News coverage of the New York Times’s acquisition of The Athletic focused on the newspaper company’s quest for 10 million-plus subscriptions — as did commentary from the Times’ CEO.
“We are now in pursuit of a goal meaningfully larger than 10 million subscriptions and believe The Athletic will enable us to expand our addressable market of potential subscribers,” CEO Meredith Kopit Levien said last week, and indicated that there was only modest overlap among the subscribers to the two brands.
But one analyst is suggesting that the focus on subscriptions misses some less visible aspects of the deal. I think some of the points he makes are compelling and worth describing. The analyst, Michael Felice, an associate partner at the Chicago-based management-consulting firm Kearney, laid out several other benefits.
Given the stranglehold three platform companies, Google, Meta and Amazon have on advertising — controlling about 64% of all digital advertising — the move is critical to the Times’ success going forward, Felice said, especially to flatten out earnings performances that yield massive spikes, such as the Trump Bump in non-election years.
“In addition, the deal broadens the scope of first-party data The New York Times can seek to monetize in the future, by greatly expanding its sociodemographic reach,” Felice said. This data can also be used to drive new affiliate marketing and media retail partnerships, he added.
Then too — and this has been mentioned in other reports about the deal — sports is a particularly good market to enter because fans are an extremely sticky audience. Hardcore fandom transcends geography and even a team’s success. Fans bond for life. They will read a half dozen stories about their team right after the game they just watched.
“The intense commitment and loyalty of sports fans is stronger than almost any brand goodwill,” Felice said. “And sports have always had strong advertising and performance-marketing potential. Additionally, social media has given a new voice to athletes to drive social causes that can help increase data targeting for a media company.”
In addition, Felice said, the deal fits with the Times’ push into more lifestyle areas of media. (The company already has subscription-based products in games, shopping and cooking.) National news, Felice suggested, is becoming commoditized, while the local news market is already heavily consolidated. Therefore, niche subscriptions initiatives make sense.
The Athletic deal is also about scale, Felice said.
“While most people are saying this is about subscribers — and that’s the obvious answer — digital media is about scale,” he said. “I would argue it’s about survival, and unlocking an audience that wasn’t available to the Times before. For example, collegiate name and likeness [where college athletes are free to market themselves] opens a new avenue for The Times company to compete on a local level. This has historically not been an area of opportunity for them, as The Times is largely national/global,” Felice said. Now, the Times can use its advertising tech stack to fuel new revenue streams for The Athletic, or drive retail media partnerships through affiliate and performance marketing.
I differ with Felice on the point about scale. Scale works for the platforms and few others, and any number of examples prove that: Yahoo and then Verizon, Time Warner, Meredith, among others.