ESPN and Yahoo Sports are on a hiring binge, bringing six-figure salaries to the generally tame world of sportswriting and stealing talent from print publications who can't afford anything close to the lucrative offers Yahoo and ESPN are serving up. The Washington Post has lost three writers to ESPN in 18 months. ESPN poached longtime Sports Illustrated scribe Rick Reilly for $3 million a year — substantially more than the $1 million he was already rumored to get from the Time Warner-owned magazine. "We are seeing free agency for sports journalists," says Leigh Steinberg, a top sports agent.
The portal is making a strong play in sports with original content. Yahoo already dominates the world of fantasy sports; adding real reporting to the mix, though, could boost Yahoo's pull with advertisers. The site has 20 sports writers, up from four two years ago. In fact, Yahoo is the most popular sports site on the net according to Nielsen/NetRatings, with 22 million visitors last month compared to ESPN.com's 20 million.
How does old media feel about this? A sports editor at the Washington Post says "we're used to being a destination, not a steppingstone." Get used to that feeling of being stepped on.
Unless, that is, you work for the national desk of a major newspaper. Remember Yahoo's disastrous experience with original news reporting: Kevin Sites's Afghanistan war-reporting diary hasn't been updated in a year. And people still giggle about former Yahoo media exec Lloyd Braun's proposal for an online news show with puppets. Sports is a good business bet, with talent getting rewarded competitively. Hard news? As the TV broadcasters figured out long ago, that's a sure money-loser.