Looking back, Dejan Kovacevic doesn’t blame the people who thought he was crazy.

The founder of DK Pittsburgh Sports, and a husband and father of two, was pulling down six figures a year in a coveted newspaper columnist job with desirable travel and a front-row seat to every Pittsburgh sporting event.

“No, I was crazy,” Kovacevic told me. “What I did here at the time was about as dumb as you can get.”

Nearly five years ago, Kovacevic walked away from it all to start his own subscription-based Pittsburgh sports website. That daring move helped spawn a disruptive revolution in sports media coverage that took another bite out of the traditional newspaper revenue pie — and caused a lot of other people to ask themselves why they didn’t think of this strategy first.

It started with Kovacevic doing his own thing, but DK Pittsburgh Sports quickly grew to include a roster of other sports journalists and columnists. The site generates some free content online and via social media, but people must subscribe to access the inside information.

The initial experiment has turned into a template for others to emulate.

Boston Sports Journal looks an awful lot like DK Pittsburgh Sports because the founder literally bought a license for DK’s web platform and app, and then just changed the colors (to blue and red, of course).

Meanwhile, a growing network of 47 local sports sites across the U.S. and Canada called The Athletic is attempting a similar subscription strategy. The recruiting leader for this San Francisco startup’s Cleveland site has been unabashed in his praise for what Kovacevic has accomplished, and he brought in a former DK staffer to serve as managing editor.

“It worked in Pittsburgh, and I think it can work in Cleveland,” he told Crain’s Cleveland Business after launching in 2017.

Unlike Kovacevic, who relied on subscription support from day one of his operation, The Athletic has raised more than $70 million in venture capital since its launch in 2016, Axios reported in October. Investors have valued the company at about $200 million.

With that money, The Athletic has been going across the country scooping up some of the biggest names in local sports reporting. In April, The Athletic picked up Ed Bouchette, who had been the Post-Gazette’s Steelers beat writer since 1985.

Bouchette now headlines an all-star staff with an editor, six senior writers, two staff writers and a contributor. Other notable bylines include:

  • Rob Rossi, who covered the Penguins beat and wrote a column at the Tribune-Review, after working at the Post-Gazette and before serving as editor of Pittsburgh City Paper
  • Josh Yohe, who covered the Penguins for the Trib and DK Sports
  • Mark Kaboly, who covered the Steelers for the Trib and DK Sports
  • Rob Biertempfel, who covered the Pirates during his 24 years at the Trib.

The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that The Athletic has been offering sports writers, who tend to make more money than other reporters, 15 percent to 36 percent increases on what were already six-figure salaries. The site charges $9.99 per month.

“We saw the response in Pittsburgh was so strong that we wanted to pump more resources into it,” said Craig Custance, The Athletic’s group managing editor for Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Florida. “You know the market. People are diehards.”

Custance declined to talk about subscriber numbers.

Kovacevic said he doesn’t worry about The Athletic and sees the Post-Gazette as his real competition for local subscribers. On a recent West Coast trip following the Pirates, only DK and the PG had reporters following the team, he said.

Rather than going for the venture capital money, DK has relied on subscribers and sponsors. The site charges $4.99 per month, $39.99 per year or $299 for a lifetime subscription.

For most of the past five years, revenues have grown organically, starting with a rush of new subscribers on day one that allowed Kovacevic to hit 10,000 customers in his first eight months. He achieved big jumps in new readers during each of the Penguins’ recent back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, when fans seem willing to pay almost any price for information about the team.

Sponsors such as PNC Bank, Point Park University and GetGo actually came to the site looking for ways to advertise, he added.

Kovacevic declined to discuss revenues and said third-party subscription services make it difficult to track the actual number of people who are paying. He shared web analytics showing DK had 25.6 million page views over the past year or more than 70,000 per day.

The site now has nine full-time people and one part-time person on staff, including a new managing editor, Jim Barger, a former Post-Gazette sports editor. Kovacevic’s wife, Dali, runs the business side of the operation.

DK spent $86,000 on travel last year, and Kovacevic said the site commits to being at “every game, every practice, every everything, everywhere, no matter where it is,” and often sends more than one person.

The Athletic never planned to cover every game, Custance told me.

“Our strategy is not to be at every game,” he said. “Our strategy is to find unique stories that our writers can tell. We might spend travel money to go to the hometown of a player rather than a random road trip. We have a robust travel budget but we look for different ways to tell stories.”

While The Athletic focuses on writing feature stories, DK tries to take its subscribers as close to the action as possible. Kovacevic and his writers routinely have top athletes literally talking into their smartphone cameras, bringing the players directly to their audience. The site’s motto is “coverage that connects.”

“That to me is everything,” Kovacevic said. “We have to make sure that our writers are constantly in contact with our readers.”

During games, his team shoots what they call “live files” — photos and video of them walking into the stadium, asking questions of players and even buying food to eat at the concession stands.

“We want you to feel like you’re there with us,” he says, “whether it’s home or road.”

Andrew Conte writes the On Media column with support from The Heinz Endowments. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at [email protected]