Set against the backdrop of ESPN’s 12 billion dollar new NBA television deal, significant talent layoffs at the network, and what many perceive as declining editorial ambition and focus on sports at Yahoo during a period of leadership and ownership uncertainty, ESPN’s addition of Adrian Wojnarowski became one of the most dissected sports media moves of 2017.
Wojnarowski, commonly referred to as “Woj,” had spent the last decade at Yahoo and was a key force that helped propel Yahoo Sports from an unproven upstart to the largest online sports destination, as measured by Comscore, for the majority of the last decade. (ESPN has reclaimed the top spot in recent years.) Despite an intense rivalry while Woj was at Yahoo, ESPN and Woj had circled each other a few times as recently as 2012, although those conversations didn’t go far.
Wojnarowski’s most recent foray into free agency in 2015 didn’t even include ESPN as a possible suitor, as it was Sports Illustrated who was close to prying basketball’s biggest newsbreaker away from Yahoo before CEO Marissa Mayer stepped in at the 11th hour to ensure Woj remained at Yahoo. With ESPN not even in consideration in 2015 and a reported four-year deal worth up to $8 million at Yahoo, the idea that Wojnarowski would be settled in at ESPN by mid-2017 was an outcome no sports media pundit or basketball fan could have imagined.
How did this unforeseeable outcome come to be? Below is my best effort to retrace the individuals, motives, and mechanics that surprisingly brought Wojnarowski to ESPN.
As Yahoo Sports grew, Yahoo as a whole faltered
This past June, Verizon closed its acquisition of Yahoo for $4.5 billion. To get a feel for just how much the once-mighty Silicon Valley giant had fallen, the final acquisition price Verizon paid was 10 percent of Microsoft’s $45 billion offer that Yahoo turned down in 2008. (This isn’t an apples to apples valuation comparison, as Yahoo’s former stake and sale of Alibaba muddies Yahoo’s valuation.)
To put it kindly, the web portal hadn’t aged gracefully, an issue that was only further compounded with the bulk of Yahoo’s 114 acquisitions not hitting the same kind of paydirt as Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram or Google’s acquisition of YouTube. Yahoo had come close to acquiring Facebook in 2006, but the deal never materialized. Further complicating Yahoo’s stability and growth prospects was a revolving door of leadership that included a stretch of time in which the company had four different CEOs in under a year, ending in the hiring of Marissa Mayer in 2012.
But throughout the turmoil of 2008-2012, Yahoo Sports was one of the more stable and highly praised components of Yahoo’s business. The company made a big aggressive bet on sports, particularly in journalism, with a series of shrewd investments and decisions along the way. Before fantasy sports had become a mainstream phenomena, Yahoo had acquired small online fantasy sports startups. That was a huge driver in the company having the current sizable market share in fantasy sports, despite not having a television presence that other fantasy sports providers lean on to promote their offerings.
Yahoo also acquired the subscription college recruiting network, Rivals, which became a hearty component of their total audience advantage over ESPN that was a point of pride for the company. As more eyeballs shifted to mobile, Yahoo had also made a wise acquisition of Citizen Sports in 2010 which allowed Yahoo to better compete on mobile. Citizen Sports technology would become the popular Yahoo Sports app.
But it was more than just savvy acquisitions on the sports side that grew Yahoo Sports. The Sports group had a knack for bringing in up-and-coming digital media executive talent, many of whom have gone on to more prominent roles inside the company or elsewhere. Included in that group are Brian Grey, who would go on to become Bleacher Report’s CEO;Jamie Mottram, who would later launch For The Win; Jimmy Pittaro, who now has a leadership position at Disney; Shannon Terry, now at CBS; Mike Kerns, who now heads the parent company of Barstool Sports; as well as highly regarded executives like Dave Morgan, Eric Winter, and Mark Pesavento.
On the content side, Yahoo Sports employed somewhat of a two-prong strategy with blog content providing high quality and a high quantity of social news and commentary from popular sites like Ball Don’t Lie and Puck Daddy.that could be promoted from the Yahoo home page. But old school journalism was also a key tenant of the Yahoo Sports experience and Woj for the better part of a decade was at the heart of that effort alongside the likes of Dan Wetzel, Charles Robinson, and Jeff Passan.
