It sounds like Yahoo NBA columnist and news-breaker Adrian Wojnarowski could be the next sports media figure to have his own personality-driven site. Exactly how that could come about is in dispute, with Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead writing that multiple sources told him Wojnarowski (whose Yahoo contract reportedly expires this summer), is being courted by several outlets to run an NBA-only site, and Kevin Draper of Deadspin saying McIntyre’s sources are wrong and his own sources are telling him it’s Wojnarowski pitching these outlets on the idea. Regardless of if this movement’s originated by the media outlets or Wojnarowski himself, it’s an interesting idea to consider.
Some of these personality-focused sites have had great success, such as Bill Simmons’ general-sports-and-pop-culture Grantland (which John Skipper says is set to continue even after Simmons leaves ESPN) and Peter King’s NFL-focused The MMQB. Others have seen more mixed reactions, though, including Nate Silver’s numbers-focused FiveThirtyEight at ESPN and Ezra Klein and Glenn Greenwald’s news and opinion sites, Vox and The Intercept. In perhaps the most disastrous example so far, ESPN’s forthcoming race-and-culture site The Undefeated just removed Jason Whitlock, who it was supposed to be centred around, before it even launched. Which camp would a NBA site focused around Wojnarowski fall into?
There are several seemingly-substantial advantages to a Wojnarowski-centred site. For one thing, his reputation within at least the highly-connected segments of the basketball world is huge, and it’s a reputation for excelling at multiple things. King’s found success with his site as a place for NFL analysis and features, but Wojnarowski also has the advantage of being a superb news-breaker as well as a frequently hard-hitting columnist. In fact, his news tweets have become so notable that they’ve been tagged “Woj bombs.” He’s somewhat like a combination of King and Adam Schefter, but with some advantages over both. Unlike the straight-reporting Schefter and the oft-criticized King, Wojnarowski is a strong editorialist who frequently takes individual teams, players and the league to task. That further boosts his credibility and provides value to his writing even when he doesn’t have breaking news.
There are significant challenges this site would face, though. For one, there’s the question of total audience. Launching an NFL-specific personality-driven site was a leap of faith for Sports Illustrated, and the NFL’s a way bigger sporting behemoth (and one that has fans way more desperate for year-round coverage) than the NBA. Also, while there are certainly big numbers of NBA fans out there (this year’s landmark TV ratings for the Finals are a good illustration of that), how many of them are really looking for a new basketball-specific site? The likes of ESPN (both the main site and Grantland), Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report are already strong players in the space, and CBS and NBC have substantial online presences around basketball too. This is a crowded field, and while Wojnarowski’s name stands out within it, that doesn’t necessarily equal success. Also, the crowded nature of the field might make it difficult for Wojnarowski to attract other top talent to a new venture; landing up-and-coming bloggers is one thing, but a lot of the best and most prominent basketball writers are already working for big media companies. It’s far from certain that they’d leave.
Furthermore, it’s interesting to consider how many of Wojnarowski’s 945,000 Twitter followers would actually read his site regularly. Many of them seem to be there just for the breaking news. Consider his tweets Monday night about a three-player trade that sent Charlotte’s Lance Stephenson to the Clippers:
Yahoo Sources: Clippers, Hornets discussing a trade centered on Lance Stephenson. http://t.co/cDDCNs2Pn7
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 15, 2015
The Clippers have acquired Lance Stephenson in a trade that sends Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes to Charlotte, league sources tell Yahoo.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 16, 2015
Yahoo Sources: The Los Angeles Clippers acquire Charlotte's Lance Stephenson in three-player trade. http://t.co/cDDCNs2Pn7
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) June 16, 2015
Wojnarowski’s initial tweet about the trade discussions received 1,302 automatic retweets (this doesn’t count manual retweets), but it’s highly unlikely all of those people clicked through to it. His next tweet, the definitive news that Stephenson was heading to the Clippers, which didn’t come with a column link, received 3,645 manual retweets. His tweet after that, which included the actual story of the Stephenson trade, only received 451. Breaking news like this still has a lot of value, both on Twitter and on sites (it’s worth keeping in mind that Twitter is still a relatively small source of traffic for most sites; plenty will come across stories like this from visiting the site itself, or via other sources such as Facebook and Reddit), but not everyone cares about reading the actual story. (It’s notable that Google News has cited Wojnarowski’s Twitter rather than his stories before.) Thus, while Wojnarowski’s reputation within basketball is significant, and while his ability to break news gives his site a potential edge over one like King’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is a guaranteed success.
It’s also worth considering the general headaches personality-specific sites have caused in the past. Simmons’ Grantland might be the best personality-specific site out there, but it’s had its share of controversies, and it’s so strongly associated with him that its future is being questioned in a post-Simmons world despite Skipper’s comments. King’s MMQB has drawn fire both for his own questionable reporting and some of the actions of his staff. The main thing that’s drawn any attention to Greenwald’s site are its controversial hit pieces attempting to take down popular podcast Serial. Meanwhile, Whitlock’s heavy-handed management style and his attempts to insert his voice into others’ writing led to an internal revolt, staffers leaking information to Deadspin’s Greg Howard for the definitive takedown of The Undefeated, and ESPN eventually deciding they couldn’t have Whitlock involved with that site going forward. These sites can have substantial benefits, but they’re far from automatic successes, and focusing a brand on one person carries some significant perils too.
With Wojnarowski, there are a few specific questions as well. For one, there’s the “war on ESPN” Draper spotlighted in a 2014 New Republic article. That, plus his recent affiliation with Fox Sports 1, probably makes it unlikely his new site would be backed by the Worldwide Leader (even more so when you consider that ESPN’s personality-specific sites have all had their own questions to deal with recently). Draper also accuses him of “mix[ing] his reporting and opinion writing in improper ways, rewarding sources with flattery and punishing the uncooperative with nastiness.” Whether that’s actually true is a bit of a matter of debate, but it’s not a perception only held by Draper, and that could potentially carry issues for any outlet that gives Wojnarowski his own site. Perhaps most notably, there are questions about just how good he’d be as a site’s editor, a role he doesn’t have a great deal of experience in. Would he be able to do what Simmons did and make the transition from writer to editor, finding interesting, original voices who do things differently from him and giving them the support they need, or would he follow Whitlock’s road to ruin by forcing himself and his viewpoint into others’ work?
It’s going to be interesting to see how Wojnarowski’s pending free agency plays out, and if he’s able to get a deal for a personality-focused site or if he’ll keep doing what he’s doing (either at Yahoo or elsewhere). If you go by McIntyre’s report that it’s multiple outlets reaching out to Wojnarowski with this idea in mind, it seems likely to happen; if you go by Draper’s report that it’s Wojnarowski peddling the idea with little success so far, it seems quite plausible that it could never happen. There are clear potential benefits for a Wojnarowski-led site, but there are also some serious potential pitfalls. We’ll see if anyone elects to gamble that the rewards outweigh the risks.
(Update: This piece initially had Wojnarowski’s first tweet portrayed inaccurately. It was, in fact, about the trade that later happened. We regret the error on our end.)