A new movement in sports writing has begun

Life after ESPN

The last year has been rough on the sports media world, with mass layoffs, closures, and bankruptcies affecting ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, Fox Sports, Vice Sports, and Scout Media, among other outlets. But just as one era is coming to an end for sports journalism, a new one appears to be getting started. In increasing numbers, sports writers are realizing that their work and followings are strong enough to make money without needing traditional jobs. Could it be a sign of things to come?

A new wave of sports publications has coalesced around a subscription model in which readers, not advertisers, pay for the content. This year in particular there has been a spike in digital subscription sports publications, led by The Athletic, a venture capital-backed startup with a network of city-focused publications. The Athletic is stepping into a void in places like Toronto and Detroit where pro sports teams are inadequately covered by the mainstream press. By hiring some of the biggest names in sports journalism and asking them to write the stories that no one else is publishing, The Athletic provides readers with a compelling reason to pay for content that matters.

At the same time, some writers have struck out on their own. In 2014, former newspaper columnist Dejan Kovacevic started DK Pittsburgh Sports to offer coverage of teams in his home city. Three years later, the site claims nearly forty thousand subscribers and employs about a dozen reporters and photographers. It has succeeded, Kovacevic has said, “on a scale even our most optimistic projections hadn’t forecast.” Two months ago, former Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bedard followed Kovacevic’s lead by launching Boston Sports Journal, which already counts more than five thousand subscribers. In August, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s veteran Green Bay Packers writer Bob McGinn started his own news site, Bob McGinn Football, and a month later ESPN veteran Paul Kuharsky launched a publication about Tennessee football. Meanwhile, through Patreon, Jeff Gluck has been earning thousands of dollars a month by writing about NASCAR for his own site and accepting donations.

The emergence of The Athletic, the popularity of sports on social media, and the early success for this new stable of subscription publications suggest that the recent layoffs at ESPN and company have little to do with demand and everything to do with the evolution of business models for online news. People still want to read quality sports writing, especially about their hometowns and home teams—it’s just hard for the traditional media companies to keep paying salaries when ad sales are in precipitous decline. But now, more than ever, it’s possible for readers to get uncompromising coverage free of clickbait. They just have to pay. Early signs are that a fair number are willing to do so, and that the money is good enough to support more than a few bona fide sports writing businesses. As more publications starting charging for subscriptions, and payments option become easier, it could well be a trend that accelerates.

Sports lends itself well to subscription publishing for the following reasons:

  • It’s tribal, which guarantees a set of deeply interested followers who can’t read enough about their favorite teams, sports, or players (USA Today, taking note of the latter, has launched a site dedicated solely to Lonzo Ball).

  • There’s ample opportunity for timely and distinctive content because sports and their associated industries are news machines, with ongoing games, deals, trades, and other daily dramas. Yes, magazines and newspapers are already in the sports coverage business, but by necessity they must write for broad readerships, while niche publications can find success by catering to very targeted audiences.

  • Voice is important, because readers are looking for writers they can trust to deliver quality analysis and coverage, and who they enjoy reading. It’s possible to build a brand around these qualities and then ask people to pay for them.

Below is a list of online subscription sports publications that we know about. If you know of others, please let us know so we can add them to the list: hamish@substack.com.