Adrian Wojnarowski was working at 2:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, because that’s what he does. He received a tip that the Phoenix Suns just fired coach Jeff Hornacek.
The timing couldn’t have been better for his recently launched NBA site on Yahoo Sports, The Vertical with Woj. Wojnarowski woke up Joe Garza, the site’s managing editor.
“I apologized to his wife,” Wojnarowski said.
Garza quickly rallied the troops. Within a few hours, The Vertical not only posted Wojnarowski’s scoop, but also a package of analysis pieces examining the Suns' next steps. They included Chris Mannix’s story that former Phoenix great Steve Nash could be an option as the new coach.
NBA fans went to the site to get the latest. Not that Wojnarowski wanted Hornacek to get fired (“He’s a good guy,” he said), but the Suns story proved to be the perfect vehicle to display the capabilities of The Vertical.
“It’s an example of what we can do,” Wojnarowski said. “Our goal is to break the news and then surround the news with analysis…How it happened and why it happened are very important for us. Those stories resonate and separate you from everyone else.”
Wojnarowski made news himself last summer when as a free agent, he turned down offers elsewhere (namely Sports Illustrated), signing a new contract to remain at Yahoo. The deal included developing a new site on the NBA.
Wojnarowski is one of the few reporters in the business with the name recognition to pull off a high-profile branded site. Thus far, the only predecessors are Peter King’s MMQB at Sports Illustrated and Bill Simmons’ now-defunct Grantland at ESPN.
However, unlike King, who appears regularly on NBC’s studio shows for the NFL, and Simmons, who was featured on multiple platforms on ESPN before leaving the network, Wojnarowski doesn’t fit into the same high-profile mold.
Ever since joining Yahoo Sports in 2006, Wojnarowski made his mark by repeatedly scoring scoops on the NBA. Break stories, and readers will come. Case in point: The Hornacek story.
Wojnarowski’s rise shows the premium on exclusive information during the digital age. It has led to him having nearly 1.2 million followers on Twitter.
So while Wojnarowski and Bob Condor, Yahoo’s vice president for sports media, stress that the site is about more than one person, The Vertical probably doesn’t happen without the “with Woj” part of the title.
"There’s no question his name adds credibility to the site,” Condor said. “For us, the site is the perfect solution to show off his great reporting. People just call him, ‘Woj.’ We clearly want people to know he’s the person behind the site.”
It shouldn’t be any surprise as to Wojnarowski’s mission for the site.
“First and foremost, we want to give people information they can’t get anywhere else,” Wojnarowski said. “News drives traffic. We will try to break news every day. News and storytelling has to be your spine.”
Toward that end, Wojnarowski sought to build a staff that covers all aspects of the NBA. It includes Mannix, who joined Yahoo after covering the NBA for Sports Illustrated, and Michael Lee, formerly of The Washington Post. Former Nets executive Bobby Marks provides analysis on front office issues. Nick DePaula was brought in to cover sneakers, an important beat in the NBA, according to Wojnarowski. Jonathan Givony currently is writing stories about prospects in Europe in anticipation of the 2016 NBA draft.
“We have a group that really complements each other,” Wojnarowski said. “We need to have difference makers. I felt if we could get a group of tremendously well-connected people, we had a chance to build something special.”
Besides good old-fashioned written words, The Vertical is a multimedia operation with video and podcasts. Los Angeles Clippers guard JJ Reddick is doing a podcast for the site.
Packaging the content under one entity makes sense in a highly competitive environment for pageviews among basketball fans, Condor said. There’s a site called ESPN.com that does a fair amount of coverage on the NBA.
“We want The Vertical to be the destination for NBA fans, wherever they are,” Condor said.
Ultimately, though, there is another factor that will determine the success of the site. Wojnarowski says he has spent a fair amount of time with Yahoo’s sale force and with sponsors. State Farm has signed on as a presenting sponsor of The Vertical.
“I want this site to be sustainable over time,” Wojnarowski said. “We need to have a business model. I have no illusions that if we’re not making a profit, we will be putting ourselves in peril.”
Condor says the early returns have been encouraging. However, the race is just beginning, and there’s a long way to go.
The biggest asset for The Vertical is the seemingly non-stop news cycle for the NBA. Wojnarowski didn’t break the story of Derek Fisher being dismissed as coach of the New York Knicks Monday morning; ESPN did. However, The Vertical quickly did posts breaking down what happened. Wojnarowski weighed in with a commentary on Phil Jackson.
The idea, Condor said, is for NBA fans to naturally turn to The Vertical when big news happens.
The Vertical will evolve as the editors see what works and what doesn’t. But Wojnarowski said the core goal will remain the same.
“I want us to be the epicenter of great NBA coverage," Wojnarowski said, “We want it to the point where NBA fans can’t ignore us, and that they are coming to us multiple times during the day."