There was talk in the summer of Wojnarowski potentially jumping to another outlet like Sports Illustrated to run a site like this, but he stuck with Yahoo. He said it felt like the logical place given his relationship with the company and the role NBA coverage has played for them.
“I have a trust level with that company, a belief in what we’ve done and then building on what we’ve done,” he said. “There was no better place to do it. We drive tremendous numbers, and I think we’re synonymous with our basketball coverage, and we’re going to build it. We have a great opportunity to now build on that. …Yes, this is something new, but we know what drives readers,what drives traffic, and what drives interest. We’re going to build off what we’ve already been doing for a decade and do it in bigger ways, smarter ways and more varied ways on our platform.”
Wojnarowski also said Yahoo provided him the ability to staff this site the way he wanted.
“We went after people we wanted to get,” he said. “I was not told no on anything we wanted to try and do in recruitment. People we felt were important, who could be difference-makers, we had the opportunity to get them.”
Condor said Yahoo felt strongly about retaining Wojnarowski, and developing The Vertical was the next logical way to expand what he could do for them.
“We’ve admired and been impressed with what Woj does for the NBA fanbase,” he said. “Clearly his Twitter account is evident with the 1.1, 1.2 million followers. We’ve consistently looked for ways to bring that content to Yahoo users and this was the next step for us, a great way to not only connect Woj to fans in an impactful and deeper way, but to also take his vision and connect it with people here like Johnny Ludden, who is our editor-in-chief and a long-time NBA reporter and editor as well, to take that vision and to grow it with contributors and with the idea of being one of a kind, the best-in-class, best in the world NBA reporting and storytelling.”
Condor said he’s not sure who first proposed the idea of The Vertical, but it’s something that made a lot of sense for all sides.
“Like all good ideas, sometimes you don’t actually remember who first brought it up,” he said. “It was some combination of Woj and Johnny Ludden and myself. I think it’s the sort of thing we’ve talked about and discussed with a talent like Adrian and somebody who’s a visionary like he is. That’s essential to any sort of project like this; you need people with vision, thought leaders, people who generate ideas, almost as many as Woj has scoops. Johnny and Woj, I can speak to the fact that those two have had a highly effective working relationship even before I came here four years ago. When I look at it, not only for the sports group of writers and editors and producers here, but for sports fans, I look at the working relationship those two have and I’m going to try and find ways to maximize it and make it work.”
Wojnarowski said his comfort level with Ludden and others at Yahoo was a big factor in his decision to stay, as was the audience and facilities they had in place.
“The infrastructure was there,” he said. “Their commitment to it from staffing, their understanding of it, my relationship with Johnny Ludden and the group that we have there that I’ve been with, they were very determined. You know, you have a platform at Yahoo that allows you to reach a massive audience. We know the formula, and I have people around me, Johnny Ludden and Joe Garza, who’s our managing editor. Those guys, who I’ll be working closely with, we’ve been doing this. Now we’re building it out with a group that we all felt strongly about, about how everybody fit together. The resources at Yahoo are tremendous, and there’s just an understanding of the news cycle and how important news is and how to drive, how to use news to branch out and do lots of other things. The video, having the studios; we have state-of-the-art, network-level studios and personnel in New York, where Katie Couric works out of. We have multiple sets in there. We can do really advanced stuff.”
Video is going to be a key element of The Vertical, and Wojnarowski said one important reason why is it connects them with fans in a new way.
“It’s another way to reach your audience,” he said. “Not everyone wants to read, and sponsors want video; that’s important to them, to be able to have video that brings them a significant audience. People expect that; you have to have that. People want to watch, say, Ben Simmons; if Ben Simmons goes for 40 against Kentucky one night and you’ve got a video breakdown, if you’re sitting on the subway or the train the next morning and you want to watch a three-minute video breakdown, you get it. Or if there’s a Porzingas-Towns matchup, or Durant-Kawhi Leonard, we have a video breakdown of that. It’s something that’s easily digestable, and we can drive that video through Facebook and some other mechanisms where people want to get your content.”
Wojnarowski said the hire of Chris Mannix in particular was done with his video skills and general adaptability in mind.
“Chris has a television presence to him,” Wojnarowski said. “He can host shows, he can be a cornerstone for us with our video, and Chris brings so much versatility to us. He can do the magazine-length pieces, he’s been doing them for over a decade at SI. He can react to breaking news. He’s going to break news. He can give you a quick reaction on a trade or a hiring or a firing or something that happens, do the longer pieces, give us his podcast, video. Chris to me is like Michael Lee and Shams, guys who are very versatile and do a lot of things well, and that’s really important.”
Wojnarowski said video may be a different platform, but it’s still going to keep the site’s focus of driving the news cycle rather than just recapping what happened.
“I want us to be still advancing the story with video,” he said. “I want us to be using it to advance news, to advance our storytelling. What I’m going to try very hard for it to never be too much is simply the recycling of events.”
Key players on that front include the Draft Express team of Givony and Schmitz, DePaula’s sneakers analysis, and Marks’ breakdowns of how trades work from a front-office perspective. Wojnarowski said a focus for all of those people is not just offering opinion, but informed opinion based on reporting and sources.
