Twitter’s head of sports has spent his career as a catalyst for change, advocate for those around him, and leader in digital media.
TJ Adeshola is one of the most powerful and accomplished figures in the sports media industry today.
Adeshola, Twitter’s head of sports, was named one of Ad Age’s 40 Under 40 in 2021 and Sports Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 in 2020. Bringing brands and sports fans together on one of the world’s largest and important social media platforms is a massive undertaking — one he’s helped grow and ultimately steer since joining the company from ESPN in 2012.
Adeshola, 38, was on “cloud 10” when he spoke with Boardroom a day after his alma mater Georgia defeated Alabama in the College Football Playoff national championship game for the Bulldogs’ first title in 41 years. In discussing his career path from Athens to Twitter’s offices in New York, he also laid out not only how he’s helped the $28 billion company become more diverse but how he’s become a proud and vocal advocate for diversity in the tech industry as a whole, which he takes immense pride in.
“To me, it’s no surprise why we’re high performing. We can do a lap around some of my colleagues in tech and their teams,” Adeshola told Boardroom. “If we look at some of these social departments at these partners that we know and love, the manner in which they tweet and post isn’t reflective of the type of people in front of the computer. It’s something I’m really, really passionate about.”
Adeshola grew up an only child in Prince George’s County, in the DMV. His sports fandom served as a path to build the relationships and the camaraderie he would have otherwise had with siblings. At UGA, he knew in his last year in graduate school that he wanted to be in media. It was 2008, and the football team was ranked third in the country, led by quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver A.J. Green. On Sept. 27, ESPN’s College GameDay paid a visit to Athens for the Bulldogs’ showdown against eighth-ranked Alabama — the first time the show came to campus in 10 years.
Adeshola knew this was his chance.
He woke up at 5:17 a.m., hitting the snooze button for two minutes, and started to scope out the operation.
“My goal was to identify the person who was holding the biggest clipboard, the person who looked like the boss,” Adeshola said. “I pulled up on a guy and said ‘I’ve been watching you in a non-creepy way for a few hours. I’m a student at UGA. I love sports. I want an internship. What can I do?’”
That turned into an internship at ESPN’s audio business, doing work with radio staples like Mike & Mike, Colin Cowherd and Scott Van Pelt. On his first day on the campus in Bristol, Magic Johnson stood behind him on line for lunch. Adeshola began to put time on people’s calendars for advice and mentorship, including former ESPN president John Skipper and Black executives like Kim Wilson, Roz Durant, Wendell Scott, and James Brown.
“It was really inspiring to see folks professionally who looked like me, who were unapologetically themselves each and every day, but who were also willing to extend an olive branch to someone just trying to learn the game,” Adeshola said.
He also joined ESPN’s business resource group for employees of color, helping deepen those important mentorship relationships. Adeshola then became a digital account manager, working with Fortune 500 brands to help them leverage ESPN’s suite of digital ad products. This allowed him to get really close on the sports sponsorship side and learn the business of revenue generation.
The best piece of advice he got at ESPN was from Scott, an unapologetic 6’8 exec in the revenue sales and partnership side.
“’Don’t ever shrink yourself, ‘” Adeshola recalled Scott telling him. “‘I’m uniquely me. Nobody else can be me. So in every situation that you have professionally outside of your work, don’t shrink yourself.’”
Blackbirds and the Bluebird
As ESPN developed a digital marketing strategy and Adeshola became a self-described sports business nerd, Twitter became a large part of that strategy.
“I knew the digital revolution was one that made a lot of sense to double down on,” he said. “At the time, Twitter hadn’t gone public. And I think I read some article that was like, Facebook employees went public and they’re rich now. So I’m like this might be a cool opportunity to invest in myself and get some equity.”
Adeshola started casually perusing job opportunities at Twitter and applied to a role. He got an email and an interview within 48 hours, beginning his nearly 10 years at the company. He started as a senior account manager in Chicago in 2012 — the first ever Black male in his group and the only person of color in an office of 10-15 staffers.
“Early on I felt alone at times,” Adeshola said.
Adeshola reached out to COO Adam Bain and CEO Dick Costolo, with the former giving him the lay of the land and being gracious with his time. He began growing into his role, wearing his trademark sneakers every day and finding his voice at Twitter, yet he found himself being one of just a few people of color in his org.
Within his first year at the company, he made a concerted effort to sound the alarm and tell as many people of color as possible that they belong in tech and can get equity and a six-figure salary. Adeshola joined Twitter’s BRG for employees of color called Blackbirds in 2012, and quickly rose up the ranks, getting support and empowerment from Bain and founder Jack Dorsey. His managers at Twitter were supportive of Adeshola shifting his bandwidth to work on these initiatives.
Adeshola moved to New York City in 2014 to lead Twitter’s new sports vertical, while growing Blackbirds’ importance at the company in what he calls a career-changing opportunity because he was able to take initiative. He’d get to interview athletes like Draymond Green and actors like Michael B. Jordan in front of employees across the company, providing autonomy, confidence, and freedom to do fun and disruptive things in both sports and Blackbirds, helping him thrive at Twitter.
Now, Adeshola believes he has one of the most diverse teams in sports.
“I hope that when people work with my team across the sports industry, they’re inspired to do the same,” he said. “Your work is better when you have a diverse group of people working on it. And generally speaking, it makes your team so much better to have a diverse set of opinions informing the decisions that you make.”
Adeshola’s sports team has had to be nimble in what became a rapidly and constantly changing space. Twitter began to stream Thursday Night Football, a game-changer for the vertical. But streaming smaller sports was a process that required a ton of trial and error, which didn’t end up working.
Twitter Sports needs to evolve on a consistent basis, Adeshola said, to be a voice for brands and fans while always being innovative and at the forefront of change or trends. That includes confetti at the Super Bowl with players’ tweets, physical newspapers called the Twitter Tribune held up by the winning Georgia players at the national championship game, and a branded Twitter suite that hosted Quavo, Alvin Kamara, Taylor Rooks and others. Twitter Spaces has proven to be a huge success, with every major sports league forging partnerships to bring live and interactive audio to fans around the world.
Paying it Forward
Adeshola’s role has evolved over the last 10 years from being mainly sponsorship and revenue-focused to also feature engagement, innovation and disruption. And in 2019, a special highlight was joining Dorsey and Twitter’s executive team on a trip to his ancestral home of Nigeria and to Ghana, something he called a life-changing experience and the epitome of why he’s so passionate about the company.
Also in 2019, Adeshola joined Jack and the executive team on a trip to Nigeria, which is where he’s from, and Ghana. He called it a life-changing experience and a reason why he’s so passionate about the company, which will soon be opening its first Africa-based office in Ghana.
Adeshola is proud of his team’s many individual and collective awards and accomplishments over the years, with the goal of adding to those with a Sports Emmy and a Cannes Lion award. He’s now at the stage where he’s a mentor, paying it forward to young tech workers not just at Twitter, but helping people of color get opportunities across the industry. But despite seeing progress, he knows there’s so much more work to be done.
“I want to be able to look at Amazon, Facebook, Snapchat and whoever else in this space and say ‘they have a really diverse team.’ I’m not sure that I can say that right now,” he said. “I want to be a catalyst and a contributor to that change.”
As he approaches a decade at the company, Adeshola considers himself lucky to have been a large part in Twitter Sports’ and Blackbirds’ growth, which he hopes continues as his career progresses.
“I see Black and brown people all over the company and it makes me really, proud,” he said. “So Twitter’s been special for me. Twitter’s changed my life and I know that there’s a lot more left to write for my professional story, but I’m really thankful for where I’m at today.”