With sports, local newspapers try ‘unbundling’ the subscription

The rookie campaigns of many newspapers’ digital sports subscriptions are over. Now comes the work of developing the standalone subscription products into long-lasting sources of revenue.

After the success of The Athletic proved that sports coverage is a passion area that can drive people to take out their wallets, newspapers carved out their sports coverage as discrete subscription products. The bet is these products, while priced lower than a full digital subscription, will draw in sports fans who primarily rely on the publication for sports coverage versus, say, city hall reporting. Newspaper publishers ranging from Hearst to McClatchy to The Dallas Morning News all piled into the space, and upstart news publications such as the Daily Memphian, which launched in the fall of 2018, did too.

For example, McClatchy, which has put a sports content product called SportsPass out in 10 of its 30 markets since launching its first in August 2018, is figuring out how to expand SportsPass past its core offering of unlimited access to that market’s sports content for $30 per year. It is kicking around ideas ranging from conference calls with reporters to exclusive livestreams on Facebook, Miami Herald managing editor Rick Hirsch said.

“We’re focused on what we can give subscribers that is really exclusive,” Hirsch said, “experiences they can get that make them true insiders.”

In most instances, digital sports products are significantly cheaper than the core digital subscriptions they offer. That makes it hard to justify hunting for subscribers on platforms like Facebook, which was a critical engine of customer acquisition for the Athletic.

Instead, many of these legacy news publisher products rely heavily on their owned tools and channels, specifically paywall and email, to gather new customers.

Next month, when The Dallas Morning News moves its site behind a dynamic metered paywall, it will use propensity modeling to identify possible subscribers to its two paid sports products, SportsDay HS and SportsDay, then shorten the paywall for them.

Since it first launched SportsDay HS in 2017, the Dallas Morning News’ two subscription sports products have driven a full third of the subscriptions that the Dallas Morning News has acquired from visitors hitting the paywall, with a slight majority of them going to the high school product, said Mark Francescutti, the director of digital marketing operations and engagement at the Dallas Morning News. Francescutti declined to share hard subscriber numbers.

In most cases, newspapers have to compete with The Athletic, which has attracted $89.5 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase, to build a subscription publication geared to local sports coverage. In many markets, The Athletic has hired away top sports reporters who have followings. Back in 2017, The Athletic’s co-founder Alex Mather put its strategy rather bluntly in an interview with The New York Times.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” he told the Times. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

More competition is on the way. Yahoo Sports announced in February that it was launching a paid digital subscription product in partnership with the New York Mets. The product, called Queens Baseball Club, was supposed to be the first of several that Yahoo Sports would build in partnership with Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association franchises.

Though the newspapers have experimented with using newer kinds of content, such as podcasts, as a way to entice subscribers, different kinds of exclusive content have emerged as major subscription drivers as well. For example, a majority of the content that drives subscriptions on SportsDay HS is either stats, schedules, scores or rankings, Francescutti said.

One unfavorable patch of terrain where publishers have to compete with subscription pure-plays is user experience. The Athletic, for example, famously does not have any advertising.

“The customer is not the first person being served on those websites,” said Chris Krewson, the executive director of LION Pubs. “I love the experimentation, and it’s sorely needed revenue, but until they put the customer at the front of what they do, they’re going to be limited.”

It also forces publishers to be careful about what kinds of promotions and discounts they can offer. For example, the Dallas Morning News’ most popular promotion for SportsDay had a team- and player-specific tie-in: It recently offered a full year subscription for $41 in honor of Dirk Nowitzki, the iconic Dallas Mavericks star who had worn the number 41 throughout his career. (Nowitzki retired this spring.)

Across 10 different markets, McClatchy’s Sports Pass has accumulated a subscriber total in the “thousands,” Grant Belaire revealed at a Digiday event earlier this year. Most of that growth has been driven by people hitting the metered paywall.

The hope, among the McClatchy sites, is that the anticipation of an upcoming season will help with renewals. A large chunk of the subscriptions that the Herald amassed last year signed up in August, right before the launch of the NFL season. “August is a time in the football season when everyone is undefeated,” Hirsch said.


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