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May 25, 2021, 1:54 p.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Sarah Scire   |   May 25, 2021

In 2017, The New York Times published a feature on The Athletic, a newish sports news organization hellbent on becoming “the local sports page for every city in the country.” During the interview, co-founder Alex Mather acknowledged a strategy of poaching sports writers from local papers. He was … less than apologetic.

“We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing,” Mather said. “We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.”

Four years later, is the business of local news extremely difficult? Yes. Will The Athletic be the last ones standing? Probably not, according to a report in Axios.

The New York Times is in talks to purchase The Athletic and it would not be a “joint venture” or partnership but a full acquisition, Sara Fischer reports. (A Times spokesperson declined to confirm the talks: “As a general matter of policy, we do not comment on rumors about potential acquisitions or divestitures.”)

The New York Times is a more natural home for The Athletic than Axios, where previous acquisition talks fell apart. Unlike Axios, the business models of the Times and The Athletic both revolve around subscriptions. But though The Athletic brought in a reported $80 million in revenue last year, the sports news site is not profitable. It also employs 600 full-time staffers — including 400 in editorial alone. What might The New York Times want from the deal?

Some of The Athletic’s 1.2 million subscribers, for starters. The Times could be thinking about a building out a subscription product for sports, like Cooking for recipes, Games for puzzles, or Audm for audio. (The Times is already testing subscription products around its consumer review site Wirecutter and content for children.)

The Athletic has generated other revenue streams, including a paid partnership around online sports gambling. Here’s how The Athletic put it to readers when announcing its partnership with BetMGM:

We’re going to be getting data from them that will make stories and columns deeper and more insightful. Yes, we’ll be linking lines and odds back to their sportsbook (and most links will carry a generous sign-up offer) — but you have to play somewhere, right? […]

We’re well aware that sports betting isn’t for everyone — and chances are it’s not even legal yet in your state — but a good sports betting story is a good story, period, and we think you’ll enjoy nearly everything we publish, regardless of what you do with the information afterwards.

Is sports betting a revenue stream that The New York Times is willing to embrace? The other scoop in Fischer’s newsletter — she’s good, people! — suggests legacy news organizations may be getting comfortable with the idea.

Fischer reports that the Associated Press is partnering with the online sports gambling company FanDuel, who will pay the AP “an undisclosed amount” to link, exclusively, to FanDuel when referring to betting odds. (The AP will not link directly to betting pages, so this is more paid content than direct affiliate marketing.)

You can read the full report — including a recap of the Times’ rather “mixed track record” in dealmaking — here.

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