George Solomon on The Athletic

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George Solomon on The Athletic
Nov 29, 2017

In January, the sports website The Athletic will celebrate its second anniversary, providing sports readers in eight U.S. cities and seven Canadian cities local coverage – plus a national reach –  in direct competition with local newspapers and national websites.

Local sports coverage in the Bay Area, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis – plus a presence in seven Canadian cities — are in direct competition with established newspaper sports sections in those areas.  Nationally, The Athletic ‘s writers Ken Rosenthal and Peter Gammons (baseball), Stewart Mandel (college football), Seth Davis (college basketball) and Pierre LeBrun (hockey), plus solid coverage of the NFL and other pro sports, should give competing national sports websites more than a little concern.

The Athletic was founded by Alex Mather, 37, and Adam Hansmann, 29, who, according to the New York Times, raised nearly $8 million in venture capital to launch the site. With more than 60 employees, Mather told The Times, “Our ambition is to be the local sports page for every city in the country.”

This fall, I sprung for the $47.99 annual subscription fee and began reading The Athletic on a regular basis. What I found was good writing, smart coverage of national sports and solid beat reporting of teams in the U.S. and Canadian markets it covers. Dave Kindred’s profile of Lefty Driesell, just posted on the site, is as good a piece of sportswriting as you’ll read this year.

What The Athletic is attempting to do with its quality writing and competitive beat reporting reminds me of The National Sports Daily that the legendary late sportswriter Frank Deford   started in 1990.    Deford attracted sportswriting stars including Kindred, Mike Lupica, John Feinstein, Chuck Culpepper, Norman Chad, Peter Richman and many more. For editors, Deford lured Vince Doria from the Boston Globe and the late Van McKenzie from the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Deford paid well to attract such an extraordinary staff and put out an excellent paper.    But after about 17 months, the owner of the paper, Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, closed down the operation.   He’d lost too many millions, despite the quality of the product; circulation and production problems (The National couldn’t get late scores in the paper) were the newspaper’s downfall.

The Athletic, thanks to modern media technology, doesn’t have the production problems that affected The National, whose pay scale raised the wages of many sports journalists across the country. The Athletic is attracting name journalists, as well, — and if it expands to additional markets in South Florida, Washington-Baltimore, Dallas and Los Angeles, to name four — costs will increase.

In an interview with the New York Times, The Athletic’s Mather was quoted as saying, “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.   We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

Heady words that local sports editors everywhere should place in front of their bosses — with the hope city newspapers and websites will accept the challenge and fight back. Not by eliminating   daily editions or reducing space and staffs — but by beefing up to contest a combative foe seemingly eager for an old fashion newspaper war (“kill ’em with high school coverage,” some would say).

Nor should national sports websites such as SBNation, Bleacher Report, MLB.Com, The Big Lead, The Ringer, ESPN.com, The Undefeated and Deadspin, to name some, take The Athletic lightly.

“Based on the early performance it is quite clear there is much demand for quality reporting and writing,” said Davis, who is in charge of college basketball coverage for The Athletic while remaining with CBS-TV.  He recently left Sports Illustrated after covering college basketball there for decades.

It should be noted here Davis serves on the Povich Center’s Advisory Board and was my right fielder on a winless fourth- grade softball team in the l 1970’s.

“After a quarter century on this beat, I know my audience, the hard-core college basketball fan,” said Davis. “So, we want to cover games and news while also producing lengthy feature and enterprise stories. A nice healthy mix. I honestly believe that for an industry that has been suffering for so long, this subscriber model is a way out of the wilderness.”

Three newspaper sports editors who responded for comment on The Athletic took the high road.

Observed Gary Potosky of the Philadelphia Inquirer in an email: “The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News respect The Athletic, its goals and its staff as we are competing for the same audience. Many of their writers we know personally and through their national and local reputations as quality journalists.  Philadelphia is a highly competitive sports market and so we are not surprised by their launch.”

Matt Rennie, the Deputy Sports Editor of The Washington Post, wrote:

“The Athletic is employing a lot of talented, hard-working journalists, as anyone who cares about readers knows, the more media outlets there are serving a wide range of perspectives the better we are as a society.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune Sorts Editor Glen Crevier, who lost one writer (Michael Russo) to The Athletic,   wrote that he takes The Athletic “seriously.”  He added, “I have no idea whether their business model will survive, and while we are not dismissing them,  we feel confident that we have an excellent group of writers, reporters and columnists who provide compelling sports coverage throughout the day online and in print each morning.”

So politically correct. But I do miss the Sports Editor of the now defunct Washington Star, when learning I had stolen one of his writers in 1975, exploded and threatened “to drive The Washington Post into the sea.”

Now, that’s a war.

 

 

 

 

 

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