when I moved here in 2003 and now I’m running a site in the greatest sports town in America is pretty incredible.