WWW

The Athletic is coming to Cleveland: While We’re Waiting

Journalism Word Bubble

It wasn’t all that long ago where I posed the question: What are words worth? Cleveland fans are about to find out as The Athletic is using their incredible success in Toronto and Chicago to launch another regional site focusing on the Browns, Cavs, Indians and Ohio State Buckeyes, one which will reportedly cost subscribers $40 per year.

Reported by Crain’s Cleveland late last week, the subscription-based sports journalism outfit will open its doors in the not so distant future, providing the region with even more competition1 in one of the nation’s most passionate sports towns. Their tagline is one that touts “premium sports content” and their model is simple: It’s 100 percent subscription based. They invest their dollars (which they have lots of) in quality content producers and readers invest back for access to said content.

Those who have been following Jason Lloyd on various forms of social media have noticed the long-time Cavaliers beat writer hinting toward “big news” in the Cleveland sports world. He will be one of the first to pen a story at The Athletic, signaling that the outlet is swinging for the fences right out of the gate. Even during the days of Manny Harris and Jawad Williams, Lloyd’s “Final Thoughts” column was a must-read. While The Akron Beacon-Journal attempted (and failed) to paywall this content a few years back, Final Thoughts will in fact be 100 percent pay to play.

While the Browns coverage and subsequent layers of writers (we’re told each writer will have a stable under them for added content) have yet to be determined, joining Lloyd on the Indians beat will be the immensely talented T.J. Zuppe who, during his time at 92.3 The Fan, developed a voice as a writer who mixes high-level analysis with advanced metrics that can appeal to fans of all shapes and sizes. Both Zuppe and Lloyd are young, very active on Twitter, have substantial followings, and represent a shift from the old guard that has permeated Cleveland sports coverage for much of the last decade.

The question, of course, will be whether or not Cleveland fans will back something of this ilk. Many subscription-based business models have thrived, but many more have failed—especially locally. The founders of The Athletic are very ambitious, and supremely confident that their model will continue to thrive as it as in the other markets. And to be very clear, if it were to not succeed, it would be specific to the Cleveland market as both Toronto and Chicago are already profitable. Rather than being ad-supported in an environment where it’s Clicks over Content, The Athletic has already shown that there is a market for high-end content where the reader knows they’ll never be cheated. The Athletic recently told Forbes they need roughly 2,000 subscriptions per team to be profitable. In the case of Cleveland and its three major teams, that would mean in the range of 6,000 monthly subscribers. Factor in Ohio State coverage and the numbers get a bit fuzzier, but attainable.

“Everyone knows newspapers have been stressed, and one of the areas that have been hit the hardest is the sports section—in terms of budget and number of people they have,” James Mirtle, of the The Athletic TO, recently told SI’s Richard Deitsch. “What we’re doing is pulling the sports section out—it’s its own entity, and isn’t tied to a business section or anything else. Instead of subscribing to a newspaper and paying whatever that is for a month, you pay us. It’s three or four bucks a month, and the beauty of it is all of that money goes right to the writers. We don’t have a lot of overhead, we don’t have a newsroom or a lot of management. We have writers who are popular, and it’s like the writers are unleashed. It’s a writer-driven entity. We’re having a lot of fun with that and our readers are as well.”

Given the marketplace, however, Cleveland will have its own headwinds due to the predominance of the banal, debate-fueled, lets-go-to-the-phones sports talk business model that has seeped into the local papers. Not only has the dialogue-based, opinion-fueled model been the way to appease the advertisers, it’s also largely been free. There’s an entire generation of fans who have grown up in this News Should Be Free mindset that allows them to obtain it and subsequently have a snark off of on Twitter. The Athletic is looking to change this.

“People are signing up more than we thought,” Mirtle continued. “We’re in the thousands in terms of number of people who have signed up. Our goal for the end of 2017 is 10,000, and it’s definitely reachable. We don’t have to have 100,000 subscribers to survive [like a newspaper]. And looking at our metrics, I’m 36 years old and 75 percent of our readers are younger than me. Most of our readers are 34 an under. What we’re doing is a younger person’s sports section. Most of our writers are younger. People are getting behind it because our coverage is different and better than what’s available, and people want to support the writers.”

That last sentence is key, here, in supporting the writers more so than a previously foreign outlet. Derek Bodner, a Philadelphia basketball writer, recently went out on his own launched a Patreon page (much like we did which you should check out here). In less than a week, Bodner is up to nearly 1,100 subscribers, producing over $3,000 per month. To these people, answering the question “what are words worth” has additional layers as they’re not just paying for Bodner’s thoughts as much as they are Bodner himself. Much like this, The Athletic believes fans will support tireless work, thoughtfully crafted sentences, and insight that they won’t be able to obtain through other, free, ad-and-click-based outlets.

Lloyd and Zuppe are headlining hires, and they’re not done yet. It won’t be long before The Athletic has a stable of writers producing exclusive content. The business model has worked in other markets, and Cleveland certainly has no shortage of news so the marriage seems perfect on paper. The trick will be converting that match to their digital pages.

  1. And job openings. []

  • Hopwin

    Patreon is the last gasp of pre-Web 2.0 content generators attempting to monetize their work. Bodner has $36,000 per year NOW (and it has been a while since I looked but his hosting service is going to be taking a chunk of that). People won’t keep paying for the privilege of his articles though when there is so much free content available of equal, or superior, quality out there.

    WFNY is an anomaly in this space, in that you first built a community, then asked us to optionally chip in to pay the rent and keep the lights-on in the old clubhouse.

  • I don’t know that Patreon of The Athletic is a long-term solution, but I think at some point once the world finishes shaking out, there will have to be people covering things for money. Maybe it will be a part of the leagues that pay for it? I have no idea what the future looks like, but the world will need sports coverage. Maybe not as much or in the same way, but it will survive in some form of niche.

