Sports subscription publisher The Athletic has pinpointed the U.K. for its first overseas hub. The direct-to-consumer media company plans to hire a U.K. team of between 50 and 55, mostly writers, ahead of a mid-August launch.
The U.K. editorial team will focus initially on football, particularly Premier League teams, but will expand to cover more sports in time. Similar to its hyper-local model in the U.S. and Canada, where it covers 50 different regions, writers will be located beyond London.
“This is not an extension of the U.S.; this is about how to empower our writers for a U.K. audience,” said Akhil Nambiar, chief of staff at The Athletic.
The Athletic is premised on going beyond the typical sports reporting found in newspapers. Typical stories include an oral history of [Toronto Raptors basketball player] Kawhi Leonard’s college days or this on the secrets of a college football signal stealer.
According to Nambiar, there’s already a small paying U.K. cohort plus a U.S. appetite for more local football content, making the U.K. a natural next step. In the last six months, the most-read article has been this piece on Italian football club Reggiana Audace, currently in Italy’s fourth league, which was read by over a 100,000 people in a week.
Subscribers last year were 100,000, now “well over” but still in the low hundreds of thousands, according to Patterson. The Athletic said that 89% of its subscriber base interacts with its app each week. Also, its annual retention rate is an impressive 90%.
The Athletic currently charges $9.99 (£7.86) per month or $50 (£39.35) per year and doesn’t serve ads. Rates will be similar in the U.K., and subscribers will have access to all content created in the U.S. and vice versa. This is currently around 1,200 stories a week. The U.S. has recently expanded into podcasts and video, and aims to expand these to the U.K.
Backed by over $100 million (£78.7 million) in funding, the media company is an attractive bet for investors for its avid fan base and recurring revenue from audiences, which typically attract higher values than ad-funded media businesses. Patterson added that most of its early markets in the U.S. are profitable and the business is healthy.
Funding has helped boost its growth. In the U.S. The Athletic has grown to nearly 400 full-time writers, who each have equity in the business. In the last year, it’s grown from having a presence in 20 to 50 different regions.
However, brand awareness is low in the U.K., and the media landscape is already cluttered, particularly in sports. Several media companies have also made more concerted efforts to tap into the growing interest in women’s sports — in the U.K. and the U.S. Yet there could still be space for a new entrant with the combination of a passionate fan base, differentiated content and a non-ad-funded business model, according to analysts.
“Their service is differentiated from match report-centered newspaper coverage with a focus on investigations and analysis, such as the economics of teams, drug-use and other sports news stories, said Douglas McCabe, CEO at Enders Analysis.
In the U.S. it has hired well-known sports journalists who have pulled their audiences with them, and plans to do the same in the U.K. To keep growing beyond the highly engaged sports fan, it will draw on its insights team to work out what type of content encourages people to sign up and convert.
Nambiar leads an analytics team of three people who mine popular past stories, measured by frequency of visits, regularity and time spent, and articles that lead to subscriber conversion spikes. For instance, before the National Hockey League’s trade deadline a popular piece outlined all the possible moves that a team could make. The team encouraged writers across other leagues to adapt and expand this idea to their coverage.
“We give context and guidance,” he said. “A lot of writers have come from the world of clicks, we aim to give context around what are stories people love. Editors have a great instinct, we show them what is working.”