Shams Charania’s primary job is straightforward: break news on the National Basketball Association. It’s not a new occupation, but historically it’s never been a particularly lucrative one.
Social media and legalized mobile sports betting have changed the game.
Being the first to tweet out news of a trade, free agent signing, injury or executive change has become a kind of esport of its own, with the information reaching millions of followers in an instant. NBA fans on Twitter are on a first-name basis with Charania and are equally intimate with his former Yahoo Sports colleague Adrian Wojnarowski, known as Woj, who now writes for ESPN.
During the NBA offseason or as trade deadline approaches and players change teams at lightning speed, one of the two reporters will almost always break the news. The comments on their tweets come in by the thousands, and the public is keeping score.
Wojnarowski’s scoops even have their own moniker: “Woj bomb.”
Fans with too much time on their hands will post videos of a superimposed Wojnarowski dunking on Charania, orvice versa. Charania said he tries not to pay attention to the comments.
“I just have such blinders on,” Charania told CNBC in an interview this week. “I try to have tunnel vision, so every single day all I can focus on is my job.”
While sports broadcasting personalities such as Craig Kilborn, Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons and Robin Roberts have made millions of dollars by leaning on their charisma and developing popular TV shows, radio programs and podcasts, seven-figure salaries haven’t historically been handed out to breaking-news reporters.
But Charania, Wojnarowski and ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter are now the hottest commodities in sports journalism, and they’re all due for big-time paydays. Each reporter’s contract ends in 2022, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because of confidentiality.
Wojnarowski and Schefter reportedly make $2 million to $3 million a year already at ESPN. Both declined to comment for this story. Charania declined to comment on details of his contract.
The race is on to figure out who will be on the move and where they’ll all end up.
Millions of followers
The interest stems from their towering social media presence. Charania has 1.4 million Twitter followers, Wojnarowski has 5 million, and Schefter has a whopping 8.9 million followers. Some 3 million people follow Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network.
Captive audiences have major value. Gambling companies, which count on a growing customer base to expand their businesses, are reportedly salivating at the idea of hiring major media names, even if it costs them millions of dollars to do so.
Caesars Sportsbook has already lured former ESPN personalities Kenny Mayne and Trey Wingo to create and distribute sports betting content.
But those guys aren’t breaking-news reporters. Finding out information first and tweeting it to massive audiences is a very different skill. It’s almost mechanical. The value is in the speed and accuracy, while opinions and humor can get in the way or distort the information.
“When you have legal gambling, all information is important, and so is the timing of its release,” said Bryan Curtis, editor-at-large at The Ringer, who has tracked sports media for decades. “News breakers will continue to gain more power versus the rest of us, to the extent that’s humanly possible.”
Charania’s rise to fame has been particularly striking because he’s only 27.
Almost a decade ago, while studying at Loyola University Chicago, Charania started digging into NBA news. He got a job writing for a small basketball blog called RealGM. As a freshman, Charania began making relationships with fringe Chicago Bulls players and breaking smaller stories about players signing 10-day contracts.
When the Bulls denied Charania game credentials because he was still in college, the cub reporter began driving up to Milwaukee. The Bucks were in a smaller media market and let him cover the team daily.
In 2014, while a sophomore at Loyola, Charania scored his first big scoop. He reported that then-Bulls forward Luol Deng had been traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for former all-star center Andrew Bynum and draft picks.
“I was definitely pumped, heart racing,” Charania said. “It was exhilarating. Still is.”
Charania’s initial tweet elicited congratulatory comments from a litany of senior sports writers. Wojnarowski called him “the best young reporter in the business.”
A year later, he got a job reporting for Yahoo with Wojnarowski as he continued his studies. He soon started to build a reputation by breaking news on larger deals.
In 2018, a year after Wojnarowski left Yahoo for ESPN, Charania joined The Athletic and Sinclair Broadcast Group’s Stadium.
Monetizing breaking news
When millions of fans are glued to your every tweet, there’s tremendous pressure to be right above all else. One significant error can destroy your credibility, especially from those wagering money on the information.
“It has to be accurate and truthful information at all times,” said Charania. “If I am doing anything other than that, then I feel like I’m failing everyone.”
By everyone, Charania means not just people but corporate sponsors as well. Charania is now appearing in an AT&T 5G advertisement that emphasizes the network’s speed and reliability, the traits most important to his success. It’s part of a season-long partnership between AT&T, Stadium and Charania.
T-Mobile ran a similar campaign with Wojnarowski and Schefter in 2018, and Samsung followed with a TV spot featuring the two ESPN reporters.
The job is a grind. A lunch meeting with Charania means a constant series of five-minute interruptions from a stream of texts and calls, said Chris Reina, Charania’s former editor at RealGM.
“I guess Woj has kids, but I don’t know how anyone does this job with kids and family obligations,” Reina said.
The rise of the sports breaking-news journalist underscores the increased importance of data and information in the 24/7 digital world, compared with prior eras, when talking heads ruled TV news.
The Ringer’s Curtis attributes the change to fantasy sports, Twitter and “nationalized sports fandom.” He said “legalized gambling will complete the process.”
The Athletic’s $550 million sale to The New York Timeslast week is the latest chapter in the story. The Times wants to incorporate The Athletic’s data-driven analysis. The Athletic’s focus has been print journalism and podcasts, rather than video, which has historically commanded greater value due to higher ad rates.
As traditional pay TV loses millions of subscribers each year and younger consumers turn to social media rather than cable, breaking news via Twitter and other social channels will only grow in importance.
“The world we live in now is totally different than it was five, six, seven, eight years ago,” said Charania. “Social media is how we’re able to reach people. Because of Twitter, people were able to see my work and be able to identify with me, and I was able to gain an audience base. I’m lucky to be able to do this job now.”