If you’ve ever tuned into ESPN, or read anything published on ESPN, or are even a fan of the ESPN podcast and/or radio network, you more likely than not know who Sarah Spain is. The incredibly talented and versatile Sarah Spain has cemented herself as a household name in the sports media world. The work she has done and continues to do has helped more girls and women see themselves in places they never thought possible before.
I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and chat with Sarah about her work, her day-to-day life, her journey to where she is now, and how she handles negativity. The transcript and video of the interview are below!
Emily: So I’m familiar with the things you’ve done. But for anyone who’s watching this or reading this, who’s not quite familiar, why don’t you explain a little bit about what you do?
Sarah: Sure, very multifaceted player at ESPN. So I host the national ESPN radio show called ‘Spain and Fitz’ every weeknight. I have a podcast, new episodes every Tuesday called ‘That’s What She Said’. I do ‘Around the Horn’ usually twice a week as a panelist, ‘HQ’ [Highly Questionable] every once in a while, write for ESPNW.com. And then sometimes I do stuff for ‘Outside The Lines’, ‘SportsCenter’, a couple other places. So sort of a jack of all trades kind of thing.
Emily: Okay, so your schedule probably varies in different degrees, because as you said you do quite a lot. But what does like a typical day for you look like?
Sarah: It does vary a lot. I’ll give you for instance, like an ‘Around the Horn’ day because those are more regular. We have a call around 9:30 am Central, we base it off a doc that has stories that we’re considering doing that the producers are laying out for us. Then we have about an hour conversation, conference call with all the panelists and producers discussing the topics of the day, seeing what we’re hottest on, what’s most interesting, what do we like, what’s maybe out there that one of the panelists suggests that we should talk about if they don’t have it on the doc. Then I’ll usually just get myself ready and hop out the door. It’s about 15 minutes to the studio that I tape at, and makeup and hair, and then we shoot from about one to 2:30ish and then come home. I get a little break where sometimes I record other podcasts or interviews or catch up on work. And then my radio show, we usually start prep between 4:30 and 5 Central, and then we’re on the air from 6 to 8 Central. And then now it’s 8 o’clock and I eat a late dinner and then I usually get more work done or relax or hang out at home for a couple hours before I go to bed. The rest of the week is very different because I record podcast interviews, I have other TV shows, or you know right now I’m working on doing some stuff with ‘Outside The Lines’. I’ve got stuff coming up for ‘ESPN Daily’, the podcast that I’ll be filling in hosting. So those days it’s kind of a crapshoot.
Emily: So did you always want a career in sports media? Or did you ever see yourself in a different environment?
Sarah: No, it was very late coming. I actually grew up wanting to be on Saturday Night Live, or Broadway. I grew up singing and like performing and charging my parents, you know, money to attend plays in the living room. I always wanted to be like a performer but I was an athlete, I was a three-sport athlete, and there was band and chorus. So it was like trying to squeeze all the things in, and drama was always at the same time as sports, right? All the school plays are right after school at the same time. So I kind of put those to the side. Went to Cornell University as an English major did a lot of classes that were sort of just, whatever I found interesting, dialects, right learning accents, newspaper writing, magazine writing, film, music theory, all these different things to try to figure out what I was passionate about. And after school, I wanted to move to LA to do acting and comedy stuff, considered working in PR & advertising for a little bit, thought you know, could scratch the creative itch without doing the really difficult industry of trying to be an actress. But I figured let’s just give it a shot, moved out to LA. And it wasn’t till I was out there and took a class in TV sports reporting at UCLA Extension, that I was like, Oh I could combine my career as an athlete with, I was doing Second City improv, so my improv skills and all that stuff, and my writing as an English major and bring that all together. And that’s sorta where it started. It wasn’t till I was maybe 24-25 when I really thought about it. And I really always say I think it’s because of something we often say at ESPNW, ‘if you can see it, you can be it’. And growing up there was just so few women in the business to look up to, especially not ones that got to have a lot of personality and be funny. And so hopefully that’s a lot different now with so many more of us in the business.
Emily: I mean, I’ve just moved myself into different levels of sports media because I’m still in college and things like that. But I definitely see more representation now than I did you know, however many years ago. And it’s not even just the fact of representation and seeing yourself it’s, like you said, having a personality, being able to have like your own little bits and things like that. So I think that’s super important. So it came out recently, a few months ago or so that you are part of the ownership group for the Chicago Red Stars. So was there anything that personally motivated you to do that and join that?
