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Oct. 5, 2023, 11:34 a.m.

The Athletic cuts back on local podcasts

The sports news site built its model around comprehensive beat reporting. But in recent months, The Athletic has pulled back from dedicated coverage of professional teams.

The Athletic, which was purchased by The New York Times in 2022, is quietly cutting way back on produced podcasts. The hardest-hit group? Local shows covering a single team.

“The Athletic is not doing local podcasts anymore,” The Athletic’s Detroit Pistons beat writer James Edwards III says in the last episode of The Bun and Cardigan Show. “Don’t worry — I’m still covering the Pistons for The Athletic. This is strictly an audio thing.”

The Athletic has stressed that its writers are writers first and that beat reporters with canceled podcasts will continue writing in-depth local coverage. Given the recent layoffs that claimed 4% of the newsroom staff, it’s a fact some hosts felt important to reiterate.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Edwards repeated later in the 10-minute episode. “The company decided that they only want to do national podcasts on their feed.”

The Athletic’s retreat from local podcasts comes as many media companies scale back on podcasting efforts. Just last week, Pushkin Industries laid off 30% of its staff, joining NPR, Spotify, Futuro, Sony, and several others in audio in cutting jobs this year.

The Athletic — which promises coverage from 47 North American cities — built its business model on in-depth individual team coverage, but in the past year, it’s pulled back from dedicated coverage of many pro teams. This podcast move matches that trajectory.

Publisher David Perpich, a longtime Times executive who ran Wirecutter and the Cooking and Games apps before taking the reins at The Athletic, has set a goal for the site to turn a profit by 2025. The New York Times disbanded its sports department this summer, saying it would rely on The Athletic for coverage of games, players, and leagues. Though the Times has retained as many as 100 beat reporters at The Athletic, Perpich has been clear their jobs are dependent on reader interest.

“The Athletic has generally viewed every league in a similar manner, with similar beats and offerings. But our growing body of research and our own understanding of the sports we cover compel a more nuanced approach,” Perpich and executive editor Steven Ginsberg wrote when announcing layoffs and reassignments to regional and national beats in June. “There is no perfect formula for determining which teams to cover, but we are committing dedicated beat reporters to the ones that most consistently produce stories that appeal to both large and news-hungry fan bases, as well as leaguewide audiences.”

A similar rationale is in play when it comes to audio audiences. “We’re always looking to meet our listeners where they are,” a New York Times spokesperson said this week in an email, “and will continue to evolve our strategy based on their listening habits.”

The New York Times declined to say how many local shows were affected by this shift away from producing local podcasts, but it’s clear The Athletic has cut many — if not the majority — of local podcasts.

Let’s look at The Athletic’s coverage of the NBA, which has 30 teams. The Athletic has three national podcasts — No Dunks, The Athletic NBA Show, and Game Theory Podcast — that remain active. The Athletic’s website lists nine local NBA podcasts, including three covering the San Francisco-based Golden State Warriors. Of those nine local podcasts, only three are left standing (and two of ’em cover the Warriors).

Podcasts covering the Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks, Brooklyn Nets, Golden State Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, and Boston Celtics have all gone dark. Other local NBA podcasts, including Jurassic Pod covering the Toronto Raptors, have also been canceled since launching, but no longer appear on The Athletic’s site.

The local podcasts can exist in very competitive spaces. A quick look around suggests at least seven other podcasts dedicated to the Boston Celtics, for example, and six for the Philadelphia 76ers. Unlike The Athletic’s paywalled articles, the podcasts were ad-supported and free for listeners.

Many podcasts were only canceled a few weeks ago. Others have been dormant for months, like Sixers Beat which cut short when layoffs at The Athletic left the Philadelphia 76ers without their last dedicated beat reporter. (We’re keeping an eye on the ALLCITY Network, which has been poaching local reporters and appears determined to recreate some of what The Athletic set out to do originally. A number of ex-Athletic reporters have joined the sports news network “with a casual sports fan vibe” that now has city-specific sites in Philly, Denver, Phoenix, and Chicago.)

The Athletic has cut local baseball podcasts focused on the Mets and the Toronto Blue Jays. For the NHL, local podcasts covering the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Vancouver Canucks have been dormant. There are more than a dozen active team-based podcasts for the NFL, but that league hasn’t been entirely spared either. Among the recent chops are Time’s Ours, which covered the Kansas City Chiefs (nothing of interest going on with the defending Super Bowl champs!) and Birds With Friends, a once thrice-weekly podcast about the other team in last year’s Super Bowl.

The local podcast cuts include a podcast The Athletic sought out and acquired. Drew Fairservice was co-host of The Athletic’s Spin Rate, a show covering the MLB’s Blue Jays. (It was one of the seven “featured shows” listed when The Athletic announced a new “multi-million dollar podcasting business” and a dozen new hires in 2019; just three now appear active in some form.) Like other hosts, Fairservice was told The Athletic was moving away from local shows. Ultimately, the cancellation hadn’t come as a surprise, he said, since The Athletic had taken steps like moving their regular producer off the show in favor of another person hired on a temporary basis.

Fairservice, who was a freelance employee for The Athletic, said the company hadn’t explained where the numbers didn’t add up, but believes the show was not making enough money in ad revenue relative to the costs of paying him and another freelancer for the show.

“I suppose it makes sense to me…that a place like The Athletic comes out with great plans to disrupt the market, only to follow ‘market forces’ that lead them right back into the same model they set out to disrupt,” Fairservice said.

“In the end, there were no hard feelings, but I did find it odd that they ended up launching a new local show — about the Angels — at the start of this baseball season,” he added. “I can’t see how that show would succeed above and beyond our show, for example, that came with its own imported audience — an audience The Athletic sought out and purchased access to three years prior.”

Local audio isn’t entirely going away at The Athletic. The national shows will feature local beat reporters and the news org has retained a handful of local podcasts including some, like the Chicago Bears show Hoge & Jahns, that are produced for YouTube, too. The Athletic also plans to lean into live rooms. As we reported earlier this year, live rooms — or live podcasting, as it’s sometimes called — appear in front of The Athletic’s paywall and allow subscribers to ask reporters questions. In-house technology allows reporters to reach readers quickly and, crucially, they’re also a lot less expensive.

The Athletic told writers they’re free to relaunch their podcasts elsewhere and monetize as they see fit. Several hosts plan to restart their podcasts outside The Athletic.

The duo behind Laz and Powers has already launched as a subscriber-supported podcast on Patreon and the co-hosts of Anything is Poddable plan to do the same. The Athletic is keeping the rights to the podcast names, though, so the hosts have turned to innovative new titles like, um, Powers and Laz and Still Poddable.

Photo of empty basketball arena by Christian Rebero Twahirwa.

Sarah Scire is deputy editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sarah_scire@harvard.edu), Twitter DM (@SarahScire), or Signal (+1 617-299-1821).
POSTED     Oct. 5, 2023, 11:34 a.m.
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