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The Athletic: Both an experiment and a lifeline for those involved

Audrey Snyder outside Beaver Stadium on a bright sunny day
Alumna Audrey Snyder covers Penn State for The Athletic. (Photo by Grace Brennan)

Dana O’Neil, newly laid off from ESPN and anxious about the future, pondered applying for a job with the NHL in 2017 when a friend mentioned The Athletic. “What’s that?” she asked.

Soon after, O’Neil (’90 Journ) had a conversation with Alex Mather (’03 IST), an entrepreneur from Philadelphia with a keen sense for coding, fundraising and fandom. He had built this website and app that would re-energize sports writing. It planned to launch a college basketball vertical. And would O’Neill be interested in joining?

“I literally hung up the phone, looked at my husband and said, ‘I think I just talked to my journalistic fairy godfather if what he said holds true,’” O’Neill said.

Three years later, O’Neil believes it has. The Athletic, founded by two journalism outsiders, has become the life jacket for dozens of displaced journalists and thousands of sports fans who long to read deeper than 300 words.

Since launching in 2016, The Athletic has grown to employ more than 400 journalists and editors in the U.S. and Great Britain. It serves nearly 50 markets, with plans for expansion, has raised about $140 million in capital investment, and is nearing 1 million subscribers. According to The Washington Post, the company is valued at $500 million. And Penn State graduates are a big part of that success.

In early June, the company cut nearly 8% of its staff, part of drastic actions to deal with the economic challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, but many of the alumni survived the cuts.

More than half dozen Penn Staters produce content for The Athletic, which is helmed by Mather, who attended the Abington and University Park campuses. O’Neil, with more than 25 years in the business, covers college basketball. Rob Biertempfel (’87 Journ) brought his long experience covering the Pittsburgh Pirates beat to the site.

Portrait of Dana O'Neil

Dana O'neil

Sheil Kapadia (’05 Journ) is a national NFL writer based in Philadelphia. Sara Civian, who was at Penn State from 2012-17, is the site’s Carolina Hurricanes beat writer.

The site’s most concentrated collection of Penn State talent comes from the classes of 2010-12, when five members of The Athletic staff honed their skills at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and The Daily Collegian. Matt Brown (’10 Journ) is a college football editor, John Hayes (’10 Journ) is a supervising producer of college football podcast production, Bill Landis (’11 Journ) covers Ohio State sports and Matt Fortuna (’11 Journ) is a national college football writer and the 2019 president of the Football Writers Association of America. Jake Kaplan (’12 Journ) covers the Houston Astros, and Audrey Snyder (’12 Journ) is The Athletic’s Penn State football beat writer.

They all faced success and struggle, promising new jobs and dispiriting layoffs, on their way to The Athletic. Mather found that to an attractive quality, one that also girded his launch of the site.

“They are my people,” Mather said. “You’re definitely not going to outwork someone from Penn State on the national or the local beat. I really believe that.”

"These are my people. You’re definitely not going to outwork someone from Penn State on the national or the local beat. I really believe that.”

Alex Mather, founder, The Athletic

A Coder's Fandom

“I probably have a less interesting story than the others,” Mather said, downplaying how a Penn State class and a classic tech device helped determine his career.

Once a pre-med major, Mather found a new direction in a chemistry class when a representative from the College of Information Sciences and Technology visited with a PalmPilot and a pitch for a major built around programming. Mather had not seen a PalmPilot (a leading-edge device in the late 1990s) and was captivated. He had written code for a calculator, but the prospect of digging into this kind of device “looked way cooler.”

“Months later I changed majors,” he said, “and never regretted it.” Mather transferred to the University Park campus, graduated in 2003 and set to work building startups, with which he already was familiar.

When he was 18, while at Penn State Abington, Mather worked as an intranet developer for CDNow, an online music store based in suburban Philadelphia that grew into an enormous business. It was purchased by Bertelsmann, a German media group that, coincidentally, is an investor in The Athletic.

Also while in college, Mather was a founding partner of the web design studio Neomind that still operates in Philadelphia. After ventures with real-estate startups, one of which ran straight into the 2008 market crash, Mather decided it was time for a “real job” and joined Comcast in 2008 as a user experience lead with Xfinity TV.

Three years later, Mather heard the call of the startup again and joined Strava as employee No. 7. Strava built a user community around a subscription-based tracking application for serious runners and cyclists. When he joined, Mather said, the app had about 1,500 users. When he left in 2015, it had millions.

Mather fell in love with the ethos at Strava, where a growing staff of developers produced a product with international appeal. The place was filled with ideas. Mather had one himself, which he brought to Strava and began discussing with co-worker Adam Hansmann.

