Report: New York Times Could Buy The Athletic

What’s going on with The Athletic? It’s one of the more fascinating media stories to follow.

There have been tidbits here and there about possible mergers or an outright sale, as the still-young subscription site tries to find its revenue footing in an ever-changing online marketplace.

Today we’ve got a report from Sara Fischer at Axios, citing a handful of sources who say The New York Times is exploring an outright purchase of The Athletic:

The New York Times is looking into a potential acquisition of The Athletic, three sources familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Driving the news: Sources say The Times approached The Athletic following a report about a potential deal between The Athletic and Axios in March.

-The Wall Street Journal reported in May that The Athletic and Axios are no longer in talks for a potential merger via SPAC, and that The Athletic viewed The Times as a better contender for a merger.

The Times has been reaching out to former employees to vet The Athletic’s business and culture, sources say.

-The Times is eyeing a full acquisition, not a joint venture or strategic partnership.

-The Athletic raised $50 million last year in a Series D funding round, just before the pandemic, putting its latest valuation at around $500 million.

The funny thing about all of this is that Athletic co-founder Alex Mather gave one of the most arrogant quotes of all time back in 2017, telling The New York Times that the site was going to “wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.” He later apologized/walked back that statement, but didn’t shy away from the strategy, and the website poached some extremely talented people from the print world, like Zach Berman and Matt Gelb here in Philadelphia.

The Athletic has since put a quality product out there. You pay a few bucks a month for good sports writing and story telling without advertisements or hot takes or anything like that, and overall it’s a product worth paying for. My only gripe is that the writers aren’t active enough. Sometimes you’ll go two weeks and a person will only do 2-3 stories, which is crazy. The other problem is that the revenue model always seemed to be a little bit shaky, and the site has yet to turn a profit, so here they are less than five years after the Mather quote and thinking of selling.

As far as the 600 people who work for The Athletic, a sale is probably in their best interest. If an unsustainable model continued to exist without any sort of shift on the horizon, the ensuing bubble burst would see hundreds of talented people lose their jobs. And as we explore new business models in a world of dying newspapers and the changing consumption of media, we want things to work, not fail, or else it’s back to square one.

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