The Athletic has found early success with its content-first, subscription-driven business model.
But back in February, the subscription-based sports website made a key course change in its business strategy.
The Athletic realized it needed to place its content in front of more potential customers. So it created its first dedicated business development team under Evan Parker, general manager of business and editorial operations.
Parker and his group set out to find sports teams, leagues, and promotional partners who understood The Athletic brand. Their goal? Boost the company’s brand image and subscriber count, which it says is now around 1 million customers.
Launched in 2016, The Athletic said it reached 300,000 subscribers within two years and hit the 500,000 mark by June 2019. The San Francisco-based company raised $50 million in Series D funding in January, according to Axios. With that investment, it has raised $139.5 million in total.
“We’ve been going out talking to brands across the country, and across the globe, and trying to figure out really good fits for us. In order for us to do a partnership, it has to be something that benefits our subscribers,” Parker said. “We’re not in the business of selling advertisements. We’re not going to throw a bunch of banners all over our products. We need to find our partners who understand our mission, who understand our quality bar, who understand what we’ve promised to our subscribers – that the content is front and center. That we’re not going to be littering their experience with a lot of advertisements.”
The Athletic’s work in the marketplace over the past six months is starting to pay off. It recently unveiled its first national promotional partnership with wireless network operator T-Mobile.
Ahead of the start of MLB’s Opening Day, T-Mobile is offering free, one-year subscriptions to The Athletic and MLB.TV to all U.S.-based T-Mobile and Sprint customers.
Running from July 21 through August 4, the promotion will include national television commercials on networks such as ESPN and FS1 and heavy online advertising on MLB.com and homepage takeovers of Bleacher Report, ESPN.com, and SB Nation. There will also be ads inside T-Mobile retail stores.
T-Mobile U.S. completed its long-awaited $26.5 billion merger with Sprint on April 1. The wireless carrier now has 140 million customers, ranking third behind Verizon and AT&T.
Despite all the hoopla about The Athletic as the “future” of sports journalism, the brand is only four and a half years old, noted Parker. With no ad revenue to rely on, it still has “a lot of work to do from a brand recognition standpoint,” he said.
“We know that when we give people a chance to sample our product, the retention rates are off the charts. So if we can get people in the door through a free trial offer with T-Mobile, we’re pretty confident over the course of the next year that we’ll retain them – and turn them into long-term subscribers.”
Parker declined to comment on the financial specifics of the T-Mobile deal. But the wireless carrier is picking up the production and media spending tab for a new national TV spot touting the co-promotion, he added.
“It’s great to have our brand on ESPN along with MLB.TV,” Parker said. “To get that kind of exposure in front of hard-core sports fans…is as good as it gets.”
Parker said he expects to announce more T-Mobile-like deals in the coming months.
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The Athletic is employing “classic cross-branding promotion” to increase subscriber numbers, according to Crystal Howard, the ex-public relations director for ESPN The Magazine turned marketing consultant.
The T-Mobile alliance “provides a new audience for the platform to have a relationship with,” she said.
Like every other sports media brand during the coronavirus pandemic, The Athletic has been hammered by the sports shut down, laying off 8% of its staff in June and shedding nearly 100% of its freelance contributors. The digital subscription site employs about 550 people but does not disclose revenue numbers.
Baseball is a fertile ground for The Athletic. The site broke the story of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. The Athletic and T-Mobile were supposed to announce their baseball-driven partnership back in March, but have been waiting for the start of the season.
“There’s been a lot of anxious people on our end who have been waiting for baseball so we can get this thing out there and bring it to life,” Parker said.
Without live game action, the web site’s writers and editors have delved deep into their “creativity well,” said Parker. Even during the sports hiatus, it has published an average of 150 stories a day. With several leagues now poised to come back, Parker’s also hoping for a big jump in the company’s bottom line.
“We’re getting back to game action. With real news to cover, I think we’re going to see some incredible content,” Parker said.