Somewhere along the way of continuous cycle of sales acquisition rumors, new leadership, and executive level churn within the sports group, Yahoo’s interest in sports inexplicably began to wane. Woj’s new deal in 2015 was supposed to reverse that trend, allowing him to launch his own fully staffed NBA microsite in The Vertical. But a year into its existence, there were issues being ironed out with the site experience. The less than ideal rollout of The Vertical had more or less signaled to many that at a high-level The Vertical, the NBA, and sports in general just wasn’t the priority it once was at Yahoo.
After failed turnaround efforts and a lengthy sales process, Yahoo announced it had sold to Verizon in July 2016 (the deal didn’t close until this past summer). With three years left on his deal, it’s believed that Wojnarowski had a clause in his contract that afforded him the opportunity to exit his deal if Yahoo’s ownership situation were to change. With the continued uncertainty about Yahoo’s direction going forward and the less than perfect launch of The Vertical, Wojnarowski opted to explore an exit from Yahoo and targeted ESPN as the only landing spot worth engaging with.
An easy courtship despite a complicated past
Woj’s move to ESPN was for many a shocking move, considering the complicated and competitive history between the largest sports media company and the NBA’s most well-known reporter. Wojnarowski actually grew up in ESPN’s hometown of Bristol and graduated from one of the local high schools. He also wrote over a hundred columns for ESPN in the early 2000s, although his primary gig was with a New Jersey newspaper before moving on to Yahoo, where the rivalry took root.
Kevin Draper chronicled the conflict in 2014 for The New Republic. (Draper would later further cover Woj’s move to ESPN on Deadspin several times.)
Despite Wojnarowski’s past at ESPN—or perhaps because of it—his relationship with the network borders upon hatred as closely as anything in the sports media world. “I’ve had agents and executives tell me Woj has a jihad against ESPN,” said Bleacher Report’s (and formerly ESPN’s) Ric Bucher. “He has a mission to take ESPN down.” Bucher wasn’t the only person to use the word “jihad” to describe how Wojnarowski approaches competition with ESPN. Wojnarowski seizes every opportunity to take shots at ESPN, often referring to it as “that cheerleading network” or “a sports cable network” in his columns.
Draper further elaborated on the very public rivalry:
Everybody I talked to used a different colorful metaphor to describe Wojnarowski and ESPN’s relationship. They were like Nike and Adidas, or the Hatfields and McCoys, or David and Goliath. Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch characterized it as an underdog complex: “I think Woj’s pathology is that ESPN has 25 guys, ‘I’m just one guy at Yahoo, I’m going to figure out a way to beat them.’”
Given the colorful history, some thought a Bristol reunion would never happen. I spoke with NBA insider Adam Zagoria of Zagsblog, who was quick to point out the benefits for ESPN of bring Woj into the fold despite the adversarial history.
“Woj breaks 75-90 percent of NBA news so if you want to know what’s going on in the NBA, you need to follow him,” said Zagoria. “You could probably follow ONLY him and be OK. For years, ESPN had to credit Adrian and The Vertical on its scroll and its reporters had to ‘confirm’ what he had reported.”
Bill Simmons echoed those thoughts on a recent podcast.
“The thing they care about is the ticker. They care about the scrolling thing on the bottom of the screen and who gets attributed what.”
Simmons would further elaborate:
“I think that was the biggest thing. I think last summer from what I heard when Woj really had just an unbelievable summer, he was scooping them on every draft pick before the draft, and then when free agency came, he was nailing a lot of the free agency stuff and Skipper was like “What the hell? The NBA is our sport and this guy is killing us.” And they have to run on the ticker, they’re running SportsCenter and PTI and all that, and it says “Yahoo’s Adrian Woj reports” And it’s just over and over again and I think they are like “Screw this, we want this to be ESPN’s.”