It was for a subscription-based website that would cover sports. He called it The Armchair and still has the original text file.

'Smarter coverage for diehard fans'

Mather and Hansmann, a University of Notre Dame graduate, launched The Athletic in 2016 in Chicago to quizzical looks. Another sports site fighting for pageviews in the overstuffed digital sports space? Great idea. Good luck.

But the two held firm to the belief that people would pay for a sports site if it offered well known writers, compelling stories and a clean interface without advertising or video. Mather called the concept “smarter coverage for diehard fans.” It had to be subscription-based, with a pricing model similar to that of Netflix. They jumped into the mission statement without fear — or market testing.

“We just felt that a smart fan understands a lot more than folks have typically given them credit for,” Mather said.

The Athletic firmly dismissed blowtorching screeds and “Five Reasons Your Team’s Backup Quarterback is a Disaster” lists for stories that take time to write and to read. For instance, Kaplan skipped an Astros road series to visit Albuquerque for a story on superstar Alex Bregman. Civian, who studied in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism, spent time with an NHL player at his brewery in Ontario, Canada. The beer was great.

Snyder visited Mississippi State to learn how former Penn State football assistants Joe Moorhead, Charles Huff and Bob Shoop planned to bring their program-building ideas from State College to Starkville. And O’Neill wrote a double-bylined story from Oklahoma City and Auckland, New Zealand, about celebrated high-school basketball player R.J. Hampton as he turned professional.

“I had been told for so many years that people don’t read deep and they don’t read long,” O’Neil said. “But lo and behold, they did.”

'Go find stories and tell them'

Biertempfel and O’Neill were planning career changes three years ago. O’Neill, laid off during ESPN’s 2017 purge, considered a job in NHL public relations. Biertempfel, a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review for 25 years, sought jobs in college communications.

They grew up in newspapers, from The Daily Collegian to the Tribune-Review to the Philadelphia Daily News. They had a newsroom ethos. They wanted to write the stories that used to fill Sunday sports sections. They figured that time had passed. And then The Athletic arrived.

O’Neil was brought to the fold by Seth Davis, who was charged to run The Athletic’s college basketball vertical. They built a coverage plan that paired their relationships in college basketball with The Athletic’s budget and platform

Write the stories you want, O’Neil was told. So she did. One focused on the sports information director of Gallaudet University, the nation’s leading school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, who was in charge of the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament.

Another was among her favorites, an all-access story tracking Hampton, the Texas scholastic basketball star who bypassed college and played professionally in New Zealand. O’Neill took a flyer asking to go to New Zealand for the story. She was stunned when her editor said yes.

“The Athletic came along with a plan and a sense of optimism, and that’s something that’s missing from a lot of jobs in journalism. It’s like old-school coverage in a new way.”

Matt Brown

“Once we got started, it was just, ‘Go find stories and tell them,’” O’Neil said. “The catch was, are people going to read them? I always believed that those people still existed but that they weren’t getting what they wanted. There is a market for people who want to read good stories.”

That’s a common theme among Penn Staters in describing The Athletic. The site isn’t necessarily changing sports journalism but rather restoring faith that writing remains valued in a digital world.

“The Athletic came along with a plan and a sense of optimism, and that’s something that’s missing from a lot of jobs in journalism,” said Brown, who co-hosts a Penn State football podcast with Snyder. “Here’s somebody who believes in doing good journalism, believes in producing a good product that is trying to fill a gap that really exists. It’s like old-school coverage in a new way.”

For Biertempfel, that held a soaring appeal. Biertempfel is a baseball beat writer, having covered the Pirates for more than a decade at the Tribune-Review. But the financial and production constraints weren’t working for him any longer, and Biertempfel made peace with a career change. He had made contact with some Pittsburgh-area colleges and was ready to jump when The Athletic landed in Pittsburgh.

Portrait of Rob Biertempfel

Rob Biertempfel

Biertempfel was among the local site’s early hires. Now, The Athletic employs the city’s largest sports department, having hired writers from the Tribune-Review, Post-Gazette and fellow digital site DK Pittsburgh Sports.

At The Athletic, Biertempfel has more freedom to write from a broader perspective. He can be colloquial (“I’ve used the word ‘yinz’ in stories,” he said) and curse, where appropriate. He leaves most injury news to Twitter and pieces the daily flow of baseball minutiae into larger packages.

In 2019, Biertempfel wrote about infighting through the Pirates’ organization, a story that drew national attention. He does Q&As and podcasts and still has time (and desire) to write the occasional breaking story from his car.

