By Chuckie Maggio @chuckiemaggio
When he was a senior living in St. Bonaventure’s Francis Hall, Adrian Wojnarowski could not have possibly envisioned the path his career in sports journalism has taken.
Back then, “Woj” was receiving rejection letters from every newspaper he applied to. Instead of lining his dorm room wall with posters like many college students, he decorated by posting each letter.
“By the spring of my senior year, it was covered,” Wojnarowski said. “Some were nicer than others, some were just form letters, but I don’t feel that far away from that.”
He may not feel that far removed from the disappointment that came with rejection, but the NBA’s go-to reporter for breaking news and inside scoops isn’t receiving any of those letters anymore. Last Friday, he launched a site of his own, “The Vertical with Woj,” on Yahoo! Sports.
Wojnarowski announced the site’s launch on Dec. 16, and an impressive staff started to fall into place.
The staff includes Michael Lee, who left The Washington Post to join the team, and Chris Mannix, who left Sports Illustrated. Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com were brought on board for their NBA Draft knowledge. Nick DePaula of NiceKicks.com will share his insights of the sneaker industry, while former longtime assistant general manager Bobby Marks will be the site’s front office insider.
There is no shortage of variety on the site. In addition to the articles and breaking news reporting fans are accustomed to with Wojnarowski, there are videos and podcasts as well.
Los Angeles Clippers guard J.J. Redick is breaking ground as the first player to have a weekly podcast. There has been a high level of interest; Redick was no. 1 on the iTunes sports podcast charts before he even recorded his first episode. The Vertical has three of the top four pods on the chart, with Mannix sitting third and Woj in fourth.
“If you can bring readers unique content that they can’t get anywhere else, you’re going to have value, you’re going to have relevance and you’re going to have staying power,” said Wojnarowski. “And that’s the goal everyday.
“We’re very much a reporting-based site reporting in lots of different ways. I think there’s an appetite for what we’re doing. I’m grateful for the group and the talents they have in so many different areas.”
For The Vertical to come to be on Yahoo in the first place, Wojnarowski had to re-up with the company on a contract extension over the summer. Despite rumblings from sports media sites like Awful Announcing that he was considering leaving for Sports Illustrated, his love of where we worked and vision of the future helped him stand pat.
“I’m grateful to be continuing at Yahoo and The Vertical,” he said. “We’ve had the same core group of editors for a long time… we took (Yahoo) and built it into a brand name in sports, and I’m proud of that.
“It’s very fulfilling, it’s very humbling; I don’t take it for granted.”
That appreciation and humility goes back to his time at St. Bonaventure, when he was just looking for an opportunity. One of the men who gave him a chance to write was Chuck Pollock, the sports editor of the Olean Times Herald. Pollock would let Wojnarowski cover Canisius and Niagara basketball games and do stories on recruits during the summertime, even if the paper didn’t necessarily need the coverage.
An avid reader, Wojnarowski would devour The National Sports Daily every day it would be delivered to his box at the Bonaventure post office. Though the paper ceased publication after a year, he aspired to be like those writers.
“I just hoped I could get a good newspaper job, covering college basketball or pro basketball,” Wojnarowski said. “I just wanted to have a career and a living doing this… I’m grateful for the road I traveled doing this.”
The Bona journalism program in the late 1980s and early 1990s was filled with students who became successful sports writers, including New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro, who graduated in 1989. The duo also had a great mentor in Chris LaPlaca, ESPN’s senior vice president of corporate communications who has been at the company since its inception.
Then-swim coach Kevin McNamee and sports information director Jin Engelhardt helped Wojnarowski learn about how to interview people and build relationships, as did the athletes he was going to school with.
“I learned a lot (at Bonaventure) about how to interview people and build relationships and hopefully get something out of them to tell stories,” Wojnarowski said. “It was as important as anything I had along the way, was my time there.”
From his time in Olean, to columnist positions at The Fresno Bee and The Bergen Record, to his current spot at Yahoo, the requisite fundamentals of reporting have stayed the same for Wojnarowski.
“It’s all the same; it really is,” he said. “You get better at it, you get sharper at it, but the fundamentals are the same. If you don’t learn the fundamentals, you’re not going to be successful. If you don’t want to live it, I’m not sure this is the business for you.”
The internet and social media have changed the game for sports reporters. Access to breaking news has never been easier, which means the competition is more fierce than it has ever been.
From tweeting out draft picks before they are announced by commissioner Adam Silver, to breaking the big free agent signings well before a team announcement (such tweets have become known as #WojBombs), Wojnarowki has thrived in the competitive landscape.
“There’s nothing more important in this profession than to have competition, to be in a competitive marketplace,” he said. “It sharpens you; it’s like iron sharpening iron. If you aren’t at your best, if you aren’t alert and working really hard, you will get your ass kicked; you will get embarrassed. That fear drives me everyday, because I’m competitive and I want to win.
“You’re not going to win everyday, but you better be competing really hard everyday, and you better win more than you lose. That’s a big part of The Vertical is that it’s about competition. In this industry, you are competing to survive.”
Woj finished with a statement that could very well sum up The Vertical and what they’re trying to accomplish.
“And you better understand that this is a business… it’s sink or swim.”