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The Athletic Takes On Soccer

Just in time for the World Cup, the startup media company launched in 2016 is taking its talents to soccer.




Photo via The Athletic

George Quraishi didn’t intend to leave Howler, a quarterly soccer magazine he had founded in 2011, when he got a call from Alex Mather, CEO and co-founder of The Athletic a few months ago.

At first, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. While The Athletic had been making waves in the sports media landscape as a subscription-based outlet, acquiring top journalists and producing in-depth content it didn’t cover soccer – at least not consistently.

That was about to change.

Last week, The Athletic launched a soccer vertical, bringing on a roster of renowned journalists, including Quraishi as the managing editor, to cover the world’s most popular sport.

“That the most exciting thing in sports journalism would dive into the world’s favorite sport was about as expected as a Cristiano ab-flex, and it didn’t require crunches or healthy eating,” wrote Quraishi in his inaugural post announcing The Athletic’s soccer expansion.

The more Quraishi and Mather discussed the opportunity, the more exciting it seemed. Soon, the path forward became clear.

“The mission he described was so interesting and so refreshing,” explained Quraishi. “We’re all aware of the troubles that are affecting [the journalism] industry and having come into soccer with a print quarterly that really made due on subscriber payments, I understood the power of being responsible only to the people who are paying us and the kind of connection that can foster, which I really love.”

The decision to leave Howler, which he had built from the ground up, was something he took seriously.

“I was really reluctant to saying anything at all until we had [Howler’s new ownership] in place because I’m so grateful to the Howler readers who helped us from day one,” he explained.

While working to ensure Howler was in good hands, Quraishi was simultaneously starting to build out a world-class team to launch The Athletic’s soccer vertical. Having worked in journalism and publishing his entire career, focusing specifically on soccer for the last five and a half years, he admitted to having some opinions on who he wanted on his team.

“I wanted people who really make me excited to read a story,” explained Quraishi. “I was really trying to find writers who had a really great grasp on the specific angle into soccer that they specialize in whether it’s Mexican soccer, or European soccer, or the men’s and women’s national teams, I wanted all those things to be represented but I wanted to make sure that their writing was full of wit and energy and was fun to read and I think we’ve done a pretty good job of doing that.”

To start, The Athletic is focusing on covering MLS, Champions League, Premier League, La Liga, USMNT, USWNT, El Tri, and Liga MX. As the soccer vertical grows, however, coverage will expand beyond those categories. Given The Athletic’s subscription model, writers want to make sure the audience is receiving the type of content they want and so reader feedback is extremely important, especially in the early days.

This is something Quraishi is paying particular attention to as well. On launch day, he posted a feedback request asking readers to share what they would like to see on the platform.

In the first 24 hours alone, the post saw 989 responses, including requests for Bundesliga, Canadian Premier League, and Serie A coverage, demonstrating the breadth of soccer fandom in the country.

Soccer fans took to Twitter to follow The Athletic’s new soccer page, @TheAthleticSCCR, which reached 5,000 followers in its first full day, and many within the sports industry saw their timelines flooded with people announcing their decisions to subscribe to the outlet.

The strong, positive response wasn’t surprising.

“It’s a passionate fan base and I think we knew that going in,” said Taylor Patterson the director of communications at The Athletic. “We knew that we would be touching folks that are hungry for substantive and in-depth coverage and who probably feel like they are not getting enough coverage of their teams, especially in the U.S. where [soccer] tends to be covered less than in mainstream publications.”

Soccer fans, who have often had trouble identifying a centralized place to consume content, now have a home and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We launched the day after the Europa League final, two days before the FA Cup final, a week before the Champions League final and about a month before the World Cup starts. And of course MLS is going throughout,” explained Quraishi.

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Looking ahead to Russia, The Athletic understands that the World Cup is one of the most well-covered events in sports so rather than overextending itself in the early days, the platform is taking a more measured approach to content creation.

“What we’re focusing on [for the World Cup] is really providing the sharpest analysis that we can. We’ve got some really fantastic tactical and analytical writers and, in addition to that, just people whose writing I would really want to read,” explained Quraishi.