  • CBiscuit

    Word. Plus, the very nice thing—in my humble opinion that zero people asked for—is that the folks at WFNY hardly make a ruckus about us contributing. They could go all NPR drive on us yet don’t–so I hope more people take the time to kick in $5, $10, whatever they can on a monthly basis. It’s not a lot.

  • Hopwin

    I think there could be a market for the AP model coming back but pared down somewhat. Professional writers who publish stats, facts, write-ups, etc and subscribers can purchase rights to republish on their own domain.

    The Plain Dealer isn’t exactly the model of health but flip through their paper sometime and count how many bylines are the AP.

  • mgbode

    Note: huge gratitude by us to y’all for doing so too. Independence in this space is crazy rare these days and truly a wonderful advantage.

  • mgbode

    No reason we all need 15x the same headline tweeted out or same 300 words in a post. AP is great for those. For the nuance, the analysis, the reason; that is where the talent resides.

  • JM85

    I remember when WFNY partnered with Scout. They had premium forums as well as free forums.

  • jpftribe

    I don’t know what the future is either, but I cannot imagine MSM sites like WaPo, NYT and LATimes being successful behind a paywall, and that is the current direction. Probably an opportunity for a Netflix-like aggregator. I know I’m not paying anything for their content, where conversely there are a few blogs I will support financially.

    I think you do need to ask yourself, if you are not going to pay for it, who is? Ultimately that will define editorial content to some extent. Exactly the reason why I choose to support specific independent blogs whose content has been historically established.

  • Hopwin

    I was thinking more along the lines of what Scott (?) does with his segment of “Real Sports Writing”. Authors can pay to access the network and use that content to influence their writing.

    Sorry i was not very clear in my concept.

  • CBiscuit

    I think Scout is like The Spanish Inquisition, the Indian Removal Act of 1830, and the Cleveland uniforms of the 70s.

  • jpftribe

    “the nuance…..”
    The really good blogs that I have followed have always figured out how to foster interaction with the authors / creator in a constructive way. IMHO, this is a core difference from the one way MSM stream and why people like Grossi and Hoynes struggle in the new mediums. Way outside of their 1980’s journalism 101 paradigm.

    I realize the commentariat is a small percentage of the readership, but most still read the comments. While the commentariat itself has its quirks, the interaction with the authors here is first rate. Having been in online communities since the 28K Prodigy days, that is no small accomplishment.

  • mgbode

    many of my favorite articles have stemmed off of interactions here in the comments, so the benefit goes both directions when done correctly

  • mgbode

    gotcha, and no worries. always remember I am dense.

  • Hopwin

    28k? Whippersnapper. We had a 9600 baud.

    Edit it looked like this:
    http://computer-retro.de/Bilder/Modems/144k-v17fax-modem_thumbnail.jpeg

    and was about the size of a blue-ray player

  • mgbode

    New Coke

  • mgbode

    That was ages ago

  • mgbode

    I still see a Netflix or Amazon Prime style network for written content forming perhaps even as part of those subscriptions. Look at what it has done for the advance of television programming. I think quality is still desired but people don’t want to necessarily pay across a wide variety of things, they’d rather have it all under one big umbrella.

  • Hopwin

    That was an “experiment” to the readership in the same sense that the Tuskeegee “experiments” were.

  • CBiscuit

    Too soon! It still burns. Wait, I mean…

  • PRODIGY! AHHHH! I started on Compuserve with a 14.4 modem. I love reminiscing about ye oldern days. I try not to get too preachy about the past and how much better it was or anything like that. I just think it’s crazy to think how our relationships to things change as time moves along. I’m fine with where music has gone, but I also think it’s nuts to consider that the formative years of my life were spent scheming ways to acquire musical content, including BMG / Columbia House and frequent trips to Camelot Music, Record Den, or Record Exchange.

    That’s what I keep in mind when considering things like newspapers, sportswriters, and even television news which somehow continues to be on the air across four or five local networks in Cleveland despite the fact that I don’t know anyone under the age of 50 who watches it. I know people who watch clips of a news report on Facebook, but I don’t know anyone who tunes in at 5 or 6 or whenever “The News” is on TV.

  • I love this thread and nobody is happier to be back here than we are.

  • Saggy

    and I’m happy to do so (chip-in).

    the crossroads of journalism, GOOD journalism, fandom, access, and community is rare. My life has become more chaotic (thanks to baby #3) so my posts aren’t as plentiful, but I’m always lurking on the periphery. I can’t see my allegiance ever switching.

    there’s a limited number of bookmarks on my toolbar, but this one is entrenched pretty far to the left – no pun intended.

  • Saggy

    I hate to say it but you have to think there will be internet “networks” which people will pay for. All of the websites that want to be monetized will likely be a part of those networks. ESPN could very easily be its own network. I read plenty of websites that I pay for but if i was forced to pay for many more, it would just get out of hand to keep track. That’s where the networks come in to simplify things.

  • A.J.

    Jason Lloyd is just another Cavaliers shill.

  • This is hysterical.

  • This is hysterical.

  • A.J.

    Hysterical as in it’s funny and you’re acknowledging Lloyd is a shill, hysterical that you’re mocking me like I have no idea what I’m talking about, or hysterical that you’re laughing at yourself for suddenly recognizing that Lloyd is a shill?

  • Hysterical in that you obviously have no idea what Jason deals with in doing his reporting. I don’t believe there to be many “shills” in that media room, but if there was one, it would not be Jason.

  • A.J.

    They’re all shills. Including Jason. Maybe you don’t pay close enough attention to what he writes.