Special thanks to BJBSJ contributor, forensic accountant, math whiz, hot yoga instructor, and knife sharpener @bucknerslegs for putting the receipts together
Today he examines the impact that The Athletic has had on both Bostonsportsjournal.com and DK Pittsburgh and his findings are not pretty. At All.
Pittsburgh was beating Boston. You won’t (but probably will) believe what happened next…
We’ve done a thorough investigation of BostonSportsJournal’s subscriber and lifetime subscription rate. But how did we get here?
(Author’s note: summary and bonus lyrics at the end)
BSJ: Born in Pittsburgh
In July 2014, Dejan Kovacevic (DK), an accomplished Pittsburgh sports reporter, founded the pay subscription site dkpittsburghsports.com (PGH). Three years later, when Greg Bedard was looking to start his own site, he reached out to Dejan for advice. Ultimately, Greg liked Dejan’s website and business model, so he licensed the website design software from Dejan to use as the basis for Boston Sports Journal. Since these two websites are constructed with similar website design, and similar business models, it is fair to compare how well the two sites have done since their beginning.
First, let’s look at the pricing models:
The BSJ pricing should be compared with the PGH Old prices. BSJ went with a slightly higher price structure than DK. Given that DK raised his prices to match or exceed BSJ a year later, it is likely that DK advised BSJ on starting price points.
|Plan||Number of months||BSJ||PGH 2018||PGH Old||PGH Original|
|Wicked Diehard Level||240||299.99||250||250||250|
As dkpittsburghsports.com grew, DK had to build his website while more subscribers joined. By licensing the website structure, BSJ did not have to deal with the same growing pains. In the graph below, the total number of subscribers is shown for both BSJ and PGH since the day the sites started. Note that BSJ had quicker initial growth, mostly because it was able to leverage the maturity of the PGH web platform. Up to about 6000 subscriptions, the BSJ is outperforming PGH. However, at this point, the PGH site continues to increase its number of subscriptions, but the BSJ subscription rate flatlined. Notice also that PGH never quite reached 40,000 subscribers, but has been declining steadily since about 1200 days.
The lifetime subscription data for PGH was much harder to track down, so this graph has lots of missing data. One thing to note is that PGH grows the lifetime subscribers quickly, while the BSJ growth has also slowed. Does BSJ have the ability to grow lifetime subscribers? Hard to tell, but it seems unlikely. Also, PGH has declared that they will stop offering lifetime subscriptions once they reach 500. Most likely they have realized that lifetime subscriptions do not generate continuous revenue, but instead provide an upfront cash infusion. As I explained in a previous investigation, lifetime subscriptions lose revenue after about 12 years.
Converting Twitter Followers into Subscribers
I was curious how well the number of Twitter followers corresponded to the number of subscribers. In this table, we can see that PGH has significantly better ratios of Twitter followers to subscribers than BSJ does. DK has a ratio of more than 60%, while Bedard is only at 11%. The PGH official twitter has more subscribers than followers, which is twice the percentage of BSJ. Why do so few followers of Bedard and BSJ have subscriptions? I have no idea. At all.
|Twitter Handle||Number of Followers||Percent of Subs/Followers|
|BSJ – 9726 Sub||@GregABedard||86927||11.19%|
|PGH – 37309 Sub||@Dejan_Kovacevic||119720||31.16%|
Wait, What Happened?
So, what’s going on? Let’s try and figure out what happened to both BSJ’s lack of growth and PGH late decline. First, The Athletic has been a national site with a similar paywall model. Greg Bedard has expressed that he is not concerned with The Athletic, as he feels it’s not a hyperlocal experience (even though they hire local writers for each city they are in) and that he has not seen an impact of The Athletic on his website. Similarly, DK has not expressed concern about The Athletic, but, as I will show below, both sites should be very concerned about this alternative national site.
