The New York Times Company has reached an agreement to buy The Athletic, the online sports news outlet with 1.2 million subscriptions, in a deal valued at around $550 million, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. The acquisition could help The Times reach 10 million subscriptions ahead of its 2025 goal.
Started in Chicago in 2016 by two media entrepreneurs, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, The Athletic was made for die-hard fans who were not finding the in-depth coverage they craved at a time when newspapers were in decline, Sports Illustrated was sold and ESPN began laying off journalists.
The Athletic hired prominent sports journalists from across the country, bringing coverage of games and the latest sports controversies to readers who had grown accustomed to getting their news online. It had a reporter covering nearly every major professional sports team in North America, as well as several top European soccer clubs, while also serving up magazine-length feature stories and podcasts.
The site now has about 600 employees — roughly 400 of them editorial staff members, making it the second-largest employer of sports reporters in the country, behind the Disney-owned ESPN. Like a number of digital media companies that have found success in recent years, The Athletic relies on subscribers, rather than advertisers, as its main source of revenue. A significant injection of cash came in January 2020, when The Athletic raised $50 million from a number of investors.
Recently, as its rapid subscription growth began to slow, The Athletic has explored various options, including selling a minority or majority stake in the company, with private equity firms and corporations as potential buyers. The Times and The Athletic held discussions last summer, but the two parties could not come to terms, according to one of the people with knowledge of the talks.
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Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for The Times, declined to comment. A spokeswoman for The Athletic did not respond to a request for comment. The Information first reported news of the pending deal. The people with knowledge of the matter spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.
The deal would bring hundreds of additional sports reporters to The Times’s current staff of about 40 sports journalists. Their added expertise could do more to attract readers who may not have been inclined to become subscribers.
It was unclear whether The Athletic would be integrated into The Times’s sports coverage or exist as a stand-alone publication under Times ownership. The Times currently has about 2,000 journalists worldwide.
For The Times, the addition of The Athletic would also mean an infusion of paying readers. Meredith Kopit Levien, the company’s chief executive, has consistently emphasized the importance of adding digital subscribers since taking charge of the paper’s business in 2020. At the end of the third quarter of 2021, the paper had reached 8.4 million total subscriptions.
The paper’s growth has included major acquisitions. In 2016, the Times Company bought the product recommendation site The Wirecutter and its sibling site, The Sweethome, for more than $30 million. In 2020, The Times bought Serial Productions, the company behind the “Serial” podcast, for more than $25 million.
Mr. Mather, The Athletic’s chief executive, and Mr. Hansmann, its president, met while working for the exercise app Strava. When they started their site, they said much of the nation’s sports coverage was “empty calories” produced by slowly dying newspapers, adding that a media company focused on journalism for sports fans would be better for readers.
Early on, Mr. Mather boasted in an interview with The Times that The Athletic’s goal was to let local newspapers “continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.”
Katie Robertson contributed reporting.