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The Copa, Euro, and Wimbledon finals collide on July 14. Here’s how The Athletic is preparing for its “biggest day ever.”
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July 11, 2024, 1:50 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The Copa, Euro, and Wimbledon finals collide on July 14. Here’s how The Athletic is preparing for its “biggest day ever.”

The Athletic intends to use its live coverage as a “shop window,” giving new readers a taste of what they might get if they subscribed.

For fans of international sports, this has been the summer of decadence. June was bookended by the T20 Cricket World Cup, which — thanks in part to the U.S. team’s stunning upset over Pakistan — seemed to finally put the sport on Americans’ radars. The European Championship and Copa América kicked off halfway through the month, which meant the sports bars I visited to watch the cricket matches also had TVs tuned to soccer games in both Europe and the Americas. And Wimbledon began just as the cricket wound to a close.

Somehow, all three of the major tournaments that are currently running — the Euros, Copa, and Wimbledon — have scheduled final matches for the same day: Sunday, July 14. For a sports fan, that’s a solid day on the books. For a sports outlet, it’s a day of nonstop coverage.

“It’s going to be the biggest day ever for us, really,” said Luke Brown, managing editor of global live coverage at The Athletic, the subscription sports site owned by The New York Times. The Times shut down its sports desk last year in favor of The Athletic, which it acquired in 2022; this year, its live sports coverage is coming directly from The Athletic.

The closest analog to July 14 might be from the summer of 2019 — another July 14, incidentally — when England beat New Zealand in the cricket world cup final on the same day that British F1 driver Lewis Hamilton won the Silverstone Grand Prix, his home race. “But obviously that was quite Anglocentric,” Brown continued, and The Athletic didn’t cover those events, which happened before the Times acquisition. “With the Copa América, and particularly with Argentina and Lionel Messi, it’s quite different. It’s going to be a long day.”

It’s also a chance for The Athletic to set itself apart from its competition — and to try and entice more people to subscribe, which is something many of its competitors don’t have to do.

Part of the plan, said Laura Williamson, The Athletic’s editor-in-chief, is to expand The Athletic’s coverage of sports it previously hasn’t dedicated sections to. The most obvious examples are tennis, which launched as a dedicated vertical ahead of this year’s French Open in May, and Formula 1, which got its own vertical at the start of the 2023 racing season.

“The tennis vertical has been really successful,” Williamson told me. “I think The Athletic is known for its deep reads, and we’re not doing straightforward match reports. Sometimes in sports reporting we can fall into the trap of headers and volleys and what player X or Y said, but we’d rather explain things like why a particular shot is special and break it down, or how training is affecting a player’s abilities.”

“Things just move so quickly that a lot of the time [play by play reports] are relevant for like 20 minutes,” Brown said. “If one game ends and another game starts, that result is kind of immediately overshadowed. But people remember tournaments for specific moments, not a series of scores, and we want to lean into those individual moments and explain why they happened.”

In many ways, the Tennis and F1 verticals — along with The Athletic’s coverage of the U.S. cricket team’s run at the world cup and a dedicated reporter to cover Wrexham A.F.C., a Welsh team owned by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney that competes in the third level of English football (which Williamson called a “slightly mad decision”) — are a reaction to a very simple, old idea: Sport is culture, and culture is sport. Formula 1 has recently become popular in the U.S. because of “Drive to Survive,” a Netflix documentary about the sport and, more importantly, its attendant glamor and drama. Tennis had its moment in the American sun this April, when “Challengers” showed people the sport could be sexy. Wrexham A.F.C. has its own documentary on Hulu, “Welcome to Wrexham,” and now the residents of the once-sleepy Welsh town it calls home jostle for tickets alongside visitors from all over the world.

The thing about fans who come to the sports in a somewhat roundabout way — the ones who decide, after a particular cultural touchpoint, to go all in — is that they often familiarize themselves very quickly with how the sport works. What they’re looking for, Wiliamson and Brown told me, is a way to essentially immerse themselves in both the sport and a community built around it.

“I think within the industry, there’s sometimes been this assumption that you need to dumb content down to speak to the masses. And it’s the complete opposite,” Brown said. When he watched Fox Sports’ coverage of soccer, for example, he noticed that there was a lot of talk about formations and tactics — a type of coverage that isn’t very common in his home country of the U.K., and something he wanted to emulate. “The people watching are informed, and they know what they’re talking about. They want to hear about tactics and understand the sport on a very in-depth level.”

That depth, Brown said, is informing not just The Athletic’s longform stories but also its live coverage of each sport — particularly on July 14. Live coverage tends to bring viewers to sports sites across the board, and The Athletic intends to use its live coverage as what Brown calls a “shop window,” giving new readers a taste of what they might get if they subscribed. The site experience is being tweaked a bit to appeal to more non-subscribers; when we spoke, Brown told me visitors would get free access to two live blogs before hitting the paywall. The live team has also set up a way for people to email in with comments that can be added to each live blog’s community discussion tab, a feature that was previously only available to subscribers. And a trio of reporters run a WhatsApp channel that anyone can join where they break football transfer news even before it hits The Athletic’s website. That’s particularly fun, Williamson told me, because most football transfers themselves are negotiated over WhatsApp.

“I love that, because as a live editor I just want to speak to the biggest audience possible,” Brown said. “There’s nothing more demoralizing than running live content and having loads of reporters feeding it but only speaking to a small audience. But it also brings with it loads of pressure because there’s a really good chance that it will be somebody’s first or second or potentially even last experience of The Athletic. So it’s kind of a tightrope-walking act.”

One of the strands in the tightrope is the challenge of discovery. Live coverage has historically been dependent on Google search traffic, which has dwindled as the tech giant turned its attention away from a functional internet and towards AI. To make up for that, The Athletic has leaned on social media, newsletters, and the platform of The New York Times, where subscribers have shown a growing appetite for live coverage — The Athletic had just shy of 5 million subscribers in May, up 1.72 million from last year.

Come July 14, The Athletic will have somewhere around 30 reporters and editors scattered across the Copa América, the Euro, and Wimbledon, talking to fans on the ground, responding to comments on the website and app, and live-blogging the plays as the come in. It’s going to be a big lift. But it also, Williamson and Brown hope, will be fun; after all, Williamson reminded me, sport is entertainment.

“I think with trust in journalism being so low and with generative search and people sometimes not even knowing if what they’re reading is written by a human, the human moments are really important,” Brown said. “Those moments are always my favorite parts of live coverage. We’ve got these really experienced, qualified correspondents who can write 1,200 beautiful words when they have to, but then if someone’s just scored a great goal and they’re just losing their minds, hammering at their keys and sending one-word blog posts — I think that’s really important to the industry, in a way. We want to show you that sports are fun.”

Once they’re done on the 14th, Williamson, Brown, and the rest of their colleagues will finally get to take a break after a month of nonstop coverage in which they will, by the end, have published at least 87 live articles. But their break will only last about a week — the Olympics start at the end of the month.

This story was updated on July 12, 2024 to correct the launch year of The Athletic’s F1 vertical.

Photo by Shep McAllister via Unsplash

Neel Dhanesha is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach Neel via email (neel_dhanesha@harvard.edu), Twitter (@neel_dhan), or Signal (@neel.58).
POSTED     July 11, 2024, 1:50 p.m.
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