People With Passion: Sarah Spain
A People with Passion series
December 14, 2011: Sarah Spain
If you know Sarah Spain as “that girl who auctioned herself on ebay for Super Bowl tickets” or as “the fantasy sports girl,” it’s probably because you’ve never met her. The self-proclaimed sarcastic, smartass, funny girl is a dedicated entertainer and sports fan supreme, especially when it comes to Michael Jordan.
“When Jordan retired the first time, I was in history class, and they put it on TV in my history class instead of (pause) learning. It was a big enough deal that they wheeled the TV in, and I was just crying in my class. That was just crushing.
“I once drove from Cornell to Washington, D.C. by myself, bought a ticket in the nose bleeds – I was worried I was never going to see him play again. When he came back to the Wizards, I thought I might have lost my chance to see his last game, so I was just like, ‘I just want to make sure I catch him one more time. I don’t know when he’s going to leave.’ And he had one of the worst games of his career. he had like 12 points. And he played terribly. And I was sitting alone in the 300s, just sad. Very sad.”
In the 18th installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, ESPN personality Sarah Spain discusses her background as a full-time athlete, an improv sketch comic, and her perspective on sports as a woman, and how all three make her the sportscaster she is.
Growing up, I read about horses all the time. I was obsessed with horses. I mostly read horse books, and a lot of fiction stories involving horses, people who found wild horses and trained them, people who showed their horses on the Saddle Club. Basically I was obsessed with that.
I rode horses for probably four or five years. I had to quit because I was going into high school and I was too busy to keep doing it. I was kind of an overachiever kid. I did band and chorus and three sports and every club imaginable. I played USTA tennis and had to quit that when I went to high school. That was the first sport we got into when we were little. My parents were into tennis, so we started playing, and that segued into every other sport I played growing up. I did basketball, field hockey, and track in high school, got recruited for all of them, and decided to do track in college.
But my love of sports as a consumer was basically Michael Jordan. Neither of my parents are into sports as a consumer. They’re getting into it now because they want to know what I’m talking about and they want to read my stuff. If it was something like the Bulls playoffs and I was really into it, they would kind of be in the room and pay attention, but it’s never been something that they were compelled to follow very closely.
My mom would save all of those articles for me from the Tribune and the Sun-Times, but it wasn’t so much a specific journalist. I wasn’t really aware of who was providing sports coverage. I just wanted to read about Michael. It wasn’t any particular person’s way of writing about him that I cared about at the time, so I took all the knowledge in. I wanted to learn about them, but I wasn’t really paying attention to the act of journalism at that point.
I wanted to be an actress my whole life. But I was also really into writing. I would write all the time, but it was more fiction. It wasn’t journalism. And then I got to Cornell, but because I did sports I couldn’t participate in acting. It’s all at the same time. I took a journalism class at Cornell, and I did that writing for the Cornell Daily Sun, and it was something I always thought I would dabble in on the side, but I didn’t think that being a writer was something I really wanted to do because I thought it was lonely. And it is, a lot of the time.
I thought the idea of learning about people and having a new story to tell all the time was really interesting. And that was one of the main reasons I wanted to be an actress: every character you played would allow you to meet someone new and learn something about the world and be involved in it and then move on. I was always worried about getting bored in work. My parents are both lawyers and they have their own practice and they work really hard, but because it’s their own, if they really need to go do something or take some time off, they can.
I always thought that if my acting career was going to be really hard to do, I should focus on something else I like that was creative as a fall back. So I got some experience doing PR and marketing. After living in L.A. for that summer, I was like, I have to come back and at least give it a shot to do the acting stuff. Moved out there, and I was taking acting classes and I worked at a restaurant, of course. That’s what everybody does.
