SMG: As The Athletic grows, industry questions grow with it

Another day, another splashy announcement from The Athletic. 

The Athletic plans to use most of the financing to continue its expansion across the U.S., establishing a presence in every market with a professional sports team by the end of the year. By the end of 2018, the Athletic plans to have between 200 and 350 employees, up from its current staff of 120. The company currently has a foothold in 23 markets across the U.S. and Canada, and plans to expand to roughly 45 markets by the end of the year.

As I’ve written here before, I’m doing some research projects involving The Athletic and sites like it. That’s why I’ve been hesitant to weigh on in the site here. 

But to sum it up in two words – I’m skeptical. 

I want The Athletic to succeed. Sincerely. I’m in favor of anything that increases the number of people who get paid to write about sports for a living. I find the idea of a subscription based model incredibly intriguing, since it runs contrary to the traditional publishing model. I like a lot of the writers who work there and want to see them succeed. 

But I’m skeptical. 

I’m skeptical of a business model that, two years in, isn’t making a profit and is reliant upon a steady stream of big venture capital investments. I’m skeptical that The Athletic will provide content that is unique enough that people will continue to pay for a subscription. 

Maybe it’s just that this model is so new that I’m having trouble understanding it. Maybe it’s the reliance on venture capital that usually means continued growth is the only viable outcome. Maybe it’s the weird cult-like vibe of The Athletic’s writers that turns me off (if you follow their Twitter feeds, they all REALLY like working for The Athletic in a weird way). Maybe it’s just my natural contrarianism coming out. 

But there’s something else that’s bothering me about The Athletic. 

Where are the young writers?

If The Athletic is really about reinventing sports journalism and overthrowing the tyranny of the daily sports page (instead of just biggering the bank accounts of the VC investors), where do young writers fit into this equation? Is there a spot for them at the number of sites? Because a good number of the reporters The Athletic has hired are veteran journalists. People you’ve heard of or who journalists know of and respect. But that doesn’t do anything to help sports journalism as a whole. That’s just a transfer of power from major media outlets to another. It’s similar to what you see happening in political journalism. Name reporters for national outlets land on their feet or shuffle from outlet to another. The rich get richer. 

That’s fine for them. But what about the rest of the field? 

What about the recent college graduates looking for their first jobs? What about my students and recent graduates? What about the young reporters who, in the words of Jeff Pearlman, need to be a young sh*thead reporter someplace to learn the craft? Sports media is getting cut at the local level, too. Only there’s no national website swooping in with a golden parachute to save these writers.

My concern about this isn’t that one of my kids isn’t getting a job at The Athletic right after they graduate from SUNY Oswego. My concern is that there’s a finite pool of money that’s being invested in sports journalism, both by venture capitalists and by subscribers spending their $5–10 a month. It’s great that people are paying for sports journalism at the national level. But I’m concerned that that’s not translating down to the local level. And that’s where young writers are getting left out here. It’s not that they’re not getting hired at The Athletic. It’s that there aren’t jobs at the local and regional levels for them. There’s no branch of The Athletic in Olean or in Binghamton to help them out.

I worry that we focus too much on the national level and ignore what’s happening at smaller newspapers.

And if there’s not investment at the local level, if we look at sports journalism only as a thing that happens in major markets and nationally, there won’t be room for young writers to grow to the point where they are hired by The Athletic.

Local sports journalism matters. It matters to the communities they serve. It matters to the writers, who get to hone their chops and get better in small towns.

These writers, these communities, are getting left behind. VC money ain’t funding their sports coverage. 

It’s good to see The Athletic grow. It really is. But will the rising tide carry all boats? Or sink all but the biggest?

Dr. Brian Moritz, also known as the Sports Media Guy, is an assistant professor at SUNY-Oswego. For more of Brian’s work, check out his website at