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No one expected The Athletic could get people to pay for sports news. Now it has 600,000 subscribers.

And the business might do the same thing for other topics.

The quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs looks for an opening against the Denver Broncos defense.
Quarterback Matt Moore of the Kansas City Chiefs rolls out against the Denver Broncos on October 17, 2019, in Denver, Colorado.
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Pay for sports? Sure. Pay for sports news? No way.

That has been the conventional wisdom in the media industry for years. Alex Mather says it’s wrong.

And for now, Mather looks like he’s correct: The CEO of The Athletic says his sports news service has signed up more than 600,000 paying subscribers in less than four years and is on its way to a million.

Mather’s company attracts quite a bit of attention from people in the sports media industry and the media industry in general because it may be the most ambitious subscription-only news service to launch in years. It also generates a lot of skepticism, with plenty of naysayers muttering about unsustainable costs and deeply discounted subscription offers.

We’ll see how that plays out. For now, Mather and his co-founder Adam Hansmann — who met when they worked at Strava, a subscription app for serious cyclists and other athletes — get to argue that they’re successful because they’ve cracked the subscription business code: Make really good stuff and people will pay for it.

You can eye-roll all you want at that, but there doesn’t appear to be much more to The Athletic’s business model than that. And the fact that it has convinced many people to pay for sports news in a world flooded with free sports news may mean there’s room to replicate this for other kinds of coverage.

In fact, the idea that The Athletic’s business could expand beyond sports sounds like something Mather himself is thinking about. We discussed the notion in the most recent episode of Recode Media and Mather didn’t bat it away. You can read an excerpt of that conversation below or listen to the whole thing here:

Peter Kafka

Can you do this in other verticals? Can you do this with other topics?

Alex Mather

It can be done in other verticals. Whether or not we take that on, that’s a matter of time and us understanding what those specific opportunities are.

Peter Kafka

So that sounds like, “Yeah, we’re thinking about doing more.”

Alex Mather

It could be done. We are very confident that if you look at many other categories, it can be done.

Peter Kafka

What do you need for this to work in other categories? Because the conventional wisdom up until now has been, this works for business [news]. People need that information. They’re going to pay for it. Their companies are going to pay for it. And if it’s a really niche thing, like long-haired Persian cat fans, whatever ... if you’re a super hardcore fanatic and there’s no other information there, you’ll pay for it and that’s fine.

Alex Mather


Peter Kafka

Sports wasn’t supposed to work because there’s supposed to be too much of it. So where else do you think this could work?

Alex Mather

I have a really simple answer there. We talk about our recipe, and it’s really just flour and water. It’s a passionate audience that’s truly passionate.

Obviously sports fans are very passionate, and it’s a very big passionate audience so it’s a very, very big opportunity. But if you have passionate people and you have really world-class talent, you combine those things, people will pay for that combination. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be cooking. You know, the New York Times had success in cooking. It could be — you know, I love B2B. I loved your podcast with Imran [Amed] from The Business of Fashion — a wonderful product built around a very big industry.

These are not small companies. These are companies breaking big stories, doing important work. There are so many categories, consumer, business, you name it. There are so many opportunities to build subscription businesses there.

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