I really liked the process of reading the scripts and trying to find the humor and the character beats, but I found that the people in my classes were much more talented than I was at acting. That’s just the way it was. I think also – I’m a late bloomer as far as life experience and emotional connection. I’ve had a pretty solid life. Nothing really terrible has ever happened to me, you know? I didn’t have anything to access when it came to certain parts of characters. Like people in my class would be crying or screaming or whatever –
They would remember the time when their father –
Yeah, and a lot of people draw from that, but I found that I’m pretty deadpan, I’m very sarcastic, I’m not a big person. I’m not like (makes animated face and hand motions) this all the time. I never really do this. And I wasn’t crying a lot. I didn’t have anything bad. I didn’t have a hard childhood. I felt so uncomfortable trying to fake my way through these people when everybody around me seemed to so easily access some part of themselves.
But while I was in the class, I would be the one that read the script perfectly, got where all the jokes were, could direct somebody else and say, “I think it’s supposed to go like this,” and then they would nail it. My teacher was like, “You should be a director maybe,” and I’m starting to think something other than this. I took a hosting boot camp. TV hosting. And that had always been the other option.
Hosting boot camp?
Yeah. You go for a weekend, and it’s like two days of eight hours or so of the breakdown: What do you need to do a hosting tape? How do you do it? Tips for on-camera. Tips for auditions. All that stuff. There’s a lot more books and information out in the world about, How do you be an actress? What do you do? Well, you move to L.A., get a job at a restaurant, go to this store on Franklin and buy this thing of agents and send them a letter that says you need one – you know, there’s all these stupid things that you do. And there wasn’t exactly the same thing for hosting. Once I went to the hosting thing, I was like, “I should have been doing this all along.”
This is your own natural wit and brains. You’re making your own script by speaking it. You sometimes read scripted pieces, but for the most part you’re interviewing people and you’re off-the-cuff and it’s something new every day. You’re learning new things. It’s not about pretending to be someone else – it’s about working with whoever you are and making people want to hear what you have to say about something.
After that I took a TV sports reporting class, because at the boot camp, they said, “What are you an expert in for our fake shows?” Everyone had to get up and host fake shows. I was like, “What am I an expert in? I’m not an expert in anything,” but I’d been obsessed with sports my whole life, and I’ve participated in sports my whole life, and I’d worked in a PR company in Chicago before I moved to L.A. that was all sports.
I always identified myself as a massive sports fan, but it was never something where I needed to talk about it or prove myself or thought of it as a career. I honestly believe it’s because I’ve always wanted to do comedy, and there’s no women in sports that do comedy. I think Michelle Beadle has a gig on Sports Nation now that allows her to be funny. The people that I watched that I wanted to be like were more like Greg Kinnear when he hosted Talk Soup. I wanted to host Talk Soup.
I still consider myself more an entertainer than a journalist. I do play the journalist role a lot, but I’m much happier entertaining people while talking about sports than informing them while talking about sports. I like to do both, but if you made me pick, I would rather do funny sketches like Kenny Mayne’s “Mayne Event” than do groundbreaking pieces. I just think I’m more naturally suited to that.
Mouthpiece was a perfect job for me for my first real on-camera gig. The main point of that place was to be the voice of the athlete, not to be associated with any other outlets or to have an agenda of any other kind. It was just, What does the athlete actually want to say without having someone edit them down? It was so free. My natural inclination was to get them to be funny and to ask them questions that were interesting to me. I went on the message boards to find out what people wondered and then went and asked them.
The improv stuff was huge for that. They’ll say, “Go cover this charity football event,” and instead of going and asking just about, (hokey voice) “Why is charity meaningful to you?” Bullshit. I decided to do one with Peanut Tillman where I was doing an audition to be a Bears wide receiver. We mic’d him up, and it’s much more interesting to watch. You’re still covering the event, you’re still saying where you are, but you’re giving people something that is a different side of the athlete. I think Second City is huge for that. I was already pretty open talking to people, but it makes you aware of that even more, of how to get the people around you to work with you instead of wondering what you’re getting at.
The crux of improv is this idea of never saying “no.” You’re not allowed to say “no” in improv. Whatever someone puts in front of you, you have to accept it. You can say “and” – someone says, “I’m going to die in three seconds,” and instead of saying “No you’re not,” because that would be dumb, you would say, “I know you are, and thank god I have this serum right here.” The whole crux is to keep the ball in the air. When it comes to some of the sketches that I do and some of the interviews I do with guys where I try to keep them funny, it’s about keeping the ball in the air. It’s about keeping them wanting to talk to you and speaking in a way that puts them at ease.
