Clever Belle is excited to introduce you to Sarah Spain, a reporter for SportsCenter and a rising star at ESPN. Sarah is an athlete, entertainer, and a strong voice for women. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your inspiring message with us!
Who in your life encouraged your love of sports, and how did they impact your desire to continue sports into college and as a career?
First, my parents. Just by virtue of being active, they encouraged my sister and I to participate in sports at a young age. We did gymnastics, took tennis, horseback riding and golf lessons, created our own softball and basketball games in the yard and found out pretty quickly that we were both great athletes. My love of playing basketball got me watching Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls obsessively, which eventually turned into a love of watching all sports. Because my parents were into playing, but not really fans of watching, and because there weren't a lot of female sports broadcasters when I was growing up, working in sports just never seemed like an option. I got recruited for field hockey, basketball and track and ended up doing heptathlon at the D1 level at Cornell University, but it still didn't really occur to me to work in the sports business. It wasn't until after I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting and comedy that I hosted a fake Chicago Bears show in a TV hosting bootcamp and realized I might be able to pair my love of sports with my love of entertainment.
Did anyone ever tell you that you shouldn't be a sports reporter? If so, how did you respond to that?
Other than trolls on Twitter who tell me to "get in the kitchen" or say outright that women shouldn't be in sports, no. My mother and father had a law practice together and she was always such a strong role model, that it never really crossed my mind that I couldn't do whatever I wanted. While the idea of "if you can see it you can be it" proved true, in that I hadn't imagined a career in sports because there wasn't much female representation, by the time I decided to make the pivot to sports I never believed I wouldn't make it. There have certainly been people along the way who made me feel like the path might be harder for a woman, but I believed in myself and that I had a perspective worth hearing. Sometimes I do worry that I've been enjoying success for long enough now that I might have trouble remembering just how tough it was back in the day, so I'll temper this answer by saying that I'm sure years ago there were moments where I wondered just how far a woman interested in being funny instead of sexy could go. Fortunately, there are more and more funny, smart, opinionated women in sports with every passing year.
What inspires you the most about females in sports?
The message that they send to kids that being a strong and competitive woman is okay. While I never had trouble accessing my competitive side (every side of me is uber competitive, to be honest), I know that some girls get messages from family, friends, peers and society at large that being strong, tough and athletic is a "boy thing." It's incredibly important for young boys and girls to see women like Serena Williams, Elena Delle Donne, Ronda Rousey, Abby Wambach, Billy Jean King, Simone Biles and more prove that greatness comes in all different sizes and shapes and that your body is a tool to achieve great things.
Who is your role model?
I would say it's a tie between two completely disparate people: my mom and Michael Jordan. My mom is smart, strong, accomplished, kind, considerate, charitable, talented and a true Renaissance woman. From weaving baskets and quilts to making gourmet meals and running 5Ks, she's an incredible mother and grandmother all while being a successful partner in her own law firm, embodying the best of what a woman can be. The sports side of me has always been inspired by MJ. I grew up copying his moves on the court (just the below the rim ones, unfortunately!) and following his career in every book, article and movie I could get my hands on. He's flawed--as are many role models--but he's the reason I'm a sports reporter and I always felt empowered and affirmed by his competitiveness and how I saw the same within myself.
What is one challenge you have had to overcome in your career? What did you learn?
Defying stereotypes and expectations is a continual struggle in this industry. I think a lot of people like to put women into a box--if you're pretty, you can't be smart, if you're funny you can't cover serious topics--and presume that all women in sports were hired because they're a pretty face or as a "diversity hire." The only way to prove I deserve my job and I'm qualified for it is to put my head down and work hard and create good content. The only way to dispel b.s. stereotypes about women not truly loving sports, or being in it to date the athletes, is to prove that I care as much as the fans do.
What do you love most about your job?
First, I just love entertaining and informing people. I'm endlessly curious and very opinionated, so I like sharing information, stories, news and opinions. And of course I just love that it rarely feels like work because I'm watching, reading and talking about things about which I'm passionate.
Do you ever get nervous on air? If so, how do you overcome those nerves? Any techniques or mantras you have that help you push through?
I only get nervous when it's my first time doing a show, because I don't know the logistics. Where do we meet and at what time, who's producing, how do we choose content, which camera do I look at, etc. Once I've got one in the books I'm usually not nervous at all. I love being on camera and pretty much forget about who might be watching and just do my thing. The one technique I learned early on that might help others is, when posing for a photo or when delivering content straight to the camera (for commercials, anchor work, whatever), imagine the camera is a loved one. It adds a kindness and familiarity to your eyes and face and makes your delivery more natural, friendly and appealing.
Who's your favorite person you've interviewed and why?
That's too tough! I get this question a lot and I can never figure out the answer, because there are so many great people I've gotten to work with and interview. I'll just say the first couple folks that come to mind as super friendly and interesting and hope my subconscious is leading me in the right direction: Swin Cash, David Ross, Jonathan Toews, Maggie Steffens, Charles Barkley, Aaron Rodgers, Abby Wambach, Julie Foudy, Sue Bird, Ernie Banks and Maurice Jones-Drew.
What's next for you and where do you want to take your career?
Right now plugging away on my radio shows, podcast, espnW columns, Around The Horn and SportsCenter work. I hope to eventually have my own half-hour, daily sports TV show and, eventually, would love to get into the nighttime talk show space, getting the chance to work together with athletes, musicians, entertainers and more.
Any words of advice for young girls or women looking to pursue a career in sports reporting?
Work hard, never turn down an opportunity, be kind and respectful to everyone--you never know who you might work with again, be flexible, and find out what makes you special and interesting and different and spotlight that.
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