Sarah Spain is tall and athletic and was a heptathlete at Cornell.
Sarah Spain is one of my two or three favorite Twitter follows.
Sarah Spain once auctioned herself off on eBay for Super Bowl tickets.
It’s true. Sarah, one of the best young reporters in the business, gave her blooming career a kick in the ass in 2007 when she placed an ad on eBay that read, “Take me as your date to the Super Bowl” The response was overwhelming; the reaction was shock and dread and praise and commendation and, ultimately, success. Lots and lots of success.
Here, Sarah talks about that odd-yet-magical experience. She explains what it is to be a woman in sports media; why she’s (mostly) OK with journalists pitching product and how she still gets a charge out of covering games. Oh, she also gives herself little hope in a boxing match vs. Mr. T.
Sarah Spain, the Quaz is yours …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Sarah, you’re pretty, and you’ve done a lot of television. Truth is, every woman I see doing sports on TV is pretty—almost without exception. Meanwhile, there are dozens of guys who look like mashed potatoes standing before the cameras. My question is this—if there’s a young heavy-set girl who wants to go into sports television, and she asks for blunt advice, is one thing she needs to know, “In this business, as a woman, you’ll be judged differently. And, sadly, you have to be thin and attractive?”
SARAH SPAIN: First, thanks for saying I’m pretty, that’s very kind of you. As for the aspiring broadcaster, yes, sadly, it appears it’s much more difficult for a woman who isn’t traditionally pretty to work on camera in sports. It’s more difficult, but it’s not impossible. If she starts out. as most on-camera talent does, behind the scenes, she can prove her worth to potential employers. If she’s a talented writer, a great radio host or a tremendous analyst, she can eventually get those TV gigs, regardless of whether she’s the prettiest one up for the job, because people will respect her knowledge and her unique take. Think of Doris Burke and Beth Mowins—many might say women won’t be hired as analysts for men’s sports, but they’re among those who have proven that theory wrong.
My main advice for this fictional woman—or anyone would wants to get into the uber-competitive field of sports broadcasting—is to figure out what she does better than anyone else or what qualities she has that it would be impossible for a potential employer to overlook or turn away. I would say try to work those and play those up as much as she can. Try to stand out from the mess of pretty women trying to make it and find a way to make people see that she’s worth taking a chance on.
When I first moved to L.A. hoping to do acting and comedy, a book I read talked about owning who you are, rather than trying to fit into an idea of what you think people want. One of the examples of a unique person who broke the mold and defied expectations of Hollywood stardom was Bobcat Goldthwait. (It’s a very dated reference now, but people over 30 will probably remember him.) There was never a demand for someone like him, or, say, Pee-wee Herman, but he proved to be a unique and fresh comedian that people embraced for his weirdness. I’ve remembered that ever since and tried to be uniquely me throughout my career, rather than attempting to fit a mold of what’s expected for females in the sports industry.
Oh, and I would also tell this imaginary gal to not to get too wrapped up in the goal of being on-camera, as it can often prevent people from taking gigs that turn out to be very rewarding (and that could one day lead to those on-camera gigs). I never had my sights set on radio but I absolutely love it.
J.P.: You’re a Chicago native. Last year, as you know, I wrote a book on Walter Payton that, in your city, was greeted, well, eh, hmm … not warmly. Frankly, the backlash took me by surprise, because the book (I believe) was very balance and, more often than not, positive. I’m hoping you can explain the Chicago sports fan to me. The mentality. The passion.
S.S.: Chicago fans are not all the same, but I’ll humor you by speaking in mostly generalities for this question. For the most part, Chicago fans are fiercely loyal and almost unhealthily devoted to their favorite teams and athletes, to the point of making past stars heroes and past teams lifelong legends. The great ’85 Bears, well that team is uniquely positioned to become more and more legendary and infallible with each passing year until a Bears team wins it all again.
Saying anything negative about Walter Payton, arguably one of the greatest and most beloved NFL players of all time, was bound to get you some hate mail and some serious trolling on Twitter. Truth is, few had ever heard anyone talk badly about Walter the person or the player, so to hear that he had flaws just like anyone else was tough for many. Plus the snippets chosen for publication were decidedly salacious and, for the most part, negative, leaving anyone who hadn’t read the book to presume the whole thing was a hack job. They should have read the book before lashing out at you, but like any other sports fans in any other city, many Chicago fans can’t read. (Just kidding.)
J.P.: You’re obviously smart—Cornell, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, etc. But why sports-entertainment as a career? As in, what was your path to being here? And why in the world did you choose it?