Sarah: For sure. First of all, I’m a fan of the team, and so having the opportunity to do it was really cool. I know a couple of the owners of the new Angel City FC expansion team out in LA that’s gonna start playing next year, Julie Foudy who is a colleague of mine, Abby Wambach, her wife Glennon Doyle. And so seeing them do it, I was like, woah we could do that. Like I always just thought everyone was like Jerry Jones, or like this old, rich, white dude with a yacht and like a monocle. And I was like, that’s how rich you have to be. And it’s a different model. And I really think changing the diversity in sports can happen at every level. But when it starts at the top, then trickles down into ‘Who are you hiring?’ and ‘What are the messages that you’re sending to your fanbase?’ and ‘How do you treat your players?’ So it was selfishly a really cool opportunity to get into these rooms with these incredible people and pick their brains for business savvy and have this learning curve of what it is to be an owner. But also you know for me to spend a lot of my time in my job talking about how there’s not enough investment in women’s sports, how we continue to underestimate the growth opportunities for it, and then not hop on an opportunity to put my money where my mouth is, quite literally, and put a big investment into this and believe that it’s going to grow and pay off. How can I turn that down?
Emily: So changing gears a little bit, I’ve read a lot of what you’ve written for ESPN. And you’ve written about some very challenging and, you know, nuanced topics that require a lot of, you know, they come with a lot of opinions, and they require a lot of research and delving into different layers and things like that. And I’ve used it to help model my own writing. So how do you handle you know, writing these seriously challenging topics like with sexual harassment or sexual assault and things like that? You know, that can be emotionally or mentally draining? So how do you handle writing something so serious?
Sarah: Yeah it is a lot to carry, because you are taking on the experiences and the suffering of the people you’re writing about. And that’s, that’s difficult. But I would say for me more so than the experience of writing it, it’s the reactions to it. Never am I more harassed on social media than when I’m talking about or writing about topics that involve male-female interpersonal dynamics, sexual assault, domestic violence, and it’s very disheartening. Not so much the like full-on a-holes, it’s the ones that are just so stubborn in their opinion of it and they can’t be moved with conversation or nuance or facts. And that’s sad to me, because I want to write about these things, in part, because we have to acknowledge the things that are at play. When we react the way we do. And instead of just saying that ‘anyone who blames the victim is evil’ let’s ask ourselves why in the world would you look at the victim of a crime and turn the finger at them instead of the person who did the crime. And that’s, that’s literally all of the things that society imbues us with over the course of our lifetime. And we have to unpack those if we wanna change it. And so I get frustrated when people don’t want to have the conversations. And the writing of it, absolutely, you take on a lot of what that person went through. But it’s, it’s meaningful to me because if we don’t talk about it in the right ways, we have incredible power as media members to shape the way people react to accusations against popular athletes. And if everyone’s just playing the hero-worship game, and not offering up, you know, a better understanding of the topic, then the victims just get buried.
Emily: You actually just answered my next questions, which was how do you handle hate and things like that? Because I’ve read the replies to your tweets of your articles, and it makes me so frustrated, and like, I have to like hold myself back from responding. So just, you know, staying kind of in the same topic, how do you handle those kind of comments in general about anything? Just unwanted hate or criticism and things like that?
Sarah: One thing I always say is that unless you’re like a contestant on ‘The Bachelor’, or like some viral video star, like usually your exposure is gradual right? So you start out at a certain level, you have a very small number of people reading, watching, etc, responding. And so you grow a thicker skin the bigger your star becomes, and that allows you to at least get used to and understanding best practices for you. Like for some people, they turn off all their mentions. For some people, they respond to all of them. For some people, they just mute and block. So you kind of find the best way for you to deal with it. And for me, I do a lot of muting and blocking. But I also like to selectively choose people to use as an example, either because they set themselves up for like clap-back. And for me, that’s very cathartic to like, make them look small, and to show other women that I’m not going to shrink under the harassment, I’m going to be strong and powerful in the face of it. And sometimes I pick specific examples because I think they’re reflective of a larger viewpoint, and I want to respond and share why that viewpoint is wrong, so that everybody watching this maybe in the middle that doesn’t have a strong view is like, ‘Oh, I see that now, like that’s wrong or bad.’ And so I’m not often trying to convince the person I’m responding to who’s truly awful to change their mind. It’s more so for the people who are floating around, maybe not even responding but are reading and paying attention to everything and really taking it in. So there are absolutely days when I already feel bad enough and then everyone’s like, ‘You look bad today, you’re ugly’ or whatever. And I’m like ugh, but for the most part, I care a lot more about being misunderstood or misrepresented than I care about just being flat out attacked. When I’m being attacked, I usually feel sorry for those people. I figure something must be going on in their life for them to be sad enough that they spend time on the internet just being awful to people. Like you must be so dissatisfied with your own life if that’s how you’re choosing to spend your time and if it makes you feel better to make other people hurt. So usually I feel sorry for those people and sometimes even write them, ‘Hey I’m sorry if you’re going through something, I hope it gets better’. It’s the ones where they argue straw man, or claim that I said something I didn’t, but then I’m like writing, writing, writing, and responding, I’m like ‘Oh my God just walk away, they’re never gonna agree.’ Like, they’re never gonna respect that you’re saying something. They’re just gonna keep like, arguing against a straw man. And thats, those are the ones that get me.
