The Athletic: Is the future of content behind a paywall?

The Athletic: Is the future of content behind a paywall?

Written by Josh Westerman

The newspaper. A stalwart of the beautiful game. From finding out the next round of fixtures to reading the match reports from last night’s game, football just wouldn’t be the same without its backbone of journalism.

Yet recently, there’s been a change in the football journalism sphere. Fanzines like The Square Ball and alt-football mags such as Mundial have become big players in the sector – fans don’t just want the same old sports reports, they want something different, exciting and engaging that showcases high levels of writing.

Enter The Athletic – the new kid on the block for football journalism.

I’ve taken a look at how The Athletic will change how fans interact with journalists and articles, and whether a paywall-based approach is the future of content.

What is The Athletic?

Describing itself as “the new home of football writing”, The Athletic UK is the latest online sports publication to hit our shores. After three years of success covering sports across the pond in the USA, £10m has been invested to create the platform aimed at a UK-centric audience.

The catch, however, is that it’s a subscription-based service where users have to pay either a yearly or monthly fee to view the on-site content.

Some have deemed The Athletic’s approach to recruitment as being “aggressive”, ravaging through the UK press for the crème de la crème of sport journalists. Yet the lure of this new concept (and perhaps the reported hike in salary) has drawn some almighty names from the sector – the BBC’s David Ornstein, Oliver Kay from The Times and Sky Sports anchor Adam Leventhal have all joined. In total, the platform has amassed a team of more than 50 writers – all hired from ‘competitor’ outlets.

The Athletic has created the Galácticos of the written word or, as I like to compare them to, the Leeds United 2009/10 League One promotion-winning side – quality, consistency and big names.

But it’s at a regional level where The Athletic aims to prosper. It plans to provide quality, in-depth features written by the journalists who know the clubs inside out, pick-pocketing the best of talent in the regional titles, with the lure of being able to take the boundaries of their work further than what the local rag can offer.

In Leeds and Yorkshire alone, both the chief football writers for the Yorkshire Evening Post and Yorkshire Post – Phil Hay and Richard Sutcliffe – have left their regional paper position to join this new digital platform. Luckily for local sports fans, both will still be covering teams within the region, so expect Mr Hay to be constantly inundated with a barrage of “any news Phil?” tweets regarding the mighty Leeds United.

One day after going live, The Athletic UK’s Twitter page has already amassed 50,000 followers. People are intrigued and interested to what this new platform is.

So, why pay the fees?

There’s one reason why there’s a paywall – the quality of content.

This in no way is to disrespect the phenomenal journalism going on outside of The Athletic bubble – read pieces by Jonathan Liew, Henry Winter, Martin Samuel et al for examples – but this new platform’s offering just takes it to the next level.

Firstly, the journalists are given a free rein on the editorial work, being able to delve deeper into matters of importance and interest to the audience. The local newspaper might not have wanted them to step on any toes or upset the apple cart, but at The Athletic the writers can. Even in its infancy, the early articles are leaps and bounds ahead of some of those being churned out by rival outlets.

Alongside the written reports, users can access video content (albeit currently visuals aimed at The Athletics’s stateside audience) and join discussion forums with its superstar line up of journalists.

Writers aside, it just looks and feels great too. The design is clean cut, it’s easy to navigate from a UX standpoint and the comments section allow for conversations between fans. You don’t have the ad-heavy aesthetic of the regional paper either, meaning you can read the article without having to answer questions on what washing powder you use, and where you buy your tinned mackerel from.

It’s the David Ginola, the Andrea Pirlo, the Dennis Bergkamp of football publications – smooth, cool, sophisticated and, well, kind of sexy.

But this paywall concept isn’t a new one. National newspapers such as The Times and The Telegraph already operate on a subscription basis for viewing articles online, and a whole host of trade publications have their content behind a paywall.

That more noise is being made about The Athletic’s paywall is down to the fact it’s head-hunted the very best of the UK’s sports journalists – it’s completely disrupted the football reporting industry, whilst disgruntling some of Fleet Street’s old brigade (Neil Custis from The S*n, as a prime example).

Will The Athletic be a success?

In all sectors and industries, audiences crave high-quality content that’s engaging, informative and authoritative. But in the world of football, fans base their opinions and belief on the knowledge and opinions of the journalist, perhaps like in no other sphere. The Athletic brings with it an arsenal (no pun intended) of elite football writers, and when it’s at the same price of buying the daily paper or your favourite football magazine, why wouldn’t you want to?

But when other outlets are offering content out for free, there could be a hesitation in pick-up. Getting people to read your content, at times, can be a difficult task so asking for them to pay for the privilege to do so may be a step too far for some members of the audience.

In the era of dwindling magazine and newspaper sales, paywall content lends itself to a similar ideology to its print-based predecessor – you pay to read something. But are audiences hesitant to subscribe and pay for something they can only view on a screen, compared to the physical ownership of a mag or paper?

If I go all Mystic Meg for a moment, it would be easy to say the print sector doesn’t have an infinite lifespan – sadly, one day in the future it will cease to exist. But when that time comes, publications and brands have to be ready for next phase of content publishing. Whether that’ll be just online with ads or all online behind a paywall, my crystal ball doesn’t have the answer.