Shortly after turbulent changes rocked the sports journalism world this summer, MLB writer/broadcaster Ken Rosenthal announced yesterday that he would be writing exclusively for a smaller startup sports blog, The Athletic.
Rosenthal’s announcement came about a month after his home publication, FoxSports.com, dumped its entire writing staff—the website is now completely devoid of written content, and features exclusively hot-take videos featuring Fox Sports broadcasters.
This change meant that Rosenthal, one of the most prominent baseball writers of today, had to resort to posting articles on his own Facebook page. The situation was extremely discouraging; if even Ken Rosenthal couldn’t find a place to publish his writing, how could anyone else (especially an aspiring sportswriter) expect a future in the business?
To make matters worse, Fox Sports was not the only sports media outlet to carry out drastic layoffs–ESPN laid off a number of its employees in May, including NFL reporter/commentator John Clayton; Time Inc., which houses Sports Illustrated, laid off about 300 positions in mid-June.
This summer, the future of sports writing looked bleak.
Written sports content is no longer a leading source for straight sports news; Twitter, mobile notifications and other social media cover that. Now, the draw to read a piece of sports writing is for reading in-depth analysis and respected opinions, often that accompany other forms of digital content such as videos or podcasts.
In addition, digital news outlets must be mobile-friendly and easy to navigate. Publications oozing analysis and entertaining hot takes such as The Ringer and sites filled with bite-sized content such as Bleacher Report seem to be the writing-based publications to look up to.
That is, until Ken Rosenthal joined The Athletic.
The Athletic lacks sponsored content or ads; it is a sleek, clean reading experience focused on delivering aesthetically pleasing images and quality content. The site, which began with a number of regionally-based sections for all sports and that now includes national coverage, is subscription only. The Athletic is wagering that traditional, high-quality content based in good, rich reporting presented in an aesthetically pleasing way is a service that sports fans will pay for.
Maybe The Athletic is right. Maybe subscription-based publications really are the future of digital sports writing. Maybe everyone is so sick of ads and popups that they would pay to have a cleaner reading experience. Maybe writers like Ken Rosenthal are so valuable that masses will pay to read his thoughts, a concept that the bigger sports media companies never believed possible.
Whether The Athletic remains a unique publication or becomes a benchmark for many sports websites, one thing is clear: Ken Rosenthal joining a smaller startup publication with a writing focus is a bright spot in the unstable future of sportswriters.
By joining The Athletic, one of the biggest names in sports journalism asserted two very important principles: first, that written content still matters, and second, that smaller sports media outlets can and will rival the previous traditional giants.
In his new home publication, Rosenthal is restoring faith in the business of sports writing. Yesterday was a good day to be a sportswriter.