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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. []