The Athletic’s Alex Mather on the Shutdown of Dwell Sports activities—the ‘Problem of a Lifetime’

Almost five years ago, The Athletic started out with the aim of disrupting the world of sports reporting. By that point, fans and experts had watched older sports publications fall into the trap of tracking digital ad revenue to explain the loss of print subscriptions when consumer habits changed. But when the magazines got thinner and the digital experience became more confusing, sports journalism itself – despite a committed fan base – was at a crossroads.

Enter the Athletic. The publication started in January 2016 with a subscription-first model that gives readers a completely ad-free experience. From then on, it began to invest heavily in talent. It attracted some of the best writers and reporters in the business, some straight from the crease of those difficult legacy publications.

By spring 2020, co-founder and CEO Alex Mather said The Athletic employed around 500 journalists. And then the novel coronavirus pandemic resulted in an unprecedented and widespread stalemate in live sports. At Adweek’s Elevate: Publishing Summit this week, Mather described shutting down as the “challenge of a lifetime” for the sports media startup.

“Everyone [was] Afraid, ”said Mather. “I think we all as humans were scared or nervous about what the future would bring.”

For a team that is used to traveling far and wide every year to cover myriad sporting events, they were suddenly confined to their homes – with no live sports to speak of. Their pivot was simple, Mather explained.

“We have really simplified our work,” he said. The Athletic asked its authors to “only dive into your repertoire of stories that you have thought about and that you may not have written”.

They quickly found that the shutdown was difficult for the industry as a whole, but there were some benefits. Access to celebrities and athletes was suddenly much easier, albeit different – after all, they didn’t have much to do either. With the entire world of sport sitting at home and having plenty of time to reflect, reporters found that there were many opportunities for unique stories.

“We were able to get most of the people we wanted to talk to on the line to talk a lot about things they would not otherwise have talked about,” Mather said. “We had baseball players talking about anxiety attacks on the hill that they may not have talked about before the pandemic.”

“We got through it by really simplifying the goals and mission and just telling great stories,” Mather said.

While The Athletic has not been immune to the effects of the Covid-related economic downturn this year – it laid off around 8% of its employees and imposed a staff-wide wage cut of around 10% in June – Mather is confident the model will be successful maintained in the long term.

Part of this is due to a strong focus on data and analytics that journalists have constant access to in real time, Mather explained. It enables the company to be constantly informed of the demand for different sports, teams or regions and to shift its coverage accordingly.

The pandemic is having a huge impact on how, where and when people access The Athletic’s content. “Everything has shifted,” said Mather. “People stayed up a little later because they might not have to get up early.” They also initially saw a huge drop in listeners on their podcasts with the sudden loss of commute time.

To fix these behavioral changes, The Athletic experimented with many different things, from sending emails to different times of the week and day. The idea was to get people to turn push notifications back on and keep tweaking their paid social strategy. They had to work their way back into the routines of people who had completely changed their daily lives and media consumption habits.

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