S.S.: Long story short—I grew up wanting to be a Broadway actress, a talk show host like David Letterman or a cast member on Saturday Night Live. (Still holding out hope for the last two, actually.) I did sports (basketball, field hockey and track) year-round in high school and AAU, Junior Olympics, Nationals, etc. so I didn’t have time to pursue acting and comedy beyond one-offs like the school Talent Show. Same with college—play rehearsals and performances were always at the same time as track practice and meets. I’d always been very into writing so I majored in English and took theatre classes on the side. After school I decided to move to LA and give it a fair shot. If I sucked or I hated it, I could say I tried and move on.
I always loved sports and my first job out of college was in sports PR, but there just weren’t very many women in the industry when I grew up so it didn’t seem like a viable career choice. Also, I’ve always preferred to cover sports as entertainment, not as news, and the few women I saw that weren’t sidelines reporters were very serious. I think that’s because in the past in order for people to respect a female anchor’s knowledge, she had to be very serious about her delivery. Now with great women like Michelle Beadle out there, you can be respected for your chops and be funny and sarcastic, too.
Anyway, while out in L.A. I took a hosting class where we had to host a fake show. Other people were experts in interior design, gardening, etc. but my expertise had always been sports, so I hosted a fake Chicago Bears show. I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do. I switched my focus to hosting and sports broadcasting and got a job working as a PA and then associate producer at Fox Sports, completed the conservatory at Second City to get my improv chops and started writing stories for various sports blogs. It just took off from there.
J.P.: I just read the sentence on your website, “If you know Sarah Spain as ‘that girl who auctioned herself on eBay for Super Bowl tickets …’” Uh, I don’t know you as “that girl.” Please explain …
S.S.: Very long story that almost nobody ever gets right. In fact, I still get hate mail for this from people (almost always jealous bloggers who get three hits a week on their terrible sites or people who hate their jobs and say I got my jobs—in radio and writing, mind you—because of my looks).
Here’s the truth: I had no idea what I was setting into motion when I put up an eBay ad saying “Take me as your date to the Super Bowl” in 2007. About five minutes after the Bears beat the Saints that year, I had gone online and bought a flight to Miami—I figured I could get tickets, lodging, etc. with my friends who had agreed to head down to the game if the Bears made it. Unfortunately, all my friends bailed because we were broke early 20-somethings. I was on my own, but determined to go. I’d heard about the ’85 Bears my whole life but wasn’t old enough to watch that game, so I wasn’t going to miss it this time if my Bears won it all.
I needed to find a way to either raise the $4,000 (or more) for a ticket or win one somehow. After seeing Screech from “Saved By The Bell” make a website to have fans help pay off his mortgage, I thought maybe I could make a “help me go to the Super Bowl” website and try to get people to donate a dollar each or something. Unfortunately, I didn’t know html, nor did I know how to promote a site like than in the span of three or four days. Plus, why would strangers give me money?
So I was at work a few days later talking to my boss at Fox Sports about how much I wanted to go the game and I mentioned the website idea. He jokingly suggested, “Why don’t you just go on eBay instead?” I’d never used eBay and I thought maybe I could put up the post and just tell a couple local radio stations about it to see if they’d give me a ticket through a contest or something. The previous Halloween my very tiny, blond friend and I decided it would be funny to go as a football player and cheerleader, but reverse the expected roles. The six-foot brickhouse (me) would be the cheerleader and the 5’3″ cute blond would be the player. So I made a Chicago Bears cheerleader costume. Fast-forward to January, and I used a picture of me in the costume for the eBay ad. Not only was it attention-grabbing but it proved I was a diehard fan and made the ad stand out alongside all the posts of people selling tickets. That was at 11 pm.
The next morning at 9 am I had more than 500 e-mails in my inbox. That’s when I realized that I’d gotten myself into something way bigger than I thought. If you look at the wording I made it clear that I was not an escort—that it was just a “date” and nothing more. I told people I didn’t want to be bought—so they shouldn’t “bid”—I had no “buy it now” price so no one could claim to have won, and the day the auction ended was after the game. Clearly I didn’t intend to actually go to the game with a stranger. While some people thought I truly wanted to be “bought” by someone or that I thought I somehow deserved to have someone pay to take me to the game, the truth was, I was just hoping some company with a box would have an extra unclaimed ticket or, like I said, that the eBay stunt would lead to a radio station giving me a ticket or something.
I had emailed a few stations in both L.A. and Chicago saying “look at this crazy girl on eBay, you should help her get a ticket,” and they immediately got in touch to put me on the air. I did a few radio interviews and newspaper interviews and then, just two days later, the people from Axe men’s grooming products called and offered me tickets to the game and a chance to turn things around and see how many guys would do the same thing for a chance to see their team play. There were lots of people on blogs calling me an attention whore (or just a plain whore) and we wanted to show that diehard fans are willing to do crazy things to see their team—that my stunt wasn’t about anything salacious or unsavory.