PGH had incredible growth over it’s first three years, reaching nearly 40,000 subscribers. That is amazing, and a testament to the hard work of the PGH site to write, promote and expand. At its peak, they offered both professional and collegiate sports coverage with a staff of about 20. However, in July 2017, two things happened that started a long slow slide for PGH. First, July 2017 was the renewal date for any three-year subscriptions that were signed up at the beginning of the site. This was the first opportunity to determine if those three-year subscribers were going to stay with the PGH site or cancel their subscriptions. I don’t have clear data for July, but on September 30, 2017, PGH reached 39,582 subscriptions, the best documented peak I could find. From this date forwards, I don’t have a single data point showing an increase in subscribers (side note: it’s interesting to see negative subscriber growth, since that is a question often asked about BSJ). Why is that? In September 2017, in the midst of the initial wave of three-year renewals, The Athletic opened up a Pittsburgh branch. It seems very likely that many of the three-year renewals switched over to The Athletic to get both quality Pittsburgh level coverage as well as access to national writers as well. Finally, in December 2017, there were published articles that DK was a bad boss who treated his employees poorly. There were many comments online that people were dropping their subscriptions because of that behavior, however, the rate of decline in PGH membership did not seem to accelerate after that controversy.
TL; DR The arrival of the three-year subscription renewals, The Athletic and a bad boss controversy have caused PGH to loss subscribers continuously since The Athletic arrived in Pittsburgh.
What About BSJ?
BSJ’s situation is slightly subtler. BSJ reached 5000 subscriptions faster than PGH and was definitely poised to make a run towards 20,000 subscribers as PGH had done. However, notice in the first graph above that PGH has about 20,000 while the BSJ only has slightly less than 10,000. Why did BSJ not see the growth that PGH did? It turns out that The Athletic arrived in Boston on April 11, 2018 when BSJ had 8000 subscribers, 262 days since it started. Although its growth had started to slow behind the PGH rate, the arrival of The Athletic dramatically affected the growth of BSJ and will most likely be its demise.
In the graph below, the average number of subscribers per day is plotted against the number of days since The Athletic arrived in each town. A negative number of days is before The Athletic, and positive days is after. Notice that before The Athletic, PGH was averaging between 20 and 50 subscribers per day. However, immediately when The Athletic arrived in Pittsburgh, the subscriber growth for PGH because negative, and has been negative every time since then.
To examine BSJ, we need to zoom in on this graph and switch the scale to a logarithmic scale (Narrator: don’t worry, you’ll see why). In this graph, you can see that before The Athletic arrived in Boston, BSJ averaged more than 8 subscribers per day (green line). A few times just before The Athletic arrived, the BSJ had subscriber rates lower than 8. I attribute that to rumors that The Athletic was coming and the fact that this is a dead sports time between the Super Bowl and MLB opening day. However, since The Athletic arrived, BSJ has only averaged more than 8 subscribers per day a few times, which are the Black Friday sale, start of Patriots training camp and start of the Patriots season. Therefore, because BSJ did not have the renewal issues of PGH nor a bad boss controversy (Narrator: at least not publicly), the drop-in subscribers must be attributable to the arrival of the Athletic.
These last two graphs show the distributions of the rate of subscribers for both BSJ and PGH before and after The Athletic arrived. In both cases, the distributions shifted dramatically to the left, which means that the subscriber rate is lower after The Athletic came to town.
The Pittsburgh equivalent to BSJ has been very successful until the arrival of The Athletic. BSJ was not able to reach the same level of success before The Athletic came to town. Given the decrease in subscribers at PGH since The Athletic arrived, it is quite likely that BSJ will see similar decline at the latest when the three-year subscriptions are up for renewal in July 2020, if not earlier. If BSJ cannot generate cash flow between now and then, it will likely fail sooner.
The Wreck of the BostonSportsJournal
When layoff time came, King came straight to Greg,
Sayin’, maybe they’ll pay to read ya
Just eight months on, The Athletic came ‘long, and Pete said
Greg, it’s been good t’know ya
But Bedard tweeted out that he still had no doubt
That his good site and staff weren’t in peril
But within a year, it was abundantly clear
Came the wreck of the BostonSportsJournal