Compelling storytelling is what will fuel The Athletic Soccer. Take, for example, Quraishi’s post announcing the soccer vertical. Quraishi took a simple welcome post and made it so much more than that, wrapping it up in a Cristiano Ronaldo metaphor. It was exciting, intriguing, and delicious to the last drop.

With that type of storytelling in mind, what if, Quraishi wonders, you give reporters the World Cup and have them cover it like their favorite TV show?

“Whether it’s The Bachelor, or Game of Thrones, or Westworld, there’s something really fantastic about the community that a shared experience of watching something like that on the TV can provide and that’s how most Americans will be experiencing the World Cup anyway.”

“I’m toying with this,” he continued, discussing The Athletic’s World Cup strategy, which will see a handful of freelance contributors on the ground and several more reporters writing from the States. “It’s the first time we’ve really talked about this-this way but I think there’s something there, we’re going to find out.”

The World Cup is just the beginning and while The Athletic has a new soccer team, you can be assured it won’t get eliminated in the knockout stages. Led by Quraishi and powered by veteran journalists, The Athletic is creating something special and soccer fans, the most passionate in the world, are ready for it.

Lucy is a contributing writer for Front Office Sports. A storyteller and brand strategist, she has worked in the sports industry for organizations including the United States Olympic Committee, IMG/WME and the Miami Open, the University of Miami Athletic Department, Florida Panthers, and Minnesota Twins. She spent 2016 living in Colombia where she accomplished a life-long goal of becoming fluent in Spanish while working for the Ministerio de Educación Nacional. Lucy is a graduate of the University of Miami. She can be reached at

Digital Media

NASCAR’s Rebranded Content Production Team Working Wonders

Seven months ago, NASCAR’s executives merged the creative, design, editorial, social media and NASCAR Productions crew into one team, with one goal in mind.

Kraig Doremus




Restructuring NASCAR’s content production has made huge dividends for the sport thus far thanks to influencers like GoldYeller and The Flippist. Image courtesy of NASCAR.

Seven months ago, NASCAR’s executives merged the creative, design, editorial, social media and NASCAR Productions crew into one team with one goal. The goal? Figure out ways to best share resources and content with fans.

“We brought together 65 people,” said Evan Parker, vice president for content strategy. “We have a strong team of creators, all with different talents like graphics, scripts, longform writing and social media videos. There’s less debating on what to create and more creating happening.”

The move has already begun to pay dividends with the February debut of Unrivaled: Earnhardt vs. Gordon on FS1. The documentary, which covered the rivalry between Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon, was released on February 14, the Thursday before the Daytona 500. It made for a natural timing opportunity, given the two drivers’ many battles at the track.

READ MORE: A Look at the New Foundation of Richmond Raceway’s Ticket Sales

But it also made for a huge early test for the redesigned team, which they passed with flying colors. According to Parker, the documentary drew the highest rating for a feature in FS1’s history. Collaboration was a major reason why. NASCAR’s design team handled all graphics and clips, while out-of-network personalities ranging from Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to ESPN’s Ryan McGee and Marty Smith. Then there was in-house, Emmy-award-winning NASCAR Productions team, who provide the flexibility to shoot top-quality work at the drop of a hat

“We can simply fire up a camera and go,” said Parker. “We have camera operators, editors and writers ready to work. The hardest part of determining what to create is finding a balance between what we have to do and taking a creative risk.”

Now, with the team newly unified, the NASCAR crew has shifted their focus to engaging current fans while seeking out new ones.

“We want to reach fans who have attitudes and interest on the upswing about NASCAR,” said Pete Jung, vice president of brand marketing for NASCAR. “With new fans, especially young adults and Hispanics on the rise, we understand that they are an important part of our future. We want to be younger and more diverse.”

One way to reach those new fans is through a social media strategy that leans on connection far more than volume.

“Our social media focus is on engagement,” Parker said. “We’re not as worried about impressions this year but rather getting our fans to engage with the content. We’re creating content that is shareable and that fans want to have a dialogue about.”

The dialogue is important for the NASCAR social team and has been enhanced through influencers like GoldYeller and the Flippist. GoldYeller created five stop-motion Lego videos leading up to the Daytona 500, including one about Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s iconic 1998 victory, which came in his 20th attempt and was his lone triumph in the Great American Race.