Emily: Yeah, I can’t count how many times I’ve typed out like, a whole essay of a response and I’m like, ‘No, just delete it’ because they don’t care, they want a reaction. So the media world in general and, you know, inclusive of sports media has grown in the sense that it’s scattered across so many different platforms. Now you have TV, you have writing, you have podcasts, you have social media. So how do you handle you know, a constantly changing media environment?
Sarah: It’s tough. When I was younger, I would say I was better at it, mainly just because I had more time to like, fiddle around with learning things, and just to like keep up with trends which is much more commonplace I think in your 20s and early 30s. Now, I’m like, ‘Nope, I’ve got it all figured out, I’m the master of this, do not change it on me.’ So I do, do have to really consider my time and make sure that like, I don’t become the world’s biggest, you know, Snapchat expert if it’s going away, or like devote all my time to Tik Tok and then it’s going away. That’s great for people who need a new platform. I don’t really need a new platform, I have one at ESPN. And so it’s a matter of when it’s worth taking the time to figure it out, but also understand that I can’t do it all, which is like the worst because I’m such a person who like just wants to do it all and learn how to do it all.
Emily: So you have, you know, quite the list of accolades and such in your career. What would you say, in any aspect, has been the most rewarding part of it so far?
Sarah: I’m gonna say it’s twofold. One is very self-serving, and the other is just as true, but a little bit more, I would say well, well rounded or a little bit better response. The first one is simply that I get to, most of the time, really love my job. Like I get to enjoy it. I sit down in the chair for ‘Around the Horn’, and that I could be in a bad mood and I’m always in a good mood when I get up and walk away because it’s such a fun show to do. I get to interview all these people that I admire and find fascinating and pick their brains for my podcast. You know, I get to hang out with my co-host Fitz every night and have like as much laughing as we do serious conversation, like all those things I will never take for granted. Even during the early part of this year, when like it was freezing in Chicago, I couldn’t leave my house, I couldn’t see anybody. All I was doing was working, and I’m such a workaholic, that without any opportunities to like break it up, I just didn’t get any time away. I started to like wonder, ‘Do I, do I still like this job?’ And that was a very strange feeling for me, but thankfully I’m out of that. And I’m just very grateful that what I do is something that I like and love and feel passionate about and get to be creative, and that would be the first half. The second half is, it really does matter to me that I spend a lot of time in my job doing things that I think matter to other people and change people’s minds, and inform them, and educate them, and make them more empathetic, and make them, you know, learn. That really makes me, because I love sports, but I just don’t know if I would feel satisfied I made a career out of just talking about balls and strikes, X’s and O’s, touchdowns, interceptions, like I love it. But as a, as a career, knowing the things that I care about, the issues that really matter to me, I need to have my platform also mean that I’m talking about those issues and engaging with people on things that are really important. So I really like that aspect of it.
Emily: So was there a specific moment at all that you’ve had in your career so far, that was like a turning point or a learning moment that you really have, you know, taken a lot away from?
Sarah: Yeah, I would say, a friend of mine came to me with a story about the Kansas City running backs coach, and his search for his birth parents. And it was the most incredible story, he gave me like a five-minute summary, and I was already crying. And that was just like a five-minute quick thing, it wasn’t even the whole story. I took it to ESPN and we decided to do an E:60 on it with the family. And so I had never done any feature reporting like that, long-form E:60, and I had never written a long-form feature piece. I had done plenty of writing, but I had not done that kind of story. And at first, I was gonna recommend that they gave it to someone else to do the writing portion of it. I was like, ‘Oh God just get Wright Thompson or like Mina Kimes’ or something because I hadn’t done it before. And I had real insecurity and a lot of doubt about it like, whether I would do it right because it was such a beautiful story. And we won an Emmy for the E:60, and I won the Dan Jenkins Sports Medal for the best sports writing piece of the year for my written piece, and got such an amazing, incredible reaction. And it’s not so much of patting myself on the back as it is like, next time you get an opportunity to do something that you haven’t done before, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t say no because you’re nervous. Don’t say no because you’ve never done it before. Don’t suggest that they use someone else and undercut your own abilities. Just go for it. And there is this incredible balance I think of, self-awareness that is extremely useful, but also not to the point that you don’t put yourself out there because there’s a lot of people lacking self-awareness, but just go for it. And guess what? They get a lot farther than the extremely, you know, perfectionist person who doesn’t even try. You’re not getting anywhere if you’re not at least putting yourself out there. So that was a good turning point for me to say yes and to believe in myself.
