The New York Times and The Athletic: the perfect match

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

-Clint Manry

Now entering Year 6 as a national and local, ad-free sports website, major changes are likely coming at The Athletic. Once again, after nearly reaching a deal back in the summer, the New York Times appears interested in purchasing The Athletic, and to me, for several reasons the two sites seem to be perfect for each other.

From Day 1 it has seemed like The Athletic has overextended itself, which is why recently the site has been so eager to sell. Since its Chicago launch in January of 2016, The Athletic has continued to expand its market at a crazy pace, going from two cities (Chicago and Toronto) in its first year of existence, to now a whopping 47 in the US, including the United Kingdom. Landing huge hires from local newspapers, as well as other national sites like ESPN and FOX, The Athletic has spent money like a company on the rise, but the results in subscriptions hasn’t quite matched its aggressiveness to grow.

The Athletic’s following isn’t anything to scoff at, though. According to its Wiki page, at an undisclosed time within 2021, the site had roughly 1.2 million subscribers and a revenue of $80 million (a roughly 200,000-jump in subs since September of 2020). But when expenses are as significant as The Athletic’s, are there ever enough subscriptions?

Which is why a juggernaut like the Times makes so much sense as a buyer. If you’re not aware, the NYT is considered the “national newspaper of record”, and for good reason. Regardless of what side you’re on politically (though the Times tends to lean to the left a bit), you’ve probably read at least one compelling story as the publication boasts over 7.5 million subscribers worldwide, thanks to a news staff approaching the 1,500 mark. According to Statista, the New York Time Company’s revenue reached $1.78 billion in 2020, adding 2.3 million subs just last year alone.

And as far as content, the Times does it all and is perhaps the current leader in COVID-19 coverage. Political analysis, tech essays and opinion pieces are the Times daily bread and butter, and oftentimes there’s more posts than any one person can read in a day. However, sports haven’t been a huge priority historically, and from what I’ve read and heard, the Times has purposely made it that way. Although, maybe buying The Athletic is the beginning of something new, or perhaps a way to start giving more attention towards its sports division.

Other than simply the style in which the two cover stories in general, one of the best and potentially most exciting similarities of The Athletic and the Times are its investigative pieces. If you recall, the former broke the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal back in late 2019, as well as numerous other high-profile reports recently. And hell, just a few days ago, the Times published the findings of its thorough investigation on hidden pentagon records that evidently revealed patterns of failure in deadly airstrikes. In the sports world, The Athletic is one of the best at investigative write-ups, while the Times has been the king for decades in terms of US and World news; therefore, a combination of both could be huge and possibly lead to many other deep, long-form sports stories in the future.

Regardless, The Athletic must do something. Per recent reports, the site has lost nearly $100 million over the last two years, and if it’s unable to find a buyer, there’s no doubt numerous cuts will need to be made to prevent such huge losses in the future. One of the most likely scenarios, if a sell isn’t made, is that The Athletic will do away with its broad local coverage and commit to becoming strictly a national site, for I’m sure having a beat writer for nearly every sports city in the country is becoming outrageously costly. Another option to help with revenue deficits is implementing advertisements to generate income. Either way, I hope the site sticks around, even if it’s under the direction of the Times. In fact, I believe The Athletic will benefit greatly from the resources of such a prominent publication in the industry, and the work the two could do together could be something readers have never seen before. We’ll see what happens, but this could be a real positive for those of us that love to read about sports.