A US sports website has launched a “super-aggressive” hiring spree for Britain’s most famous football writers, with multiple sources claiming the website has already "gutted" the Times sports team.
It’s understood that the Athletic, which only last week announced an ambitious plan to launch in the UK, has already poached Times sports editor Alex Kay-Jelski and the Independent’s sports editor Ed Malyon.
When Kay-Jelski told Times management he’d be leaving the newspaper, two sources say, the editor was “frog-marched” from the newsroom with only a short email sent to the rest of the sports team.
Multiple sources claimed that three other senior Times journalists are in advanced talks to join Kay-Jelski at the new UK edition of the US-based outfit, including the newspaper’s chief football correspondent, Oliver Kay, and northern football correspondent George Caulkin.
Asked on Monday evening whether he’d be leaving the Times after 17 years, Kay declined to comment. The Times and Caulkin did not return requests for comment.
The Athletic's hiring spree, and its aggressive approaches regarding “star writers” at Britain's top newspapers, have become the hottest topic of conversation among the country's sports journalists. One well-known football writer told BuzzFeed News that journalists are "talking of little else".
"[The Athletic has] offered old journalism money, signing-on fees, comp schemes, equity," the writer told BuzzFeed News. "They have been super aggressive … they have gutted the Times.”
Last week, Digiday reported that the subscription-based sports website would launch in the UK in August with a team of up to 55 writers focusing on Premier League football.
Set up in 2016, the Athletic is a website and app that specialises in local sportswriting and reporting from what it describes as "all-star writers".
Its model is based on the idea of giving diehard sports fans from a particular city in-depth sports coverage about the teams from that area.
For example, a subscriber from Chicago, where the website was founded, would get specialised writing about the Chicago Bears (NFL), Bulls (NBA), Cubs (MLB), and White Sox (MLB).
It made headlines last year for similar recruitment of well-established sports journalists in the United States, which led the New York Times to say the website was aiming to become a "Netflix-like" solution to the decline of local sports coverage.
Another source said the website had been trying, but not yet been successful, in hiring Guardian sportswriter Barney Ronay and Independent chief sportswriter Jonathan Liew.
"However, (the Athletic) are not taking 'no' for an answer," the source said. Ronay confirmed he’d been approached by the website but was staying at the Guardian.
A spokesperson for the Athletic declined to discuss specific names but released a statement to BuzzFeed News about its hiring spree, saying that it would be giving details closer to the start of the new Premier League season.
"We are looking forward to launching the Athletic's written, audio, and video journalism in the UK,” the spokesperson said. “This is the home of the world's most popular football league, of a wealth of brilliant writers, and of fans with an insatiable appetite for coverage of their teams.
“The Athletic is building a lineup of the most talented and connected football journalists, and our ambitious plans include not only comprehensive coverage of every Premier League club but also highly localised football reporting beyond the top flight. More details will be released as the new season approaches."
Speaking to Digiday last week, the Athletic's chief of staff, Akhil Nambiar, said "a lot of writers have come from the world of clicks," but the website would focus on giving readers the "context" around sport.
“This is not an extension of the US; this is about how to empower our writers for a UK audience,” said Nambiar, with Digiday suggesting that the Athletic's current subscription fee of £40 per year would be about the same for UK readers when the website launched later this year.
Like many of the new digital news companies that have emerged in recent years, the Athletic has raised significant amounts of money from venture capital companies — in the same Digiday report it is claimed that the website has raised £79 million.
But some are not convinced that the Athletic’s model of “hyper-local journalism,” combined with its big-name hires, will work in the UK football journalism market.
“They’re appointing a slew of national writers, which would create a hierarchical problem,” one industry insider said. “For instance, if you take the chief football writer from every broadsheet, which one of them gets to cover the Champions League final?”
Oliver Kay has been at The Times for 17 years. A previous version of this post wrote Kay-Jelski in error.
Mark Di Stefano is a media and politics correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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