Anyway, in the end I got to take two girlfriends and the guy who we hand-picked in our contest (who we’re still friends with), we got free airfare, hotel and sweet tickets to the game. To this day people still try to bring it up as an insult but it’s pretty much universally heralded as a very smart and creative stunt. Not to mention I did more than 40 interviews and kept all the info of the people I spoke with—program directors, producers, hosts, etc—and stayed in touch with them as a I continued to pursue a career in sports. In every interview I pushed the host or interviewer to talk about the Bears and my take on the team. It ended being a big help for me in getting in touch with people, impressing people in a position to hire me down the road, and taking that next step in my career. (It also earned Edelman, the PR folks behind the Axe pitch, the runner-up award for the PR Week promotional event of the year as I got them more than $2 million of exposure for the price of $17,000.)
J.P.: I have a problem with journalists working as pitchmen. When I see Chris Berman doing Applebees commercials or so-and-so appearing in Sketchers ads, it really irks me—because it seems to cross the line between journalist and subject. You’ve worked for different corporations (Nike, for example) simultaneously being a paid journalist. Tell me why I’m wrong. Or not.
S.S.: When it comes to journalists as pitchmen, I usually just look at each case individually and don’t draw a hard line in the sand about what they mean for a journalist’s career. Most of the time I’m not bothered at all by a broadcaster doing outside stuff like that. Their work usually won’t in any way be affected by those affiliations. I don’t see any reason why a guy like Chris Berman can’t do ads for Applebees.
As for me, I’ve worked with Nike as an emcee for their events or as an attendee for stuff like new product releases or store openings. I’ve always been a big fan of the brand and enjoy working with them on events that promote childhood health or female empowerment, or events that connect female fans with inspiring athletes like Shawn Johnson or Paula Radcliffe. It doesn’t effect the way I cover sports or Nike—in fact I was very outspoken about my hatred for the Tiger Woods campaign that featured his deceased father’s voice. If it became a conflict, I would stop working with them. Until then, I very much enjoy the relationship and think it positively influences my writing and understanding of our espnW audience, which is similar to the target market for a lot of Nike’s events and products.
J.P.: I always tell people that celebrities are 8,000 times less interesting than the dude at the bar, or the person buying Pampers in the A&P. Inevitably, someone says, “Shut up—that’s stupid.” You agree, or disagree? And why?
S.S.: Celebrities of what kind? I betcha Barack Obama, Tina Fey and Neil deGrasse Tyson are pretty damn interesting. If you’re talking athletes, I’d venture to say most probably have better stories than your average diaper-buyer but aren’t necessarily very well-rounded, cultured or nuanced. Not all, of course. Interesting is a tough word, too. Dennis Rodman is sure more interesting than most.
J.P.: How do you think having been a pretty high-level athlete impacts your career? What I mean is, does it give you a sense of empathy or understanding that, perhaps, non-jocks in the business lack?
S.S.: Absolutely, without a doubt. When I walk into a locker room or interview a player I know what to ask in part because I’ve been there before. I spent more than my fair share of time in ice baths, on trainers tables, running wind sprints, feeling heartbreak over a loss, rehabbing from injury, feuding with crappy teammates and learning how that time in the locker room and on the court can shape you into the person you become. It’s invaluable for me now as a reporter.
S.S.: Boy, that’s tough. There are a few moments that stand out: I wrote a piece about how it’s wrong to use the words “girl” or “female” in place of words like “weak” or “inferior” and called out Osi Umenyiora for doing so a lot in his feud with LeSean McCoy.
Players get fined for racist and homophobic slurs but degrading women is A-Okay for athletes and broadcasters alike. The Chicago Tribune even ran a picture of Chris Pronger with a skirt photoshopped on him during the Stanley Cup Finals between the Flyers and Blackhawks. When my story came out Osi got word of it and actually Tweeted out about how I was right, and how he had never thought about what using those words meant. His response caused the piece to get picked up and linked to by a handful of major-market papers and sites and I loved that my words and the impact of what I was trying to say reached even more people and made them think about it differently.
The first time I ever made the front page of ESPN.com was pretty cool, getting to ride on top of the one of the buses in the Blackhawks Stanley Cup parade with over a million people screaming back at me was awesome and getting tweets and emails and letters from young women who say that I’m an inspiration to them is really, truly extraordinary. I hope I’m giving them an example of what I lacked as a youth—a funny, smart, sarcastic, confident woman who doesn’t feel like she has to be a bubbly sideline reporter or a serious anchor in order to get respect and make her way in the industry.
