If you pay attention to sports in the United States, chances are you’ve seen a sports writer or two announce he or she is leaving a local newspaper or national outlet to join The Athletic. If you’re really paying attention, you have seen tons of reporters join the subscription-based site, which boasts 175 total editorial staff and is backed by more than $27 million in venture-capital funding. But, if you’re a DC sports fan, you’ve noticed that The Athletic doesn’t yet have a footprint.
While The Athletic has been bolstered by an avalanche of venture-capital funding, The Sports Capitol relies solely on subscription revenue — a subscription costs $5.99 per month — and sponsorships for their podcasts and email newsletter. With neither site offering advertisements, they don’t make money per click; instead, they make money when a reader decides to subscribe and pay a monthly fee.
The theory behind subscription-based sports sites is simple. The three co-founders of The Sports Capitol — Todd Dybas, Brian McNally and Ben Standig — sum it up well in their initial post for the site when it launched in February:
“These are trying, disappointing, and confusing times for the sports editorial industry,” they wrote. “What we do know is that the free model doesn’t work. It leads to bad editorial decisions in pursuit of clicks. It populates websites with layers of noise so irritating readers leave. Trying to make the numbers work in that way is untenable.”
Dybas, McNally and Standig each left publications reliant on “the free model” — Dybas left The Washington Times; McNally and Standig left freelance writing for a number of outlets — for the chance to test out a new model, which they claim reduces the clutter and clickbait often found in sports coverage. The Sports Capitol, which is focusing on text and audio journalism rather than video, prides itself on having the time and space to give the full story, not just a snappy headline and a quick aggregated write-up.
“Basically if I’m going to go down, I’m going to do it while writing things that I think are worthwhile, and try to deliver a quality product,” Dybas said. “If we’re able to do that and create just three solid jobs for people who are working like crazy and trying do good work, I felt like that was a good risk to take because I can live with any outcome when that’s the process.”
Around the country, the trio saw not just The Athletic — which was still nascent when they started planning to launch The Sports Capitol — but also local startups like Greg Bedard’s Boston Sports Journal and Dejan Kovacevic’s DK Pittsburgh Sports find success with the subscription model.
In DC they saw an opportunity due to coverage gaps in the market. They noticed a more national approach from The Washington Post’s sports team, cutbacks at The Washington Times, and financial relationships at many of the broadcast outlets like radio station WJFK-FM, which has partnerships with the Capitals, Nationals and Wizards. NBC Sports Washington has partnerships with the Capitals, Redskins and Wizards. Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports, which owns the Capitals and Wizards, also holds a hefty stake in NBC Sports Washington — and the station no longer covers the Nationals. And radio station WTEM-AM (The Team 980), until recently, was owned outright by Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting.
The Post’s Paul Farhi did a deep-dive on the ethical ramifications of the Redskins’ media partnerships in 2013 — and The DC Line has previously covered the blurred lines between local broadcast reporters covering and rooting for hometown teams.
“I think it’s problematic for very, very obvious reasons,” said Dybas. “Whoever pays you dictates what you do to some degree.”
It’s unclear why The Athletic has yet to arrive in DC, but the site’s management says it is headed to the nation’s capital.
“Washington, DC, is on our list, and we hope to launch there soon,” said Taylor Patterson, The Athletic’s communications director. “Every market is different, and we want to make sure we build the best team possible before we launch there.”
Their absence has been palpable, much to the consternation of DC sports fans and subscribers like Tom Bridge, the former editor-in-chief of the now-defunct We Love DC blog.
“I’m honestly not sure what the holdup is, and frankly it’s almost embarrassing,” Bridge told The DC Line. “DC is a city that has some incredible sports, football aside, and I think there’s a lot to be writing about, a lot of interesting athletes and fans and front-office folks, so I’m at a loss for why [The Athletic] haven’t opened a bureau yet.”
Meanwhile, Awful Announcing reported last month that The Post is considering launching a stand-alone sports subscription product of its own.
For now, The Sports Capitol is the only site of its kind in the DC area. And while its co-founders would not disclose subscription numbers or other metrics, they say a dynamic 2018 in DC sports has been a gift to their burgeoning site.
“It’s funny, it’s not like we said to ourselves five years ago, ‘You know 2018 — that’s the year to start this kind of site,’ “ Standig said. “Since we started the site, you had the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup — obviously the first time a local team has won [a championship] since the ‘90s. You also had the Wizards in the playoffs. You had the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. You had D.C. United opening up a new stadium in the city. These are things that don’t happen every year, and they’ve all happened [in 2018].”
The Sports Capitol has been expanding its reach, with co-founders appearing every Monday on WJLA 24/7 News (formerly known as NewsChannel 8), discussing sports with Erin Hawksworth. They also appear weekly on ESPN Radio’s Richmond affiliate WXGI and have a content-sharing arrangement with DC radio station WTOP.
While they have no plans to add more employees, they did recently add an intern. Moreover, the co-founders say, they will continue expanding their platforms: articles, newsletters, podcasts and other audio products, such as flash briefings and skills for Alexa.