In a media world that is increasingly splintered with new challenges, ESPN still reigns in the middle of it all. While it does not go by the moniker “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” anymore, it continues to use its financial might to be at the top of the pack, be it the best games or the top information.
The deals for NFL insider Adam Schefter and NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski are the latest example, as each of the newsbreakers’ contracts will span five years and the ESPN outlay is for a total of more than $80 million with a chance for each of them to make more, The Post has learned.
Schefter will make around $9 million per year, while Wojnarowski will earn in the $7 million range per year from ESPN, according to sources. The discrepancy between the two is by virtue of Schefter’s longer run at ESPN, a higher salary going into negotiations and the power of the NFL.
ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro, a diehard Yankees fan, continues to spend like George Steinbrenner for his star personalities and the free agents he wants. This Schefter-Wojnarowski outlay comes on the heels of Pitaro and ESPN sending shockwaves not just in media, but in sports in general, when it lured Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox Sports for five years for a total of $165 million to call “Monday Night Football.” That was $90 million for Aikman and a mere $75 million for Buck.
ESPN has just spent around $250,000,000 on four sports media personalities. A quarter billion! So what is ESPN doing?
ESPN is trying to ward off the emerging platforms, the other major networks and the digital entities in an increasingly crowded space. There is an argument to be made against the excessiveness of the money spent – it is deliciously ridiculous – but if you have the dough, why not shop at the top of the market? You know, be “The Worldwide Leader in Sports.”
ESPN has utilized a two-pronged attack. Over the past two-plus years, Pitaro and his top negotiating rights lieutenant, Burke Magnus, spent more than $40 billion in new rights fees to retain, among others, the NFL and MLB, while adding properties such as the SEC in 2024 and the NHL this year.
In the process, they added more top NFL games, two Super Bowls, yearly MLB first-round playoffs, four Stanley Cup Finals and the most successful college football conference to go along with all the prestige events they already own, like the NBA Finals and the College Football Championship.
Most of the deals go into the next decade, creating a moat that the new players, like Amazon and possibly Apple, with their endless money, can’t fully penetrate. These live sports deals also give ESPN the flexibility to go direct-to-consumer with its top games, while also remaining in the cable bundle.
With ESPN walking into the future, having spent billions upon billions on the games, it also wants to own the top insiders. Besides Schefter and Wojnarowski, it retained MLB insider Jeff Passan for four years and a total of $4 million. It also added Pete Thamel on college sports. (Wojnarowski, Passan and Thamel all came from Yahoo Sports, which Pitaro once ran.)
The incredible rise in salaries for top sports reporters and personalities is due in large part to the combination of the gambling money influx, social media and the new streaming services. Pat McAfee got a $30 million per year deal from FanDuel, because his style and personality stands at the perfect cross section of these emerging lanes.
For Schefter and Wojnarowski, the idea of combining one of the big sports gambling companies, such as FanDuel, DraftKings or one of the Vegas-based entities, with a TV partner gave them potential leverage over ESPN. They both likely could had an eight-figure base from a gambling company and then combined it, for much less, with a network for the face time.
For the gambling companies, it is just marketing. If they were to sign Schefter or Wojnarowski, ESPN, for one, would be forced to put their company reports incessantly on its bottom line. They would have access to their 10 million-plus followers on social media. And, oh, someone still might.
ESPN has recognized the threat of the gambling companies for its top talent and, for the ones it really wants to keep, Pitaro may cut them in.
For months and months, ESPN has been looking into its own deal with a gambling entity. It could be worth billions.
As part of Schefter’s contract, he retained his gambling and podcast rights with the idea that it will be with an ESPN partner. Wojnarowski’s pod remains under the ESPN umbrella and, though he didn’t raise any of this, he could have the same options as Schefter if it comes into play. While they both are repped by the same agency, CAA, the two were never a package deal.
Their contracts, especially Schefter’s, might eventually land in the $10 million-plus range. The potential new deals will likely come within the ESPN family. ESPN will have the right to keep Schefter’s podcast, if it wants. He gets his cake, and there could be more to eat.
Pitaro is trying to build a moat. Just like it did with its cable fees, ESPN is trying to use its financial might to be ahead of everyone as sports media moves into a new world between gambling, social and streaming. These deals are talent friendly, as it is a new world with new competition.
ESPN doesn’t call itself the “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” anymore, but it is the title they are squarely gunning for.