“I was going to switch careers,” Biertempfel said, “which I guess I did.”

Has The Athletic changed sports journalism?

Why are two sports journalism outsiders tasking themselves with reimagining the trade? At heart, Mather said, they are fans who still love to read the sports section.

Mather grew up in Philadelphia devoted to, and reading about, the city’s teams. He sought out former Inquirer columnist Bill Conlin’s opinions, never missed Jayson Stark’s Sunday baseball column in the same paper and was drawn to new voices like Kapadia’s at Philadelphia Magazine’s former Birds 24/7 site. It’s no coincidence that Stark and Kapadia now write for The Athletic.

“We wanted to marry the two ideas,” Mather said, “having really great reporters with really great analysts and great tacticians of the game. That was sort of the fun part of playing GM of your own sports coverage.”

Mather first formed his idea for a national sports website in 2011 before arriving at Strava. He wasn’t ready to pursue it then, but Hansmann was intrigued and joined the startup in 2015. They began using primarily their own money, before investors saw potential. They also didn’t set about to change sports journalism, necessarily. But Mather did note that the field’s chaotic labor market would make talent available.

“A lot of people that I liked covering the teams that I followed didn’t necessarily have an obvious career ahead of them,” Mather said. “They were getting let go from newspapers because they were young, and newspapers weren’t really adapting to a new content strategy. They were still kind of writing the old game stories as if you had never seen a TV or highlights. And there was a new breed of writer who was analyzing plays, breaking down video, all that kind of stuff. That’s when I said, ‘There’s a new company to build here.’”

Portrait of Sheil Kapadia

Sheil Kapadia

At its core, The Athletic is a compilation of city-newspaper sports sections, packaged into one app, complemented by national writers who frame the bigger picture. Kapadia, one of those national voices, wasn’t really looking for a job when The Athletic called.

Kapadia was at Penn State when the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism opened. He moved quickly through the business, earning a wide audience with the Birds24/7 site he co-founded to cover the Philadelphia Eagles. Mather was among those who noticed the site’s unique analysis and penchant for film study.

When Mather called in 2017, Kapadia was working happily for ESPN in Seattle. But Mather liked the way Kapadia broke down football (particularly the Eagles) and, as he did with so many other writers, sold his vision of The Athletic. Kapadia was intrigued.

“If he assembled a good staff, I thought it could work,” Kapadia said. “And the power is in the idea of the bundle. If you want long-form, you can find that. If you want insider stuff, you can find that. If you want the nerdy aspects, you can find that. It really is set up nicely to customize.”

In that way, The Athletic has changed sports journalism. It nationalized the local sports section and localized the national players. Subscribers have access to more “insiders” covering the Big 4 professional leagues, college sports and, beginning in 2019, the English Premier League.

“There’s a tendency to be more analytical and emphasize the personalities in sports. That’s the strongest element I’ve seen The Athletic bring to the table so far. And I do think their readership numbers indicate that they have touched a nerve.”

John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism.

John Affleck, Penn State’s Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society, first noticed The Athletic through its local site in Cleveland. He considered it an interesting experiment worth following but wondered, like so many others, whether fans would pay for content available for free in other forms.

Ultimately, The Athletic proved that people would pay for content they considered smart, unique and compelling, Affleck said.

“It’s taking sports journalism in a new direction,” Affleck said. “There’s a tendency to be more analytical and emphasize the personalities in sports. That’s the strongest element I’ve seen The Athletic bring to the table so far. And I do think their readership numbers indicate that they have touched a nerve.”

The Athletic further operates with a worldview Mather brought to the site. As a Philadelphia native, and fan, he’s aware of the city’s hyperactive, caustic reputation regarding its teams. He’s not critical of it, nor that of the city’s adjoining world of sports-talk radio, but he didn’t want The Athletic to build itself from that space.

“We said, let’s acknowledge that sports-talk radio exists and let’s be the friend that talks some sense into you as a fan,” Mather said. “There’s a place for all these things.”

With a subscriber renewal rate of 80 percent, The Athletic suggests that its audience has found value in the product. Of course, that was before the coronavirus pandemic took sports off the fields and courts and into the world of Zoom meetings and pushup videos on social media.

As the sports shutdown began, writers at The Athletic turned to more evergreen stories such as greatest-hits lists and memory-lane strolls about historic events. The site promised that it had no shortage of stories, which might be difficult to keep in the long term.

“For anybody in the media, the COVID-19 shutdown is going to be a challenge,” Affleck said. “Ultimately whether it’s a moderate challenge or a massive challenge is yet to be seen. But sports without competition is a tough nut.”

