MEDIA

“Breaking News” As Big Business: The Role of Reporters in the Sports Economy

By the time NBA commissioner Adam Silver said “With the first pick in the 2020 NBA Draft,” on ESPN to kick off this year’s draft, most of the country knew the Minnesota Timberwolves had selected Georgia’s Anthony Edwards. That’s because The Athletic’s Shams Charania had already reported the news, and Charania and his former mentor Adrian Wojnarowski (ESPN) continued to preempt the commissioner all night long as they announced the draft picks on Twitter before Silver could on TV. 

Such is life for sports in 2020, where the biggest news breaks on Twitter long before it’s seen elsewhere, a far cry from the days where free agency signings and trades wouldn’t be known to fans until the next day’s newspaper. 

Now, news breakers like Charania, Wojnarowski, Marc Stein, Chris Haynes, and Brian Windhorst in the NBA and Ian Rapoport and Adam Schefter in the NFL are announcing breaking news before the paperwork is faxed to the league office. The act of fulfilling fans’ insatiable thirst for new tidbits of information, and at lightspeed, has become big business, with some contracts for the sporting world’s foremost newsbreakers rumored to be worth millions annually. 

“I don’t think it’s just limited to the media or limited to the fans,” said Charania. “Everyone in the industry, whether you’re a player or an agent, or a manager or a team executive, there’s a thirst for information.” 

But it’s unsteady ground to traverse, juggling the personalities and priorities of agents, players, team owners, front office personnel and everybody else who stands to gain from even the slightest crumb of intel being thrust into the public sphere. 

Plus, some think the true value of breaking news seems to be miniscule and the impact isn’t as lasting as others may believe. “The more i kept trying or even breaking news, I saw that the result was fleeting,” said Logan Murdock, a staff writer and podcaster for The Ringer. “You get a pat on your back for like 15 minutes and then the news cycle goes on. No one remembers who broke the news, they remember the news that was broken. I just realized the reward wasn’t that great for me so I decided to put my energy into storytelling and interviewing.” 

Murdock broke his share of news covering the Golden State Warriors as a reporter with NBC Sports Bay Area for three years. But the desire to do more fulfilling and in depth work in the field weighed on him as he surveyed the industry landscape and noticed the more attention-grabbing trend of breaking news. “I thought that was the only way I could make my name in this business,” Murdock said. “But I always have to remember that it comes down to the work. Always. If the work is good, my name will get out there.” 

But it’s a double edged sword for media members, as scooping will often lead to more audience and thus more creative and business opportunities.. Woj and Shams have become fixtures on camera at ESPN and Stadium, respectively, capitalizing on their massive profiles and becoming TV attractions. Hayes is a fixture on Turner NBA broadcasts as well, as a sideline reporter. ESPN reporters are often funneled to the network’s flagship NBA show, The Jump, and thrust into the podcasting world to further examine the sport on that platform as well. As the role of a sportswriter continues to expand and change by the day, scooping breaking news is becoming the surest way to crack open doors for new opportunities. 

The allure of the fame the industry’s biggest names enjoy, and the big money contracts they reportedly command, has spawned a wave of wannabes looking to cash in as well. Smaller, lesser-known Twitter accounts and personalities will play the sources and breaking news game, but oftentimes that seems to be more of educated tea leaf readings rather than actual sourced reports, leading to more misses than hits and dwindling credibility. “The crazy part now is you never know where information or a lead or tip can emanate from,” said Charania on the trend of new faces looking to break the news he’s made his career. “You just hope that you are one of the people that the audience and fanbase trusts, and you do your job and deliver. At the end of the day my job is to be 100 percent accurate.” 

But another group inthe basketball community stands to benefit from the seemingly endless desire for information: agents. In recent years they’ve moved from being behind-the-scenes to a part of the story outing themselves as sources to reporters and allowing themselves to be named in breaking news of new massive contacts.This practice has led to tweets like this from reporters like Charania as he broke the news of De’Aaron Fox’s new massive contract: “De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings is the first maximum contract of 2020 NBA free agency, negotiated by @chrisgaston__ of @FamFirstSports.” It serves as a smoke signal to potential clients and is a savvy move from an agent like Gaston as he looks to grow his client list, using Charania’s 1 million followers and explosive social media engagement as a platform to help boost his profile. Agents with larger profiles immune to the practice either:Rich Paul is known to put his stamp on new deals, like he did with the max contracts signed by Anthony Davis and LeBron James last week, both punctuated with hat tips in the reporting on Twitter from Woj, Shams and Haynes. 

This corner of sports media continues to grow as well, with social media engagement becoming an avalanche of noise on draft night this year. Hopefully, for the league, fans are tuning into their timelines, because like most sporting events this year less fans tuned into their actual televisions for the draft. The NBA Draft averaged about 2.65 million viewers this year, down 16% from 2019. That is the smallest audience to watch the draft since 2009, an alarming dip, but one that might be explained by overall viewership trends for the league signaling a turn towards the narrative of the sport online, even if that means turning away from the actual sport on TV. That turn of events is perfect for the newsbreakers of the world, and they’re capitalizing on it one tweet at a time.