For quite a while, I have believed that The Athletic, a subscription-only sports media company that had set a template for success in the post-social world, would become a big standalone company. Sure, it isn’t making money now, but they look like the company with the brightest future of all the media newcomers. It has the star writers. It has passionate customers. And it has the tailwind of multimedia boom: podcasts, short-form video, and demand for long-form video from the new video platforms. Now, The Information is reporting that betting platforms (posing as Fantasy sports services) FanDuel and DraftKings are chomping at the bits to buy The Athletic.
In the past, there have been rumors that both Axios and the New York Times wanted to buy the company, but The Athletic was seeking a valuation above $750 million. I suppose they thought the valuation was too rich. The sports media upstart expects to post revenues of $77 million and losses of $35 million in 2021. In comparison, it brought in $47 million and lost $41 million in 2020. Being a sports nut myself and a subscriber to The Athletic, every visit reminds me of the potential to grow for the company.
But then again, when ducks are quacking, feed them.
“Sports betting companies are looking to invest in media firms as sports betting becomes legal in more states across the country,” The Information reports, pointing to Penn National Gaming’s 36% stake in Barstool Sports and Better Collective’s $240 million purchase of The Action Network. Pretty much all media companies are cozying up for any-and-all variations of sports gambling outfits. FanDuel and DraftKings are the hippest of them all. It makes sense for them to cut out the media middle man and own one of the hottest media properties. Whatever the price, they will still secure a cheap top-of-the-funnel source for new business.
Advertising on social media platforms and other places on the web is getting expensive. Even television advertising costs a lot more. More importantly, gambling sports fans tend to be the ones who are addicted to news. So, FanDuel and DraftKings can make money on both ends of the transaction. It doesn’t necessarily mean this is good for the world or the sports media.
But sports media is already compromised. I highly recommend reading Danny Funt’s in-depth article over on the Columbia Journalism Review. “As gambling swallows up sports media, anyone pausing to consider editorial conflicts (or, in the case of bets based on nonpublic information, possible law-breaking) might feel left out,” he writes.
I feel nauseous at the idea of this symbiotic relationship between editorial and sports. Sports coverage of the teams I support is more emotional and not a reason to gamble. It is one of the reasons why I paid for a subscription to The Athletic. The slow demise of the local media has been felt by the sports fans more acutely because local teams are a personal emotional investment. They are part of a communal fabric and a topic of conversation.
Local media writers became the glue that helped bring together the crazy fans when things weren’t going well. I never read The New York Times for their coverage of the Yankees — instead, I opt for The New York Post and The Athletic. That emotional connection is a powerful bond — and that is what gives The Athletic superpowers. Sadly, it is not going to be in the obeisance of betting.
Bemoan, as I might, I can’t be blind to the fact that we live in a society where everything is a transaction. People bet on everything from Yeezee-Gap hoodies and random NFTs. Sports is just part of the mix. No surprise, some of the most prominent sports media personalities have no qualms about gambling and editorial independence. “Fans are brainwashed to believe gambling is dangerous,” Bill Simmons, formerly ESPN and The Ringer, once wrote. “Gambling is a part of sports; we may as well accept it.” Sadly, the price of this sports-gambling-is-normal acceptance is often paid by younger fans — especially those in college — and their families.
November 1, 2021, San Francisco