The build up to the Premier League was exciting for the usual reasons; can Liverpool go one step further this year? Will the newly promoted teams stick to their philosophy? Will the circus at Newcastle ever stop? However, the most interesting day, on social media at least, was August 5th. This was the day that 57 sports journalists announced that they had joined the Athletic.
Coming over from the US, the subscription-based, non-ad funded, football-focused outlet has caught the attention of Football fans and journalists. It created huge buzz in a period where football content, which already dominates newspapers and social media alike, was growing even larger. Podcast powerhouses The Football Ramble and the Totally Football Show went daily, Paddy Power ‘trolled’ the UK with their sponsorship of Huddersfield Town, but nothing has reached Athletic’s impact.
The question which now stands is whether Athletic is able to continue standing out within the over-saturated sports journalism market and whether a subscription model is sustainable. Its current growth suggests it’s on the right path, with the announcement that it hit over 500,000 subscribers in the US in June having only launched three years ago. However with £10 million invested into the UK launch, including a huge advertising campaign in London, we will be able to make a much better judgement once new subscriber figures are announced in a couple of months’ time.
Aside from its own success, we also need to consider the impact that it is going to have on the news industry as a whole. It isn’t a secret that the last few years have seen a systemic shift of news brand moving their focus online. ‘Clickbait’ headlines on Twitter to drive a user to the sports site, to initiate ad revenue, has become the norm and, in general, this has turned people away. The Athletic is clearly confident that users will happily pay a subscription in order to gain access to quality content and avoid ads and clickbait, but will it work?
There isn’t a direct comparison to draw on within the UK. However, we can look at The Sun’s reversal on their paywall and The Guardian’s, albeit seemingly successful, request for donations as two major publishers who don’t believe the subscription model is effective for them. If the Athletic does achieve what its aims, will we see a further downward trend in ad revenue and therefore output on other news titles?
There isn’t the evidence so far to say whether the Athletic will have long-term success in the UK, and we eagerly await any sort of release of subscriber numbers, although its likely these will only be released if it’s good news. But if we consider the US funding, the recruitment of high-quality journalists, the unique method of Football content distribution, and the vast audience eager to consume football news all suggests that it should thrive. But, hey, this is football. Anything can happen.