With ESPN’s thirst to have more NBA news broken by their talent and on their platforms, their interest in Woj was a no-brainer, and despite the adversarial past, the timing made sense for Woj to consider a move to ESPN. Given the amount of upheaval within the broader content industry, with the rise of ad blocking and various pivots to video at other outlets, Turner and ESPN were the only landing spots deemed by Woj’s camp as more stable than Yahoo, considering both companies’ long-term investment in NBA television rights.
Turner had held a preliminary meeting with Woj back in 2014, but their online property Bleacher Report was not perceived as a good fit. Thus, Woj’s camp believed ESPN was the sole destination worth engaging with during the contractual opening he had to explore a possible exit from Yahoo.
Key to the process was Woj’s agent, Matt Kramer of CAA, and ESPN’s EVP of Digital and Print Media, John Kosner. Kramer and Kosner had a good working relationship and had worked together on other talent deals for Kramer’s other clients. Despite the rivalry between Woj and ESPN, Kosner had planted a seed with Kramer that ESPN would have interest in Woj the next time he was available to explore options. When Kramer unexpectedly reached out in January 2017 explaining Woj’s availability, Kosner moved fast to explore the opportunity to add Woj to ESPN’s talent roster and led those discussions. In the past, such conversations were handled by other ESPN executives.
Over the course of a few weeks and a handful of meetings consisting of drinks, lunches, and a dinner, in addition to frequent calls and texts, the courtship towards a Bristol reunion progressed quickly. Deadspin’s Kevin Draper reported the sides were close to a final agreement in early February. Both sides described the process as being fairly smooth and one that picked up a lot of momentum quickly. Kosner was quick to build a good rapport with Woj, which was further aided by his existing working relationship with Kramer.
Although it’s not clear exactly when the deal was finalized, it was agreed upon that Woj would stay with Yahoo through the NBA Draft as The Vertical’s popular draft show had already made a favorable impression with fans the year before. With sponsorships already sold for the show, Woj wanted to leave Yahoo on a positive note without leaving them in a lurch before officially starting a few days later on July 1 at ESPN.
Staffing decisions and industry conjecture
Another @nba reporter has been let go — more room for arrival of @WojVerticalNBA & @TheVertical to @espn this summer. #ESPNLayoffs
— jamesmiller (@JimMiller) April 28, 2017
The bulk of conversations between Kosner and Woj centered around whether or not ESPN would also have interest in bringing on staff members from The Vertical. If ESPN solely had interest in hiring Woj or even selective interest in adding staffers from The Vertical, it’s believed that Woj would have stayed put at Yahoo. Ultimately, Woj knew that there was a strong likelihood that if he stayed at Yahoo, he’d have the buy-in or leverage there to extend the deals of The Vertical’s staff beyond their current deals. By leaving Yahoo, the fate of about a dozen staffers would be uncertain, if not precarious, with Verizon’s intentions of what to do with Yahoo unknown.
This ended up not being a point of contention as Kosner and ESPN were reportedly not only amenable and supportive in bringing over The Vertical’s staff, but were enthusiastic about the talent that could potentially be joining the network. Since Woj’s hiring, ESPN has added former Vertical staffers Mike Schmitz, Jonathan Givony, Nick DePaula, and Bobby Marks with others believed to be likely to join when their Yahoo deals wind down. It’s unlikely the entire staff will move over to ESPN, however. The belief is that some staffers will ultimately stay at Yahoo out of personal preference or just to avoid conflicts with other television roles they currently have.
In between news leaking of Woj’s impending move to ESPN in February and his start date in July, ESPN underwent a massive talent layoff which saw departures of some key NBA talent including Andy Katz, Chad Ford, Ethan Strauss, Henry Abbott and Marc Stein, who many considered Woj’s foremost rival in breaking NBA news. The subject on the decision-making process leading to these layoffs quickly became an en vogue topic among sports media pundits and NBA fans.
The topic came up on the SI Media podcast in early May when James Andrew Miller, author of Those Guys Have All the Fun, the ESPN oral history book, chimed in with some thoughts on the staffing changes.
