Writing in Bloomburg, Gerry Smith and Lucas Shaw dropped a bombshell Monday morning, reporting that the site is considering advertising on their site:
Since its debut in 2016, The Athletic has been heralded as a model for how sports journalism can survive on subscription revenue alone. Its founders now realize that it only goes so far.
“When everything is paid, you’re limiting the audience you can reach every day,” co-founder Alex Mather said in an interview last week. “In order for us to get to 5 or 10 million subscribers, we’re going to have to reach more sports fans, give them a taste of our product, find ways to draw them into our universe and engage them and hopefully get them to convert. on a paid subscriber.”
In many ways, this is a fundamental change in the way The Athletic has done business and presented itself.
The subscriber-only model, which is not the traditional paywall of online journalism (which is just the freemium model where you get a few free stories before you have to subscribe), but instead required a subscription to read any content, was he defining feature of The Athletic since its launch and throughout its growth period of 2017-2018. That was how it differed from the other sports media at the time.
Galen Clavio and I did a study on those “Why I joined The Athletic” columns that seemed ubiquitous in 2017 and 2018. One of the main things we found in those essays was that the lack of advertising on the site was a critical feature. from The Athletic. One of the main frameworks Galen found was what we call “Selling the Model,” in which reporters promoted the subscription model, arguing that readers should pay for sports news in a digital world where so much news is free.
A big part of this sales pitch to readers was the lack of advertising. From our study:
The writers consistently focused on the ad-free nature of content delivery, in an obvious response to well-known consumer complaints about unwanted ads and videos on traditional media sites. “In addition, the site is as clean as a newly covered Zamboni ice sheet. No ads, no annoying popups. Click on a story and it’s there without having to navigate through the trash” (Russo, 2017, p. 18). “There would be no clickbait. There would be no autoplay videos. There would be no ads to weave in” (Suttles, 2018, p. 5).
Reports in recent months suggest that The Athletic is on precarious financial ground, that the venture capital investment that fueled the site’s growth a few years ago demands levels of growth that are not sustainable. Sale negotiations, according to Smith and Shaw’s reports, have been unsuccessful. Jacob Donnelly wrote that the next few months are critical for the future of the site.
Which makes these changes seem inevitable. And a big change in the history of the site.