ESPN insiders Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, and Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, are all poised to hit free agency this summer and there’s no shortage of viable bidders.
The Athletic, recently purchased by the New York Times for $550 million, and other potential suitors have sent word to the ESPN pair’s reps that they’re ready to make offers as soon as they’re able, sources told Front Office Sports.
ESPN has an exclusive negotiating window to retain Schefter and Wojnarowski, said sources. The network will put on a full-court press to keep both Schefter and Wojnarowksi, according to executives familiar with the network’s plans. It may also have the right to match outside offers.
Both Schefter and Wojnarowsi make an estimated $2 million to $3 million annually from ESPN, said sources. A confluence of events could generate much more lucrative contracts for all three insiders.
ESPN and the New York Times/The Athletic won’t be the only ones throwing money at these breaking news kings.
Sports betting giants such as Caesars Sportsbook eagerly view the trio’s vast social media followings as possible betting customers. Looming free agency sets up a potential bidding war between three very different business sectors: ESPN (TV) vs. legacy media (New York Times) vs. new gambling challengers (Caesars).
ESPN declined to comment on Schefter and Wojnarowski. Stadium declined to comment on Charania. A spokeswoman for The Athletic did not return messages.
Caesars, FanDuel, and DraftKings are hiring talent with the goal of becoming sports media platforms themselves. Caesars, for example, has signed Peyton, Eli and Archie Manning as well as former ESPN personalities Kenny Mayne and Trey Wingo.
The 55-year-old Schefter, the NFL’s premiere insider, has the biggest following. Between Twitter and Instagram, he boasts 10.3 million followers.
NBA insider Wojnarowski, 52, is not far behind with 7.1 million. Fellow NBA insider Charania (Wojnarowski’s ex-protégé at Yahoo Sports) has the most upside. At only 27, he already boasts 1.4 million followers on Twitter.
Both Schefter and Wojnarowski made their bones in the newspaper business. They might welcome the chance to write more for a legacy brand like the New York Times rather than doing endless quick hits for ESPN studio shows.
“The New York Times is going to be responding to the broader, competitive dynamics and will be looking to fill out its bench of writers,” said Dan Burkhart, a former NBC digital executive and CEO of subscription engine Recurly. “They may choose to get some all-star writers just as a sports franchise would look to get all-star players, and then figure out how to balance out what is effectively their salary cap.”
Still, there’s no guarantee these insiders will change teams.
“ESPN is going to fight hard to keep both [Schefter and Wojnarowski]. They’re well thought-of inside Bristol,” said a source.
Similarly, Stadium wants to keep Charania and is seeking ways to boost his profile at the company owned by Silver Chalice and Sinclair Broadcast Group.
The question mark is the New YorkTimes/The Athletic: Would this new media giant want both Wojnarowski and Charania?
Meanwhile, the New York Times also has to pay off the money-losing Athletic’s investors. With 450 journalists from The Athletic now on the payroll, the New York Times could cut back on its sports staff; not boost it with expensive multi-million hires.
The pending marriage of the New York Times’ 8.4 million digital subscribers with the Athletic’s 1.2 million will bring the Times close to its goal of 10 million subscribers. Between them, Schefter, and Wojnarowkski boast over 17 million social media followers who could be targeted as potential subscribers.
New York Times Co. CEO Meredith Kopit Levien defended the acquisition cost that equates to about $458 per subscriber to The Athletic, and she gave no indication that its soon-to-be subsidiary would be in cost-cutting mode.
“We like what they’ve achieved so far,” Levien said in an analyst call after the deal was announced. “We think there’s a real opportunity to grow their audience further than they’ve done it.
“We’ve got a lot of expertise on our side in terms of … engagement and audience development and marketing. We think there’s a real growth opportunity there.”
The Athletic, founded six years ago this month, isn’t close to profitability and had an operating loss of about $55 million in 2021, according to a statement from The Times. The newspaper company projects smaller losses through 2024 before The Athletic climbs out of the red.
Key to making the The Athletic financial turnaround are the addition of advertisements. The Times makes about 70% of its revenue from subscriptions and much of the remainder coming from advertising — a split that looks to be an aspirational goal for The Athletic.
“I can tell you that advertising is a place where we think the field is green and we are very excited to dig relatively quickly,” Levien said.
The New York Times’ regular price for an annual subscription is $199, although it is currently going for $75 for a year. The Athletic costs $71.99 per year and it also runs promotions regularly that cuts that price down significantly. It’s expected The Athletic will be bundled in some way with The Times once the acquisition closes.
There’s also another league insider possibly up for grabs.
Ken Rosenthal may seek a third gig as long as it doesn’t conflict with his current duties for The Athletic and Fox Sports.
MLB Network recently cut ties with Rosenthal over his criticism of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. Rosenthal has 1.2 million followers on Twitter.