Miller: Let’s just put it this way. I think sometime in the next few months,you find yourself doing a column that it was a binary proposition. Did ESPN clear out some of these people to make room? Or was that part of the deal?
Deitsch: I think it’s very clear…
Miller: I’m not accusing…
Deitsch: Nor am I…
Miller: But I will say this. If you are coming over to a place and there are other pieces there, you might feel like you have every right to say…
Deitsch: “I’m the guy, clear the decks”…
Miller: “I’m the guy, clear the decks” or if you are ESPN, you are saying we are going to clear the decks because we want this guy to really develop his own team. Now whether or not that’s a smart move or not, that can be debated. But it’s pretty clear given who has come over, and by the way… when you look at Henry, I mean… they paid a pretty good price for him and he’s worth it, to come over from Bleacher Report [Ed Note: I think Miller got confused here as Abbott did not come over from Bleacher Report] and I think he’s one of those who has a couple years left, so it’s pretty clear that’s at work.
I just don’t want to be irresponsible and say who’s responsible for that. But it’s clear with the NBA, they still want to stay in the reporting game, but they are clearing the decks for these guys to come over.
The topic would come up again in early July when Miller appeared on The Bill Simmons Podcast, along with Ringer editor Bryan Curtis.
Simmons: Do you believe the conspiracy theories that Woj told them to get rid of people? Because I personally don’t.
Curtis: I have something to add to that. So in the white heat of it, in the moment of the first day of the layoff, or that second day, there was that rolling three days of horror we all experienced on Twitter. I heard from inside ESPN, “This is a Woj thing. It’s absolutely a Woj thing. It’s gotta be a Woj.” Just absolute belief.
I heard 24 hours ago, “Hold back on that a little bit. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than that. Maybe there are not everything is… you know”, like certainly you can talk about Stein. They wanted this NBA insider and not this NBA insider. That’s clearly a decision. But I heard “hold back on that.”
Miller: I don’t think that Woj would say OK, if I come you have to clear the deck. I think, though, that ESPN might say to itself, “If we are going to spend this money on him, we just can’t afford and we don’t have the bandwidth to even manage and pay for these others.” I think it became a binary proposition which it didn’t have to be.
Simmons: I agree with you.
Curtis: I think it’s a lot more complicated than the straight story. I believe that too.
Simmons: Or they made the deal with him and then realized that the budget was just out of control and that they couldn’t figure it out.
Miller: Look, if I’m Woj, though, he has every right to say “Look, if I’m going to come over, I don’t want to be competing against a colleague.”
Curtis: But remember Schefter and Mort? That was a similar situation.
Miller: But they took him out back and now they are singing Kumbaya. They figured it out.
Curtis: But they figured it out amongst each other. I think Mort was like “Let’s make this work together. We’ll sit on the set together. We’ll make it work.” But it did not work in this case. There was not that Kumbaya moment.
Miller: I don’t even know if there was an attempt, though.
Simmons: There wasn’t an attempt. I’ll tell you one thing, it was weird at the Finals. It was some of the weirdest energy I’ve ever felt in my life. You had Stein there and Woj. You had Henry Abbott there for one of the games. You had Sage Steele and Beadle like 10 feet apart from each other. You had me there… it was fucking crazy!”
For me, the two biggest questions when researching this piece were how did Woj get out of his Yahoo deal and sign with ESPN, and to investigate the popular conjecture surrounding the layoffs that predated his start date at ESPN.
I spoke with a handful of NBA reporters on the latter topic, one of whom was confident Woj likely provided a hit list of people that ESPN would have to let go before he would sign on. Others believed that blaming Woj was just “a convenient narrative for those within the industry who haven’t gotten along with Woj in the past or take issue with his reporting style and tactics.”
Another NBA writer put forth a more nuanced take. “I don’t think Woj played any role in the layoffs or potentially even knew about them,” the writer said. “I think people have a negative connotation on the move because some jobs disappeared whereas if he stayed at The Vertical, the industry wouldn’t have likely contracted like it did on the NBA side with the layoffs at ESPN. That said, you can’t really blame ESPN for wanting to go in a new direction and making decisions to bring over new people, nor can you blame Woj for wanting to find the best fit for him and his people. It is what it is.”
