By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 11, 2018)
Second in a series
From newspapers to magazines to books, Stephen Brunt has cemented a place in the annals of print journalism and nonfiction writing as one of the premier sports scribes of this era and the final decades of the 20th century.
While the industry has been bludgeoned by the downsizing of staffs at countless newspapers — dramatic decreases in circulation have contributed greatly to this crisis along with readers relying on free news online instead of the old habit of purchasing a paper — Brunt and his peers in sports media have, of course, noticed the rise of The Athletic, which began operations in January 2016.
The steady growth of The Athletic has brought wave after wave of prominent hires to the startup’s local sites and also to produce content for the entire North American market, including The Athletic Ink which showcases commentary and long-form features. Among the big-name hires: veteran journalists Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark, Stewart Mandel (editor-in-chief for its college football site, The All-American), Seth Davis (managing editor for its college basketball site, The Fieldhouse), Ken Rosenthal, Tim Kawakami, Richard Deitsch, Joe Posnanski, Dana O’Neil, Lisa Olson and Jeff Pearlman.
As of early June 2018, The Athletic (https://theathletic.com/) was already operating subscription-based sports websites in more than 20 North American cities. It also has a French language site in Montreal (an English one, too, in the Quebec city).
It’s been a curious thing to follow.
Does Brunt, one of the most famous sports pundits in Canada, think the general impression of The Athletic has been a positive one for the sports news consumer? And what about for job-seeking writers and editors: Has The Athletic made a positive impression so far?
“I think it’s really interesting because they’ve hired a lot of big names, and that’s in part because they’ve gone out and paid some people,” Brunt said by phone from Hamilton, Ontario. “It’s also a reflection of where the business is right now, especially for newspaper guys, like people are looking for a place to land and they are paying.”
He went on: “The content’s really good, by and large, better than what you are getting in newspaper sports sections now. Like the Toronto Star, for instance, the biggest paper in the country circulation-wise, just killed all of their sports-related travel except for the playoffs. So they don’t have anyone on the road with the (Toronto) Blue Jays. Like, for instance, they didn’t have anyone out on the road with the Maple Leafs at the end of the season.
“So they are burning the furniture in the newspaper business, and a lot of the stuff that guys like to do, the reason that was a fun world was you got to go places and cover things, right? I covered a bunch of Olympics and World Cups and Euros (soccer championships). I saw the world on the Globe and Mail’s dime, and that’s gone.
“So I think a lot of writers are looking for a place and that could mean that they (The Athletic) can hire a lot of very good people. But it’s a pay site, and the one thing I keep coming back to is I’ve got three kids, the oldest one is 30, and they are sports fans — my sons are at least to a degree. But I look at how they consume stuff, and they don’t pay for things. They don’t pay for cable; they pay for their phone. But the notion of paying for content would be completely alien to them.”
Which brings up Brunt’s broader point about The Athletic and the fact that many people consider the internet is free — for everything.
“And I just don’t know if you can convince people to pay for content,” Brunt said. “So I’m a subscriber to The Athletic because I want to support it and I understand that you can’t make a site like that work based on online advertising. There’s just not enough revenue, but I also wonder about the guys who own it (founded by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann), who are kind of venture-capitalist types. I wonder if they are just trying to built it up to the point where they can sell it. That’s what I’m suspicious of.”
Brunt maintains a hopeful outlook for The Athletic, though.
“Look, as long as it lasts, I hope it lasts, it’s keeping some good people employed,” he said. “It’s producing good content. So I have some reservations about the business model, but I really hope it survives.”
With The Athletic’s rapid expansion, its websites have popped up in U.S. and Canadian markets with pro sports franchises. These sites have become direct competitors with newspapers that once dominated coverage in these markets, such as Boston, Calgary, Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
“What you are seeing is the decline of the newspaper coverage and people want their home team covered,” Brunt pointed out. “As much as they want to read big-picture national stuff, they want to know what’s going on with their team and there really is a vacuum there, and I think they are jumping in to try to fill it in all of those markets where the newspapers are in decline.
“Again, I don’t really understand the business model, but I think there’s a lot of content out there, and that’s the other thing.”
He brought up the example of having time before work to surf the internet, checking out online sports coverage from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, The Ringer, “and it’s all free.”
“And you wonder how much content is the average (reader going to consume) — how far is someone willing to go for content, and are they willing to pay for it? That’s the question,” Brunt said.