My lowest point is the lack of respect I got in two separate pro team’s clubhouses when I first started. I had inside sources at both who told me the B.S. that came out of the mouths of reporters from other papers who were threatened by my presence (“She must be sleeping with someone, ’cause the players give her better stories than me”) or PR staffs (“Her boobs are very distracting, we don’t want that around our players”). To whom it may concern, I’ve never slept with a player and I can’t do much about the ol’ rack of lamb—it’s there even when I’m wearing a big old bulky sweatshirt. Anyway, all I could do was put my head down and keep working and I think my continued success has been the best revenge. It’s truly sad in this day and age that women still have to go through that stuff, though.
J.P.: How do sports maintain your interest? What I mean is, it often gets excruciatingly repetitive to me. Same uniforms, different names, pretty much the same storylines—the underdog with the heart of gold, the fading veteran hanging on, etc. Aren’t you ever like, “Dang, I’d sure love to cover a drug bust right now?”
S.S.: I don’t think I’ve been doing this long enough to get sick of things, yet. The players change, the coaches change, the storylines and games are always different. I also have a lot of freedom at espnW to write about what I’m interested in, so one day that could mean a disabled Iraq war veteran who’s training for the Ironman, the next a sarcastic take on the Grammy Awards and the next a look at which NFL draft busts are like which Blockbuster movie busts. If you look, you can always find a new story to tell—or at least a new take on an old one.
J.P.: I know 100 male reporters who resent women reporters because they feel male athletes are more likely to give you time because, plainly, you’re a woman. A. Have you sensed this? B. Is it true?
S.S.: It goes both ways. A guy might be more willing to talk to you because you’re a woman and you’re cute, but he might not give you the depth of answer he gives a male reporter because he’s either too busy flirting or he doesn’t respect that you have the knowledge to take in his thoughts on the Xs and Os of the game. In the locker room, it seems like everyone gets a fair shake as far as time goes—with a few exceptions, of course. There are definitely still athletes who’d prefer not to speak to female reporters and don’t think they belong in the locker room.
Out in the regular world of charity events or otherwise, it’s up to you to be someone worth talking to. Whether that’s because they’re attracted to you or because you’re kind or insightful or powerful or interesting or have a big following—the why is immaterial.
• Would you hug or tackle Tony Romo? How about Jessica Simpson?: Hug both. Tony seems like a good guy who’s had some bad luck and Jessica is harmless.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: Nope.
• Top 5 nicest athletes you’ve interviewed: Tough one. I’ll just go off the top of my head (apologies to anyone nice I’ve missed). In no specific order: Jonathan Toews, Maurice Jones-Drew, Swin Cash, Ryan Dempster, Peanut Tillman.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Larry Bird, giant mugs of coffee, Emanuel Steward, Chuck D , Stuart Scott, Esquire Magazine, “Monster’s Ball,” PED debates, Brittany Payton, canned peas, the number 22, my dad Stan: Esquire Magazine, Brittany Payton, Larry Bird, Chuck D, giant mugs of coffee, Stuart Scott, the number 22, PED debates, Emanuel Steward, your dad Stan, “Monster’s Ball” (never saw it), canned peas.
• Five things you carry in your purse: Phone, wallet, lip gloss, ESPN 1000 badge, gum.
• One question you’d ask Tim Foli were he here right now?: “Why do you think Quazmaster Jeff Pearlman chose you, of all people, to ask me about?”
• Celine Dion offers you $500,000 to serve as the nightly MC of her new Las Vegas Show, “I’m Celine Dion—you’re not.” However, you have to smoke three cigarettes per night and do a nightly solo of Tupac’s, “Dear Mama.” You in?: The Tupac solo would be fine. Love that jam and I’m not only a solid singer, I’m a tremendous rapper. The cigarettes would be a serious, serious problem, though. I’ve never even taken a single drag of a cigarette and I hate them with every fiber of my being. That being said, I’d do the job for two weeks and then take the money and run.
• 20 words or less: Am I right or wrong to detest Skip Bayless debating people on ESPN?: Not a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of opinion. Ratings support him, Twitter echo chamber supports you.
• Biggest negative of working in sports?: Sports never take a day off—nights, weekends and holidays are all fair game.
• Who would win in a 12-round fight between you and Mr. T? How long would it go?: He’s 60 but he would definitely destroy me. I’ve never been in a fight and the ring isn’t big enough for me to just run away for a while and tire him out. I’d be knocked out in less than one minute.