Toronto Star

Start-up makes play, but will sports fans pay?

- Raju Mudhar

Can a start-up upend the world of sports media? And do it well enough to make you pay for it?

That’s exactly what The Athletic hopes to do. Launched a little over a week ago in Toronto, this new online and app outlet has picked up some well-known local journalist­s in an attempt create a Netflix for sports coverage.

Similar to that video service, The Athletic has a subscripti­on-based plan, where users can pay on a monthly or annual basis. The company was created at Y-Combinator, a well known California-based accelerato­r, and six months ago they launched in Chicago. Toronto is the company’s second market, and its focus is on the Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays, with Argos and TFC to come.

It’s a hyper-local approach to sports coverage and, despite what feels like a saturated market, the people behind it believe there’s an opportunit­y.

“There’s certainly no shortage of places to read about the Leafs or the Jays, but we see ourselves as a hybrid between two models that both have weaknesses — legacy outlets like newspapers on one side and blogs and analytical sites on the other. In simple terms, we want to be as credible as the newspapers while being as innovative, fanfriendl­y, and technologi­cally sophistica­ted as Internet-first sites,” says Adam Hansmann, one of the founders.

This subscripti­on-based approach to coverage has been gaining steam in the past few years, most notably in Pittsburgh, with, a site started up by a former newspaper columnist who struck out on his own.

The hyperlocal approach is interestin­g for the Internet. While some outlets like Bleacher Report and SBnation have partnered with blogs or have team hubs, they don’t actually have real feet on the ground. The Athletic has picked up three former National Post writers, with John Lott covering the Blue Jays, Eric Koreen covering the Raptors and David Alter on the Leafs. Joshua Kloke is also providing Leafs coverage.

I tell Hansmann that I’m skeptical that people will pay.

“We think Toronto can easily support a subscriber base in the tens of thousands of people, and that’s not just Torontonia­ns, but anyone across the continent that follows the Raptors, Jays, or Leafs,” he says. “Having known writers is very important both from a credibilit­y and a marketing standpoint. Most writers that have at least a few years in the business will bring several thousand Twitter followers, and that’s a good starting point for a new outlet. Many of those followers will become our first subscriber­s.

“We won’t succeed unless we produce authentic coverage at the local level. Yes, our technology team is in San Francisco, but an authentic local voice can’t be manufactur­ed or automated.”

He says that the company might look at advertisin­g and sponsorshi­p, but doesn’t want to do that in the early days.

Considerin­g that all the newspapers in Toronto are in some form of buyout or layoff mode — Postmedia announced this week that it wants to shed 20 per cent in salary — there might be an opportunit­y for such an endeavour.

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada