The Athletic Takes On Soccer

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Photo via The Athletic

George Quraishi didn’t intend to leave Howler, a quarterly soccer magazine he had founded in 2011, when he got a call from Alex Mather, CEO and co-founder of The Athletic a few months ago.

At first, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. While The Athletic had been making waves in the sports media landscape as a subscription-based outlet, acquiring top journalists and producing in-depth content it didn’t cover soccer – at least not consistently.

That was about to change.

Last week, The Athletic launched a soccer vertical, bringing on a roster of renowned journalists, including Quraishi as the managing editor, to cover the world’s most popular sport.

“That the most exciting thing in sports journalism would dive into the world’s favorite sport was about as expected as a Cristiano ab-flex, and it didn’t require crunches or healthy eating,” wrote Quraishi in his inaugural post announcing The Athletic’s soccer expansion.

The more Quraishi and Mather discussed the opportunity, the more exciting it seemed. Soon, the path forward became clear.

“The mission he described was so interesting and so refreshing,” explained Quraishi. “We’re all aware of the troubles that are affecting [the journalism] industry and having come into soccer with a print quarterly that really made due on subscriber payments, I understood the power of being responsible only to the people who are paying us and the kind of connection that can foster, which I really love.”

The decision to leave Howler, which he had built from the ground up, was something he took seriously.

“I was really reluctant to saying anything at all until we had [Howler’s new ownership] in place because I’m so grateful to the Howler readers who helped us from day one,” he explained.

While working to ensure Howler was in good hands, Quraishi was simultaneously starting to build out a world-class team to launch The Athletic’s soccer vertical. Having worked in journalism and publishing his entire career, focusing specifically on soccer for the last five and a half years, he admitted to having some opinions on who he wanted on his team.

“I wanted people who really make me excited to read a story,” explained Quraishi. “I was really trying to find writers who had a really great grasp on the specific angle into soccer that they specialize in whether it’s Mexican soccer, or European soccer, or the men’s and women’s national teams, I wanted all those things to be represented but I wanted to make sure that their writing was full of wit and energy and was fun to read and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that.”

To start, The Athletic is focusing on covering MLS, Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, USMNT, USWNT, El Tri, and Liga MX. As the soccer vertical grows, however, coverage will expand beyond those categories. Given The Athletic’s subscription model, writers want to make sure the audience is receiving the type of content they want and so reader feedback is extremely important, especially in the early days.

This is something Quraishi is paying particular attention to as well. On launch day, he posted a feedback request asking readers to share what they would like to see on the platform.

In the first 24 hours alone, the post saw 989 responses, including requests for Bundesliga, Canadian Premier League, and Serie A coverage, demonstrating the breadth of soccer fandom in the country.

Soccer fans took to Twitter to follow The Athletic’s new soccer page, @TheAthleticSCCR, which reached 5,000 followers in its first full day, and many within the sports industry saw their timelines flooded with people announcing their decisions to subscribe to the outlet.

The strong, positive response wasn’t surprising.

“It’s a passionate fan base and I think we knew that going in,” said Taylor Patterson the director of communications at The Athletic. “We knew that we would be touching folks that are hungry for substantive and in-depth coverage and who probably feel like they are not getting enough coverage of their teams, especially in the U.S. where [soccer] tends to be covered less than in mainstream publications.”

Soccer fans, who have often had trouble identifying a centralized place to consume content, now have a home and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We launched the day after the Europa League final, two days before the FA Cup final, a week before the Champions League final and about a month before the World Cup starts. And of course MLS is going throughout,” explained Quraishi.

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Looking ahead to Russia, The Athletic understands that the World Cup is one of the most well-covered events in sports so rather than overextending itself in the early days, the platform is taking a more measured approach to content creation.

“What we’re focusing on [for the World Cup] is really providing the sharpest analysis that we can. We’ve got some really fantastic tactical and analytical writers and, in addition to that, just people whose writing I would really want to read,” explained Quraishi.

Compelling storytelling is what will fuel The Athletic Soccer. Take, for example, Quraishi’s post announcing the soccer vertical. Quraishi took a simple welcome post and made it so much more than that, wrapping it up in a Cristiano Ronaldo metaphor. It was exciting, intriguing, and delicious to the last drop.

With that type of storytelling in mind, what if, Quraishi wonders, you give reporters the World Cup and have them cover it like their favorite TV show?

“Whether it’s The Bachelor, or Game of Thrones, or Westworld, there’s something really fantastic about the community that a shared experience of watching something like that on the TV can provide and that’s how most Americans will be experiencing the World Cup anyway.”

“I’m toying with this,” he continued, discussing The Athletic’s World Cup strategy, which will see a handful of freelance contributors on the ground and several more reporters writing from the States. “It’s the first time we’ve really talked about this-this way but I think there’s something there, we’re going to find out.”

The World Cup is just the beginning and while The Athletic has a new soccer team, you can be assured it won’t get eliminated in the knockout stages. Led by Quraishi and powered by veteran journalists, The Athletic is creating something special and soccer fans, the most passionate in the world, are ready for it.