Alex Mather, one of the two creators of The Athletic, knew this 2017 quote, “We will wait out every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them,” was a bad idea almost a soon as he said it, and he tried several times to walk it back. Now that his creation is inside the whale he wanted to harpoon, the echo must be deafening.
In the years since its founding, The Athletic’s plan to be the last ones standing was edited to read “latest one swallowed,” selling itself for $550 million to, of all companies, The New York Times. At least that’s the reporting; sale prices often have a healthy squirt of helium to them, and Mather’s plan with co-founder Adam Hansmann to sell their little dreadnought for enough money to buy a Caribbean tax haven will simply have to be applied to their next scheme. That’s probably too cynical, but hey, you came to this shop and you get this level of service.
There was a point when Mather and Hansmann were true believers in the project, which was no less than recreating The Sporting News at internet speed. They would be local everywhere, with a small (probably too small, with hindsight) national view, and they would live on a subscription model. If you had a team, they had a reporter for you.
At least that was the original plan. The plan changed, though, several times, and it went from too small to too big, decentralized to almost neo-Stalinist in its centralization, and went from seeing a gap in the market for hockey reporting to having most of its water carried by its European football reporting. It still has undisputed talent and value, but having set the parameters for success, Mather must see the irony in being consumed by the national paper that paid relatively little attention to sports that he overlooked while he was trying to destroy the little ones that all had separate sports sections.
True, he’s got a $275 million divan (minus stockholder shares which comes out of somebody’s end) upon which to recline and reflect on what can safely be called a financial success, and one should feel no remorse for him. He won, at least at the game of early retirement.
What the Times does with The Athletic is another matter, and how many people end up streetward and their beats left uncovered is still to be seen. We assume nothing. This might end up just as bad for sports journalism as Mather’s initial vision stated, but it might also be a genuine boon. We prefer more worthy things to read rather than fewer, even if that isn’t the way to bet.
What we know now, though, is this: If you’re trying to bring an industry to its knees, you should always be mindful of the ones who fly overhead. The Athletic was a potential revolution that was eventually subsumed by something called The Old Gray Lady, and the ones who planned to eat the entire table ended up on the old menu anyway, a new item right below Appetizers and above Entrees.