What Australian publishers can learn from The Athletic and why I’m willing to pay for it

Patrick Whitnall, head of content and sport at Publicis Media, resisted paying for journalism until he came across The Athletic. And he suspects its subscription-based, ad-free model may be what Australian publications need to convert readers into subscribers.

I admit it: For the first time in years, I’ve paid for online journalistic content. Until now, I, like most, have refused the paywalls, or reader donation models, despite paying for Spotify, Play Station and Netflix for years.

So, why the change after years of resistance to paid-for, written content? The majority of my consumed content is sport via video or podcast, predominantly the English Premier League and my beloved Arsenal. And I’d gotten tired of clickbait stories: so much was offered in the headline, but the story was shallow. And there were more and more ads breaking up the content – making it impossible to read without interruption.

Then, along came The Athletic.

The Athletic is an ad-free subscription-based online sports publication, which has attracted the attention of investors including Comcast Ventures, raising over US$90m in funding. After enjoying success in the US just three years after its launch, it has now landed in the UK, aggressively signing 55 national and local sports journalists, poaching talent from leading titles including The Guardian, The Times, The Independent and the BBC.

At The Athletic, journalists are offered equity and incentives to drive subscribers. They’re tasked with focusing on in-depth stories, rather than having to churn through multiple articles each day.

This approach in the US has delivered the business 500,000 subscribers, with expectations that this figure will double this by the end of the year, including an ambition of 100,000 in the UK. The average revenue per subscriber is US$64, with a 90% retention rate.

Could The Athletic’s model be viable in Australia, in an environment of ongoing media consolidation, pressure on traditional print revenues, and reliance from digital publishers on ad revenue?

Sport has always been a driver of readership, viewers and commercial revenue, compared to other types of journalism. The TV rights movements in 2018 saw Nine secure the Australian Open for $300m across five years, and Seven/ Foxtel grab the cricket for $1bn over six years. The success of Optus Sport and its EPL, World Cup, Euros and Champions League coverage has driven 700,000 active subscribers this season, while Foxtel’s Kayo Sports launched last November with 200,000 paying subscribers. This has created more choice, access, mobility and demand for sports content.

The recent quarterly earnings report showed that Foxtel had lost 100,000 subscribers from its traditional product in the first three months of 2019, outlining to investors that it would reduce spend on ‘non-marquee’ sport, potentially impacting sports such as soccer, motor racing and basketball. This could have a serious impact on the investment, interest and access in the future of these sports, not just based on viewership, but also poses the question: What sport and content are consumers willing to pay for, or subscribe to?

To answer this, we have to go back to the content, both from an access or exclusivity point of view.

I, and consumers broadly, will pay for something I cannot get elsewhere, hence the competition over live rights. Sports journalism has always focused on the game itself, the stars, scores, highlights and incidences, which are not unique, or necessarily available at the speed at which we want to consume it.

Sports content in Australia is yet to evolve in the area of digital storytelling, which would give fans deeper stories that go beyond the game. We’ve seen how successful this can be through publishers such as The Players Tribune and Unscriptd in the US.

Locally, the recent success of digital publisher Players Voice, with stories such ‘Headcoach’, a feature on mental health in sport, was named this year’s Mumbrella Media Brand of the Year, and could be a driving force toward this change.

My subscription to The Athletic does coincide with my team’s hopeful resurgence. So subscribing to a collection of my most trusted and favourite writers, ad free, for content relating to my favourite sport, at half price for access in the first year, made sense.

Will I last the season? I’m as hopeful it lives up to my expectations as I am for Arsenal’s success.

Patrick Whitnall is head of content and sport at Publicis Media ANZ


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