“There’s what Draft Express will bring to us with video, with player evaluation,” Wojnarowski said. “Bobby Marks every day on the site will be giving information, a perspective you can’t get anywhere else. His information will dovetail with our news stories and we’ll be getting out in front of it with free agency, the trade deadline, analyzing every team financially and what kind of moves they can make. What’s great about Bobby is the relationships he built from 20 years in the front office. He’s still talking to front-office executives, agents, teams, personnel in the league about their plans. Everybody we have here is somebody who’s immersed in being able to deliver information, and Bobby will be a big part of that. His access to front office executives and agents and all those people will really add to his analysis. Nick DePaula on sneakers, that’s a huge industry and there’s tremendous appetite out there for it.”
Another different medium will be the Vertical Podcast Network, which initially will feature a Wojnarowski-hosted podcast, a Mannix-hosted podcast, and one hosted by current Clippers’ guard J.J. Redick. Wojnarowski said he’s excited to feature something from an active athlete, and Redick will put in the work needed to make it a success.
“J.J.’s going to have his own pod, and he’s going to do it every week, he’s going to have guests,” Wojnarowksi said. “He’s put a lot of thought into this and a lot of time. He’s excited, and if you’ve ever heard it in that element, he can carry it. He’s going to be talking with teammates, players around the league, coaches, and he’s got access to people. I think there will be a great following for that, and he’s going to do it year-round. I don’t think there’s been an active athlete in professional sports who’s had a regular podcast. He’s going to be doing it every week and it’s going to be part of our platform. He’s going to be tremendous at it.”
While The Vertical is going to be a big part of Yahoo’s NBA coverage going forward, it’s not going to be the sum of it. Condor said they want it to complement their other NBA writers, such as columnist Marc Spears and bloggers Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman. While The Vertical will be significantly featured on the Yahoo NBA page, the other content readers are looking for will be easy to find as well.
“We love our NBA contributors who were here before we added some of the Vertical staff,” Condor said. “Clearly Dan Devine and Kelly Dwyer have a following at Ball Don’t Lie and a particularly fun group of followers with Dunks Don’t Lie, a Tumblr version of the blog. Obviously Marc Spears is somebody who’s contributed in valuable ways for us, certainly written a lot about the Warriors, and is somebody who brings a measure of both expertise and fun to the beat. We do see The Vertical as a place where you’re going to go to get the breaking news but also the information you can’t get anywhere else, the analysis, the video from people like Brian Scalabrine.”
Condor said a key focus in keeping the NBA page separate was making it easy for fans to follow the nightly games that matter to them.
“We also understand that the NBA has that element of games played every night, they keep coming, so we made a conscious decision to have both The Vertical and our NBA homepage to co-exist rather than merge,” he said. “We want to be there with scores, analysis, all the great stuff from Kelly and Dan Devine and Eric Freeman, who works across a few blogs but is certainly a valuable NBA blogger. It’s going to double our offering for NBA fans that way.”
What are the long-term goals for The Vertical? Well, Condor said one key target is that it’s profitable in its own right.
“We all look at metrics, and that for us is user engagement, return visits, time spent,” he said. “I feel, and I’ve been thinking this way since I was running the Chicago Tribune sports section during the Jordan years, we have to be an enterprise. We want to drive revenue for Yahoo. That’s important here, and I think we’re headed in the right direction there. We have sponsors that are coming on board, and we have many others that are very attracted to Adrian and the team he’s built around him.”
Condor said the most crucial element there is creating essential content that NBA fans need to check in on daily.
“We want people to get to know Woj and our team and their points of view and understand that this is a group that deeply cares about the NBA and how it’s covered and wants to connect with fans,” he said. “Like any launch, you want to look ahead six months, a year out. If we’re an established and regular place for NBA fans to visit, an essential place, we will be in a successful place. If we’re an essential destination for fans every day, then I think we’re going to be where we want to be and the rest of that takes care of itself, the user engagement, the revenue and so on. You’ve got to take care of business on those things, but if people think of it and say ‘I’ve got to see what The Vertical, or what Woj, or what Chris Mannix and Michael Lee have today, what’s the latest Nick DePaula blog, what’s Bobby Marks saying about salaries and the salary cap and player moves,’ then that will be a success for us.”
Wojnarowski said this opportunity’s a dream come true for him, but it’s also a push to work even harder.
“I don’t take this for granted,” he said. “All I ever wanted to be was a sportswriter, and it was all I ever wanted to do. I worked at small newspapers, I interned at small places, and kind of worked my way up from small paper to bigger paper. I just wanted to be able to make a living at this, support a family; I never imagined having an opportunity like this. I don’t take it lightly.”
Wojnarowski said he feels a responsibility to make this successful, especially in a difficult economic environment for media outlets and journalists.
“It’s a tough business,” he said. “There are so many talented people who I came up with who I respect who have lost their jobs in this business with the downsizing. I’m lucky to have an opportunity like this and I feel a tremendous responsibility for the people we’ve brought in that wanted to be a part of this, to the people that are supporting this and working hard in lots of different areas at Yahoo to make this really work, and I feel tremendous responsibility for that. I’m fortunate to be able to have an opportunity like this, to be able to guide something. I’m going to work tirelessly at it.”
The Vertical launches Friday, and can be found at sports.yahoo.com/vertical. Disclosure: Andrew also covers the CFL for Yahoo Canada Sports.