Emily: That’s really good. Just kind of wrapping up here, there’s a club at my university, I go to Temple University in Philadelphia, and it’s a recent club, ‘The Sports Media Society for Women’, and there’s about, I would say, 20 or so of us in it. And we get guest speakers who come every month or so, and they always wrap up, you know, just a parting word of advice. So I’m going to ask you what your parting word of advice would be?
Sarah: My two that I always say is one, to be yourself and truly lean into what makes you different and special. Be transparent and authentic about who you are, because especially now more than ever, that’s what people want. They want your true self, and it’s so easy to see artifice now, because everything is much more like, laid out and real. And so instead of… you can look up to people, you can model yourself after really successful people, but you will just be a copy of them if you try to be them. Be yourself, lean into things. I’ve always leaned into my sense of humor, that’s led the way for so much of my career. So if you’re a great reporter, or a great interviewer, or you’re really funny, or you’re good with statistics, or you like… whatever that is, lean into it and lead with it to separate yourself from the pack, because it’s such a busy and crowded and market of people who want these jobs. And then secondarily is to consider the fact that every time you go into a space to work, you may run into those people again, you may have a great opportunity to learn something, you may have a great opportunity to prove something. You’re never too good for a job. You’re never too good for the people you work with. Never have an attitude, never be late, always be easy to work with. The simplest things can make the biggest difference. I can’t tell you how many times now in this industry, I met someone and a decade later they’re now working at a company that I’m working with, or hiring for somewhere that I want to work, or, you know, working at a brand that now I want to be a partner with and have the sponsor or something. So it matters a ton, do the work well, to be extremely prepared, be so much more prepared to do so much more prep work than you ever think you need. It’s so much better to have extra information than to get there and be incredibly nervous because you realize you didn’t prepare. So those are my two biggest ones. Actually, I have a quick anecdote about the first one. When I first moved to LA, I wanted to do acting and I went to the bookstore to find all of these like, ‘how to be an actress?’ like ‘how do you find an agent?’ whatever. And I remember this very specific anecdote from the book about this guy, Bobcat Goldthwait, and I’ve been telling this story for my whole career, and the people who get the lesson know who he is. I know you have no idea who he is, you might not even know who Pee Wee Herman is, who is my example that I started using for another generation who is also someone you’ve never heard of. And they’re harder to use examples now because everybody is much more unique and quirky. But back in the day, when there was just much more uniform of what you saw on TV and who was on, you know, TV and movies. There wasn’t YouTube and everybody getting to do their thing. This guy Bobcat Goldthwait was a movie star and he was like, very strange. If you look him up, he almost sounded like he was like, coughing when he laughed. He had really weird voices and his face would kind of make weird things. And the book basically said, it’s not like Hollywood was like, ‘Man, we really need to find this guy.’ He showed up and he created a space for himself in a place that definitely wouldn’t have gone looking for him and didn’t necessarily seem like it needed him. So that’s what you need to do. Whatever your skill set, and whoever you are, don’t go looking at the way that I did and started my career late where I was like, I’m looking around, I don’t see anyone like me, so it doesn’t even occur to me. Go create that space for yourself, and make the thing that you want to do. And if you do it well, and you work hard, you hopefully can find a home.
Emily: Great. So one last question, we ask this to everyone we talk to. And I know you’re super busy, but is there anything that you’re watching or just specifically enjoying that you do in your free time?
Sarah: Well, of course there’s a new season of The Bachelorette, so that’s extremely important to keep tabs on Katie who’s crushing it so far. Extremely, like full into it. I have to start watching, and I’m gonna forget the name of it, there’s a brand new show that is about this like, older female stand up and she brings like this young stand up to help write her jokes. Everybody is like raving about it. So the new season of Ted Lasso is almost out, a new season of Never Have I Ever is almost out. So I’m looking forward to those, and I’m watching the latest Top Chef too.
Emily: Very excited about the next season of Ted Lasso. So that’s all I have, so again, thank you so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it, and you really said some great things that I’m definitely going to take away, and I hope other people are able to take away also.
Sarah: Thanks for having me.