The Athletic Might Be Brash But That’s OK

How many times in the sports media business have we taken the best :10 seconds of a commentary and featured it while looking past the remainder of an individual’s points? If that’s a foreign concept to you then you probably don’t work in the sports media industry.

On Monday morning I was catching up on my daily reading when that very situation presented itself. My Twitter timeline was flooded with negative remarks towards Alex Mather, co-founder of The Athletic, after he offered a couple of comments to the New York Times that came across as cocky, arrogant, and aggressive. When asked about The Athletic’s business approach Mather said, “We will wait 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.”

In the same article, Mather called out newspapers for doing nothing to serve sports fans and labeled Bleacher Report and SB Nation as empty calories. He was also criticized by Dejan Kovacevic of DK Pittsburgh Sports for breaking a promise to not compete in the Pittsburgh market. Mather acknowledged that The Athletic initially had no plans to launch in Pittsburgh but the platform only makes promises to its customers, employees, investors and partners.

Upon seeing his comments take like a moth to a flame, Mather took to Twitter to provide additional context (read from the bottom up).

Most people who read the Times’ story or Mather’s tweets will probably take offense because the remarks are brash and portray the company as being out for blood. For an upstart digital brand which has played the underdog card and presented itself as the last bastion for sports journalism, a smug appearance from the head of the operation doesn’t provide good PR for a company which is trying to convince people to become future subscribers.

As I processed Mather’s comments, I found myself buying some of what he was selling and rejecting other portions of it. I don’t believe for a second that the company is rooting for newspapers to get the message. If they did, that would cause The Athletic competitive challenges. I also don’t buy the notion that the company is going to remain small when in the same article they preach about their plans to expand into every American and Canadian sports city where professional sports teams exist within two years.

However, I will defend Mather on the most important part of this story.

He’s absolutely correct that surviving in media is very difficult. It’s especially hard when you factor in the aggregation of content, navigating algorithms and building a brand thru word of mouth and social media marketing. For The Athletic to present the type of quality content it wants to deliver, they have to lure away established media people from legacy brands and count on those people to have enough of a connection in local communities to draw subscribers. The company didn’t arrive on the scene with millions invested in marketing and it is up against formidable competition. To complicate matters, The Athletic’s future is predicated on being able to convince sports fans to spend their money on ad-free premium content from highly trusted journalists even though those same fans can access information and opinion for free from other talented writers on most local and national sports media outlets.

If you read the full article it paints a full picture of why The Athletic believes in its approach. Some of that gets lost if you just read Mather’s quotes or the article’s headline.

In a nutshell, these guys believe the newspaper business has made many costly errors, overworked their best people, and failed to present a sound business model. They’re proponents of in-depth reporting and objective analysis and when unexpected opportunities present themselves, they’re quick to react to try to improve their company. Most of those things should be applauded not frowned upon.

Which leads me back to the real issue why this article created noise. People have an issue with arrogance. The turnoff factor towards Mather was high because of his use of words. However, being cocky and overconfident isn’t a crime. Do you think competing against and beating an entire newspaper industry is going to happen by being reserved and cordial? As Kid Rock once sang, “They say I’m cocky, and I say what? It ain’t bragging motherf**ker if you back it up.”

Have you ever watched the show Shark Tank? Do you think Kevin O’Leary cares if you like him? The reason he’s filthy rich and successful is because he shows no remorse and fights to win. If you get stepped on in the process, that’s his cost of doing business. It might make him harder to root for and a dose of humility would likely suit him well but if the formula is working, O’Leary isn’t going to change a thing.

Did you see the movie The Social Network which was based on the story of Facebook? What happened to Mark Zuckerberg’s friend and co-founder Eduardo Savrin? It may have been unethical and the cause of the relationship between the two Facebook co-founders becoming irreparable, but in the end, Zuckerberg was ruthless and willing to sacrifice his best friend for the betterment of his professional success. Some will say that makes Zuckerberg a dirtbag, but based on the way Facebook has blossomed, I’m sure Mark is sleeping just fine with that label hanging over his head.

It’s been a while since I’ve used a wrestling reference but this time the shoe fits. In the old days of wrestling, promotions ran shows in different regions. There was an understood rule among promoters that each was to steer clear of each other’s area and focus on their own pockets of the country. Vince McMahon Sr. operated under that agreement but after ceasing control to his son, Vince McMahon chose a different approach when an opportunity to compete on a national level presented itself for the WWF. Vince Jr. could’ve followed in his father’s footsteps and played nice, but he saw an opportunity to elevate the WWF and in doing so, turned it into the most dominant wrestling promotion on the planet. Did the move cost McMahon some friends? Yes. Did he present himself as a ruthless SOB with a willingness to steamroll anyone who got in his way? Absolutely. But to become the global entity that the WWE has become, something had to change, and McMahon chose to become the reaper before someone else did.

The point in all of this is that sometimes in business, things get vicious. Big money is at stake, competition is fierce, and one false move can do tremendous damage. You can’t be afraid or timid when swimming in shark infested waters and if a company delivers results, investors will welcome and encourage the swagger. If not, they’ll change their direction and tone, and in some cases, the people involved.

Alex Mather may not come across as warm and inviting in the New York Times’ article, but following the playbook of O’Leary, Zuckerberg and McMahon doesn’t make him a monster. It simply makes him a businessman. If his company has a sliver of the success those other operators have had over the past few decades, I’m sure he’ll welcome the negative ink and the tweets he’s been sorting thru today.

Jason Barrett :