Graphc/logo for The Athletic

Finding her voice

Sara Civian is the only reporter who travels regularly with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes and doesn’t work for the franchise’s official site. She considers that another sign of the media times, an advantage for herself and The Athletic and a sizable responsibility.

“I can’t sit back; I have to be the one asking questions,” Civian said. “If I can’t get in the question I want, no one else is going to ask.”

Civian represents the new breed of journalist to whom The Athletic appeals and who the company seeks. She comes squarely from the digital generation, having produced exactly one print byline in her career. It was a game story from a Boston Bruins game for a Florida newspaper, written on an outrageously early deadline that she could not comprehend.

At Penn State, which she attended from 2012-17, Civian wrote for the student website Onward State, covering a startup: ice hockey as a varsity Big Ten Conference sport. A one-time history major who shifted to the Bellisario College, Civian covered the men and women’s teams rise to varsity status, the construction of Pegula Ice Arena and the venue’s debut in October 2013.

Having grown up a hockey fan in Boston, Civian was transfixed. She loved the game, found a taste and talent for covering it and wasn’t afraid sprinkle her stories with some bite. That vibe fit well at Onward State, which reveled in occasional snark duels with The Daily Collegian.

“I grew up around the game and always loved it, but it wasn’t until I got to school that I made the connection between my love of writing and love of hockey,” she said. “I don’t really know why. I didn’t always want to be a journalist, but Penn State was such a good environment to learn how that works.”

Civian’s coverage got noticed by the independent site DK Pittsburgh Sports, and she left school early to cover the Pittsburgh Penguins. When that job didn’t work out, Civian returned to Boston, where she covered the Bruins for WEEI Radio and did some freelance work to “pay my dues.” That drew the attention of The Athletic, which called in 2018.

The Athletic had roots in hockey, and a few editors found Civian’s voice one that would help expand the brand to younger readers. She admittedly enjoyed the college media battles (“It’s fun to have someone play the heel,” Civian said) but also wanted to back that voice with a stronger reporting touch.

In covering the Hurricanes, Civian has branded herself and her coverage style. Since she is the beat’s sole traveling reporter, Civian gets morning-skate interviews on the road to herself. That has produced several opportunities.

In 2019, Civian made the 30-minute drive from Ottawa, where the Hurricanes were playing a road game, to the small town of Carp, home of then-Hurricane Calvin de Haan, who had partnered in a new craft brewery. She tasted the beer (“Awesome”), met de Haan’s father (“He was just so Canadian”) and generated the kind of story The Athletic hired her to write.

“I would love to give students hope that journalism is not dying,” Civian said. “It’s just changing.”

The Future

From January of 1990 to June of 1991, The National Sports Daily was the pre-internet version of The Athletic. It gathered a roster of well-known journalists, gave them big checks and turned them loose on American sports. It was funded by the late billionaire Emilio Azcárraga, who owned a media empire in Mexico and couldn’t understand why the U.S. didn’t have a daily sports newspaper.

And it failed spectacularly, buried beneath a tangle of advertising and distribution problems that reportedly cost its owner $150 million. The National’s biggest problem was distribution: The paper developed lavish box-score templates but had a deadline too early to print them. It also carried an attitude that suggested sports writers seeking to impress other sports writers.

“It always felt like, when I read The National, that there was a little bit of self-congratulating going on,” Affleck said. “The Athletic feels like it’s very much about me as the reader.”

Though The National predates him, Mather heard about the paper when launching The Athletic. People warned him that a national sports publication had failed before. He reminded them that The National required printing presses, truck drivers and newsstands. The Athletic has an app.

Still, Mather found a bond with The National, execution of its business model aside.

“The ambition was very similar,” he said. “We have the opportunity to bring together the best writers in the world, give them all the resources to do their best work and combine all these perspectives into a package that sports fan hopefully want. We’ve been shocked at just how quickly folks have caught on, and that’s been great.”

Until COVID-19 intervened, The Athletic was growing at a breathtaking pace. In 2019, it expanded into the United Kingdom, hiring a squad of writers to cover Premier League soccer. Expansion across Europe remains possible, and The Athletic might even find a way to cover cricket.

In an interview before the coronavirus pandemic shut down global sports, Mather said that The Athletic sought to become a global brand. And that it would do so with a consistent vision.

“We have a massive opportunity with sports around the world,” Mather said. “What’s really cool about this day and age is that you can absolutely be a cricket fan who lives in Dubai and also likes the Lakers, right? Those people exist. You can be in Hong Kong and love the [Golden State] Warriors and Manchester United. This is the world we live in. So there’s this amazing opportunity to build something that’s global in reach but really deep for the diehard fan.”