4:05pm: As previously expected, the deal has been announced following the close of the stock market. A press release by the New York Times Company confirms that it has reached a deal to acquire The Athletic (as well as the purchase price of $550MM) and announces an expected closing of the deal in the first quarter of 2022.
Though she makes clear that The Athletic’s ample subscriber base played a major role in the Times’ attraction to the San Francisco-based sports outlet, Meredith Kopit Levien, the New York Times Company’s president and CEO, suggests in the statement that The Athletic will be given relative free reign, describing it as a “complement to” the Times and “a subsidiary of The Times Company” that will “continue to operate separately.” The Athletic’s founders, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, will remain on board following the acquisition, though each will now report to Times Company executive David Perpich, who will be named The Athletic’s publisher.
Though the role is multi-faceted and varies from organization to organization, a publisher broadly sets the editorial and commercial direction for a publication, particularly with regard to big-picture decisions like target markets, forms of content, and the scope and nature of advertising. Perpich previously served as president and general manager for Wirecutter, another New York Times subsidiary, and is the first cousin of Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger. Perpich’s precise role in the future of The Athletic remains, at this point, unclear.
1:36pm: In a deal likely to shake up the sports media landscape, the New York Times Company (the parent company and publisher of the New York Times) has agreed to a $550MM deal to purchase subscription sports news service The Athletic (first reported by Jessica Toonkel of The Information). As of early Thursday afternoon, neither The Athletic nor the Times has announced the deal, though Sara Fischer of Axios reports that the deal is expected to be announced after the stock market closes for the day.
How (if at all) the deal will affect The Athletic’s coverage or subscription model remains to be seen, but Toonkel suggests that the deal may have been motivated by the site’s hefty subscriber base. Indeed, the acquisition of The Athletic’s more than one million subscribers (a threshold it crossed in September 2020) will go a long way towards meeting the Times’ stated goal of reaching 10 million subscribers by 2025; as of September 2021, it reported 8.3 million digital and print subscribers. Though some overlap in the publications’ subscriber bases certainly exists, the deal will move the Times a good deal closer to its target.
Previous reporting suggests that The Athletic had been in discussions with a number of media outfits since at least early 2021. In addition to the New York Times, the site had engaged in talks with politics-focused news site Axios (per Fischer) as well as sports betting behemoths DraftKings and FanDuel (per Jessica Toonkel and Sahil Patel of The Information), though it’s not entirely clear which of these negotiations culminated in an offer.
Since launching in 2016, The Athletic has pioneered a new model in the sports media landscape, offering a subscription-based service dedicated to what it has called “smarter coverage for die-hard fans” through a combination of day-to-day beat reporting (traditionally the province of local newspapers) alongside the sort of long-form analysis, original reporting, and social commentary more commonly found in national magazines. The site also benefited from a broader decline in print media, which has seen many local papers cut staff (including in sports sections) and others shut their doors entirely. At present, The Athletic has devoted coverage for 40 US cities, seven Canadian cities, and the United Kingdom.
On one hand, the backing of one of the world’s most powerful news organizations could offer The Athletic further coverage resources to add to its stable of experienced reporters. On the other, the potential imposition of new leadership (Fischer reports that founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann will stay on, though they’ll now at least notionally report to the Times’ board of directors) could impact the thrust of the site’s coverage in any number of possible directions. Until either organization confirms the deal or releases a statement regarding the future plans for the site, any further analysis of the deal’s implications would be wholly speculative, but it does represent a significant consolidation in digital sports media — a long-established trend across the digital media landscape.