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Why The Athletic is Joining The New York Times

Everything that led up to Thursday’s report that The New York Times would acquire The Athletic for over half a billion dollars

The long-rumored sports media acquisition appears to have finally happened. At long last, The New York Times has agreed to buy The Athletic for a whopping $550 million in a deal first reported by The Information on Thursday.

The news comes at a pivotal time for The Athletic, as it has become a force in both national and local sports news around the world with its combination of league-wide and team-specific reporting. The subscriber-only platform had been understood to have been exploring a sale for a while now as the worlds of sports and media retool themselves in light of COVID-19, and a lot had to transpire to get us to this point.

Let’s take stock of the key events that led to the major acquisition.

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Ramping Up

The Athletic has enjoyed a meteoric rise in sports media since it launched in 2016. The idea behind the company was simple: to provide fans with top-tier sports journalism on an ad-free network. What The Athletic missed out on in ads would be made up for in subscriptions.

The Athletic: A Company Timeline

Jan. 2016: Founded by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, The Athletic begins in Chicago, covering sports in the Windy City

Oct. 2016: The site expands to a second city, Toronto

Aug. 2017: The Athletic brings on Seth Davis (college basketball), Stewart Mandel (college football), and Ken Rosenthal (MLB) to spearhead its launch of national coverage

2018: Local coverage expands to 47 local markets, including the home cities of every NHL, NFL, and NBA team

May 2018: The Athletic tackles the most popular sport in the world by adding domestic and international soccer coverage

Aug. 2019: The Athletic expands into the UK

Sept. 2020: The Athletic announces surpassing one million total subscribers

May 2021: At the time rumors of a New York Times acquisition arise, The Athletic boasts 1.2 million subscribers

Jan. 2022: The Athletic currently has 600 total employees, including an editorial staff of 400, making it the second-largest employer of sports reporters in the United States, according to The New York Times.

The Athletic’s Fundraising History

(Figures via Joseph Pompliano/HuddleUp)

  • Seed Funding: $2.3 million
  • Series A: $5.4 million
  • Series B: $20 million
  • Series C: $40 million
  • C1: $22 million
  • Series D: $50 million

How We Got Here

Not long after launching, Mather told The New York Times that The Athletic’s goal was to let print publications “continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.”

What a difference a few years makes.

The first indications that something was in the works came in March 2021. The Athletic was coming off a year in which, despite the pandemic, it accrued $47 million in revenue, though it burned through $41 million, as noted by The Information. At that point, the Wall Street Journal reported that it was in talks to merge with Axios.

Just two months later, WSJ said those talks had concluded, but that The Athletic had a new suitor: The New York Times.

JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

At that point, no dollar value was formally reported for a potential acquisition, but The Athletic was valued at approximately $500 million coming off a $50 million Series D funding round.

After initial acquisition conversations fell by the wayside, The Athletic hired Aryeh Bourkoff’s LionTree last September to explore selling either a minority or majority stake as subscription growth slowed. At the time, the company was hoping for a $750 million valuation.

Though the reported number doesn’t quite hit three quarters of a billion dollars, today nonetheless marks the culmination of that revamped strategy.

Official 2021 numbers aren’t out yet, but The Athletic anticipates $77 million in revenue from 2021 compared to $35 million in spending. It also projects $120 million in revenue in 2022; all told, the company has raised a total of $145 million in venture funding since 2016.

From The New York Times’ perspective, this all makes good sense as paper subscriptions have plummeted over the years and the outlet aims to hit 10 million online subscribers by 2025.

Since the deal is not yet official, The Times and The Athletic have both yet to comment publicly.

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