The Flippist, meanwhile, created a custom, animated flipbook that also featured Earnhardt’s 1998 win, along with Austin Dillion’s 2018 triumph.

READ MORE: How Two Top Brands Market Products Via Partnership With NASCAR

“Not only are we seeing great social media engagement, but we’ve seen lots of growth in our priority markets,” said Jung. “We want to extend our reach to our target audience.”

As for the future, while coy on the details, Parker couldn’t hold back his excitement.

“We’ve got a binder full of documentaries and other unique projects,” he said. “We’ve got a goal to engage and find new fans and just a few weeks into the season, it has paid dividends as we’re creating content that gets people talking. Having a unified team has truly paid dividends.”

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Digital Media

Here to Stay: Generation Z’s Impact On Sports Content Strategy

Shorter attention spans, wider viewing ranges and a penchant for influencers. Here’s how the next generation consumes sports.





Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Generation Z is already impacting modern culture and that’s unlikely to change.

The generation, born after 1997, will make up 40 percent of consumers by 2020 and already has a direct spending impact of $143 billion dollars. A recent panel at South by Southwest discussed strategies to capture their attention, as well as how Gen Z will radically shift the way content is distributed. 

“They’re going to be huge,” said Kathleen Grace, CEO of the production studio New Form. “They’re coming for us, and it’s pretty cool. They consume differently than any other generation.”

READ MORE: Bleacher Report Is Focused on the Second Generation of Social Media

The under-22 demographic consumes more than 3.5 hours of video daily, a majority of which is on mobile devices, according to Dude Perfect Chief Business Officer Jeff Toney. Much of the video is consumed in short snippets and by brand influencers connecting with the audience, a strategy that cultivates a special trust as well as offering plenty of engagement for those content creators nimble enough to stay ahead of the curve.

“You can’t become predictable,” Toney said. “One unfortunate thing is the generation is a little ADD, ‘Entertain me now if, I don’t like it, I have 1,000 other options to be distracted with.’ … The challenge is between continuing something that is popular and doubling down on what works, but, in parallel, introducing fresh, new concepts to continue to engage the audience.”

The impact on sports is yet to be fully felt, but it’s coming, said John West, founder of Whistle, a sports and entertainment media brand.

“The young generation is redefining sports; less watching on TV, less attending live traditional sports,” West said. “They’re still followers, but on social and they’re able to follow niche, non-traditional sports.”

That surge in non-traditional sports activity is driven by direct involvement  The proliferation of digital media allows participatory sports to reach more people looking to try and improve instead of passively watching elite athletes. Activities such as CrossFit and rock climbing benefit from improved exposure, which in turn can help spur participation numbers. But West, who has three children in Generation Z, said he often sees them outside recreating videos they see on platforms like Dude Perfect, from there they film it, edit it and add music before sharing and challenging their peers.

“To us, sports has been defined by leagues,” Toney said. “Traditionally, it’s only a select few who can compete on the professional level. But people who don’t have those inherent genes are competitive and like to compete with friends.”

Advertising consumption habits are beginning to change with those content shifts.

A Nielsen study found the demographic has an 86 percent recall rate of products, suggesting massive potential for stickiness. But according to West, Generation Z is also more likely to find content when it’s shared by a friend and allows them to engage directly. It’s incumbent platforms to provide the influencers and creators to establish genuine and authentic relationships with their key audience, which Generation Z users feel they can trust more.

“This generation views social influences and creators as their new celebrities,” West said. “There’s a relationship that can be developed that is tough to develop with LeBron James and Tom Brady.”

To that end, Toney said it’s important for creators to give users a view behind the curtain to get to know them better. For sports teams, in particular, that means showcasing its athletes away from competition. By and large, Generation Z cares far more about the name on the back of the jersey than the front. “When I was growing up, I’d follow the Detroit Tigers, doesn’t matter who’s on the team,” Toney said. “Nowadays, you’re not following a sport, you’re following a player because they fall in love with the personalities.”

READ MORE: How 3 Prospects Grew Their Personal Brands off the Field Before the NFL Combine

West said that despite how much older generations want to believe the social influence won’t stick, he doesn’t expect this media model to go anywhere.

