It seems like the NBA season ended just yesterday, as the frenetic free agency frenzy essentially extended into mid-July. But, we’re already under a month until preseason kicks off, and regular-season games come a couple weeks after that. ESPN has been getting its coverage ducks in a row, and these are several nuggets The Big Lead has picked up recently:
1. Adrian Wojnarowski will have a big presence on studio coverage. Woj is going to be included in the promotional materials for Countdown and, given that he is based on the East Coast, it is presumable he will appear on many of the shows hosted by Maria Taylor on Fridays and Sundays. He had a presence on the show at the end of last season, but expect to see more of him this year. However, there will not be a set schedule that the NBA scoop machine is nailed down to. As we said previously, Rachel Nichols will be on-site for ABC Saturday Showcase studio shows. Stephen A. Smith is expected to helm coverage on Wednesday nights.
2. Writer comings, goings, stayings, and movings: Malika Andrews is set to move from Chicago to New York, where she will cover the Knicks and Nets (who added Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant) and also have a general national footprint. Any belief that this is a result of Giannis Antetokounmpo walking out on her question at a press conference would be inaccurate; she will still do some Bucks coverage. Expect her to appear on a lot more television this season, on programs such as Get Up and SportsCenter. In New York, she replaces Ian Begley, who left for SNY where he continues to cover the Knicks.
It is expected that Eric Woodyard, who has covered the Utah Jazz for the Deseret News, will be moving to Chicago to replace Andrews on the midwestern beat (Bulls, Bucks, Pistons, Pacers), but the deal is not yet finalized. ESPN has hired Andrew Lopez away from the Times-Picayune to cover Zion Williamson and the Pelicans.
Tim Bontemps remains on the East Coast, where he will cover the Celtics, Sixers, and Raptors; he will also have a national footprint. He has had solid Get Up appearances. Ohm Youngmisuk will remain in Los Angeles, but will be picking up a lot more Clippers duties now that they’ve added Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Fear not that there will be enough Lakers coverage: Dave McMenamin is still on the beat, and national writers like Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst, and Baxter Holmes are often involved with features. Nick Friedell will keep covering the Warriors out of the Bay Area; expect to see more of him on The Jump, where he has good chemistry with Rachel Nichols.
3. Zach Lowe’s future with ESPN is up in the air. We reported in July that Lowe is a looming free agent; with under a month until the NBA preseason kicks off, Lowe has not yet signed a new deal with ESPN. Decision-makers at the network really hope to retain him, but there exists a price that is a bridge too far as they continue to practice austerity on talent deals.
The most likely suitor for Lowe is The Athletic. They are believed to have made a substantial offer. Lowe, in deciding between ESPN and The Athletic, must weigh factors like whether and how much he wants to be on television, the extent to which having the widest possible readership for his stories and listenership for his podcasts is important to him, and if he wants the pressure of driving enough subscriptions to justify a seven-figure annual deal.
If he were to make, say, $2 million a year, he’d have to drive over 33,000 subscriptions at the full, second-year rate of $60/year. Now, The Athletic is a bundle and a lot of people come in to read the wide collection of reporters they’ve assembled across all sports and regions, but he’d nonetheless be entering a realm where his work is individually expected to drive tens of thousands of subs.
Nonetheless, The Athletic has given all outward appearances that they are thriving: They announced in Bloomberg that they have over 600,000 subscribers and are gunning for in the neighborhood of a million by the end of this year. Lowe would have some more editorial autonomy there than at ESPN — it’s not like he’s shackled in chains there or anything, but the Mothership has more rigid structures. He has a fascinating decision to make.