Uniformly, everyone I spoke to with knowledge of the courtship between ESPN and Woj denied any requests regarding NBA staffing, nor was Woj informed about ESPN’s NBA staffing plans. A source close the situation firmly stated “It’s simply not true” in regards to the conjecture that Woj was directly involved in any layoffs on the NBA side. ESPN PR declined to comment which is somewhat consistent on the matter as they’ve generally refrained from commenting on anything specific pertaining to the layoff round.
Hitting the ground running
The timing of Woj’s move to ESPN is a bit odd in that he couldn’t officially appear on ESPN platforms until midnight on July 1, which coincided with the start of free agency. Essentially, there was no breaking-in period, as Woj appeared on Scott Van Pelt’s SportsCenter at the stroke of midnight, a little more than a week after concluding his tenure at Yahoo. With a flurry of transactions to report out of the gate and the additional platform of live TV, ESPN’s addition of Woj was received warmly by NBA fans literally from day One. The dead period between concluding his time at Yahoo and his start at ESPN may have actually worked in his favor in terms of building rapport with new colleagues as Woj shared information with colleagues he could not formally report himself until his official start date at ESPN.
While there are undoubtedly still some mixed feelings with a lot of highly respected people recently departed from ESPN’s NBA team, the addition of Woj and fellow Vertical staffers has gone over fairly well in Bristol. According to a veteran ESPN NBA staffer, “There were plenty of colorful stories shared about Adrian over the years, a lot of which I think was exaggerated or born out of rivalry. But everyone here has really enjoyed Woj thus far. He’s very easy to work with. It’s exciting to have him here. He keeps you on your toes and I think it’s good for us, as well as the NBA, that he’s over here.”
The supportive comments from co-workers about Woj echoes what he shared with For The Win, prior to his start with ESPN.
“I’m really competitive, and this is a competitive marketplace. And when I’m against you, I’m going against you. When I’m with you, I’m with you. Anybody who’s worked with me knows I’ve been a really good teammate through my years going back to the Fresno Bee with Andy Katz and Bergen Record for nine years, Yahoo for a decade. And I think everyone at ESPN is going to find that I’m a really good teammate and somebody who’s going to be generous with whatever I can be helpful with and competitive with the places that we’re going to compete with.”
With interest in NBA front office moves and maneuvering at an all-time high after a summer during which chatter about various trades and free agent signings dwarfed national discussion of all other sports, the marriage between Woj and ESPN at first glance seems like it will be a successful one. Perhaps the only question going forward is if Woj will continue the prolific pace of news-breaking fans have become accustomed to when he’s no longer motivated to compete with ESPN but instead is the network’s most celebrated asset covering the NBA.
Maybe that is partially why it was so important to Woj to ensure all Vertical staffers would have the opportunity to follow him to ESPN. That the requirement was not just born out of a sense of loyalty and responsibility to the team he assembled at Yahoo, but also a subtle acknowledgment that the intensity of his work ethic over the past decade was aided by a chip on his shoulder and thhat would be the only thing that couldn’t come with him to ESPN. Time will tell who else from The Vertical moves over to ESPN and what Yahoo’s plans might be for the site in case of more defections. With Woj joining ESPN, you could argue his dogged reporting won out over his former rival. Or maybe in the end, a reporter at the top of his profession wanted the platforms and resources that only ESPN can provide.
Woj spent a decade competing fiercely with ESPN and irritating many in Bristol along the way. Ultimately, his accomplishments proved the old adage wrong. Woj did return home again, and his success along the way afforded him the opportunity to dictate the terms of his homecoming. It wasn’t pretty at times, but for both ESPN and Woj, the Bristol reunion, along with some new faces, has positioned ESPN to reclaim ownership of one of the few fronts on which the network ceded ground to a competitor. While other headlines trumpeted Woj’s return to ESPN as him winning his war with ESPN, perhaps the less sexy way of framing it is that this was more of a truce, one that came at the right time and for the right reasons for both sides, as well as NBA fans.