“It’s amazing to me in traditional media and sports, they’re still skeptical the influencer is a fad,” he said. “We don’t see any data that when a 24-year-old turns 25, they un-wire. The habits they’re forming now are generational shifts that grow up with them.

“Embracing the power of social entertainers and the brands they’ve built organically is step one.”

It’s up to sports media to adapt accordingly.

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Digital Media

Big Ten Network Elevating Digital Game During Conference Tournament

The Big Ten Network will leverage its contributor network to increase social content during this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.





Photo Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament starts Wednesday in Chicago and digital will be the name of the game. It’s the second year BTN has exclusive rights to the first 10 games of the tournament, and Jordan Maleh, BTN senior director of digital marketing and communications, wants to make sure the network is optimizing its reach, not only for those with access to the Big Ten Network but non-viewers, too.

“Live events are our core business and we’re thinking year-over-year, how do we adapt to digital?” Maleh said. “In terms of elevating and impact, the plate has become a little more full. So from our end, it’s knowing how we complement the events and games and understand how to maximize our rights.”

BTN has long featured school-specific social handles to push school-specific content and while those follower counts are lower than the mother ship BTN accounts, the engagement is increased because of how rapid school fan bases can be, Maleh said.

That’s especially true when the social content leverages the tournament broadcast rights.

READ MORE: Pac-12 Network Grows Viewership Thanks to Cross-Platform Integration

BTN uses third-party editing company WSC to cut and post highlights across social media. Those highlights are sponsored by State Farm, while Gatorade-sponsored vignettes of iconic Big Ten Tournament moments will be pushed across the channels. All the while, on-air talent from BTN will be synced with the Opendorse platform and push video from their personal handles.

But the most ambitious part of the digital strategy revolves around BTN’s multiplatform video/producer, or MVPE program, which will feature seven videographers creating custom content for each of the 14 school-specific accounts.

“From our end, a unique angle different from other networks is the content we break down to school-specific,” he said. “That’s where you get every highlight and every piece of content for that school. That’s where you see Tom Izzo and Cassius Winston walking into United Center or celebrate if they cut down the net.”

MVPE began last year with three pilot schools — Michigan State University, Penn State University and University of Minnesota — to best maximize the network’s rights and provide more comprehensive digital content. The MVPE program was partly modeled after the NFL’s Live Content Correspondents program but adjusted for BTN’s school campus model. The network embeds the freelancer with the athletic department and provides equipment, ranging from laptops and cameras to GoPros to capture exclusive content.

“From our end, we never had a presence onsite,” Maleh said. “We want to make mobile-first content as fast and the most efficient we can. This is day of, hour of and minutes after.”

It’s worked, in a big way: This year, the program expanded to include seven total schools to prove its sustainability and profitability, with the intent to eventually cover all 14 schools. According to Maleh, MVPE coverage included approximately 55 percent football and men’s basketball and 45 percent Olympic sports.

“That’s a huge value add for the schools,” he said. “A lot of departments might not have the bandwidth to cover, so that’s where we come into play.”

The Big Ten Tournament will be a departure for the program as the seven correspondents are all in Chicago producing for each Big Ten school which will expand the depth of digital coverage of the tournament, Maleh said.

The Big Ten Tournament MVPE content will be presented by Yahoo! Sports, and Maleh is excited about the program’s future. The first year, it generated 4 million video views. This year, that number soared to 26 million. The 2,987 social posts across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter generated more than 97 million impressions. Between impressions and views, sponsorship buy-in can ultimately help the model remain sustainable, Maleh said.

“We want to be a scalable content consumption model,” he said. “There is growth, extreme growth, and with our future goal of all 14 schools, that’s scalable and that’s an interest for us.”

READ MORE: How the NFL LCC Program Brings Fans ‘As Close As They Can Get’

Maleh hopes the program is something other conference networks might model initiatives on, continuing the network’s innovation pattern. It would only be natural, given the Big Ten Network’s legacy as a pioneering brand on television.

“We take pride in being the first collegiate conference network,” he said.  “As a benchmark, we do compare against the landscape of other conference networks, but from an innovation standpoint, we like to be the first network to do X.

“We like to be first in the space. We have been and hope to continue to be.”

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