I view sports as entertainment, not as news. I think you can split people up into one or the other. I get that it’s a business, it makes a lot of money, it’s people’s lives and jobs, it’s other people covering them’s lives and jobs. I get how that’s news. I get how you can break news in sports. But when I consume it, it’s not news like the war is news, or the presidential election is news – even though Donald Trump is now running the debates, so that’s more entertainment too. [ED. NOTE: Donald Trump pulled out of moderating the Iowa debates the day before our interview.]
I do write serious stuff. The more influence I have, the more I realize I have a platform to talk about stuff that does annoy me. I wanna write a very serious piece about head injuries in the NHL and NFL. I wrote one last year, and I want to keep pushing the idea of if you saw your favorite athlete of all-time – let’s say Jonathan Toews and Derrick Rose and – think of someone else who’s super nice – Peanut Tillman, okay? Peanut Tillman, Derrick Rose, and Jonathan Toews, 20 years from now one of them kills himself, one of them kills his whole family and then kills himself, and the other one dies at age 50 and they show that he has massive brain disease. Will you be okay going back to your current self who said, “It’s part of the game. That’s what you’re signing up for.”? You can’t be inhumane anymore. We have too much knowledge about concussions to say, “Just let them play the way they’ve always played. It’s boring to watch football if they don’t hit hard enough.”
So I have issues that bother me, and I have things I want to take a serious take on, but I don’t consider that to be what I do best. It’s like the acting thing. There are people who are so much better than me at the grit. I feel more naturally compelled to make people laugh than I do to make people think.
They just unveiled this big series on the NHL enforcers that’s supposed to be really amazing – New York Times – on all those – Derek Boogaard and the guys that died this summer that were all young. So there’s stuff like that that I want to write about, and I appreciate –
And THAT’S news.
That is news. That is news. For sure that’s news. I’m not saying it has to be one or the other. I’m just saying that I skew toward one side while most people skew to the other.
So here’s the thing: I know the rules. You have to be unbiased. Okay. But you have to be unbiased when you’re a beat reporter. You don’t have to be unbiased when you’re on the radio. People listen to Waddle and Silvy because they are gonna empathize with how you feel when the Bears lose. That’s how it works. When you’re a personality or you’re a columnist, people are coming to you for your opinions, not to give unbiased takes based on the sound bites and footage you’re getting.
Here’s the difference: Dave Bolland just went off and called the Sedin Brothers “the sisters” and was acting like a jerk, and then the coach for the Canucks came back and said that he had a face only a mother could love and his brain was a size of a pea, or whatever. I think they’re both completely unprofessional, but just because Dave Bolland is on the team I care about, I’m not going to give him a pass. I’m going to say he was unprofessional too. You have to be unbiased enough to say bad things about the people that you cover, but I don’t think it has to be at the point where you go out looking for ways to prove that you don’t care. Which some people do.
There’s so much content out there now. There’s tons of websites, that are mostly comedy-based, about sports, and then there’s tons of content that’s very serious. I think you need both. If I wanted to read about that Bears game because I didn’t watch it and I wanted to know that Marion Barber didn’t run out of bounds and all these things, I go to ESPN, Tribune, the New York Times, SI.com. I don’t go to a website.
But if I want to read about Derek Jeter giving his sexual conquests a take-home bag of signed gifts, I go immediately to a funny place. I don’t need to hear someone proselytize about whether that was cool or not, or, you know, (stuffy, mock serious voice) “Does this affect Derek Jeter’s persona as a – ” Who gives a fuck? It’s a funny story. Write it funny. Don’t write it serious. If someone wants to write about how something funny really does affect someone, that’s fine, but I’m just not as interested.
I interviewed Peanut this year –
I love Peanut.
He’s one of my favorite players and I was real excited to talk to him.
He can be pretty serious too, though.
Yes he can. And the beat reporters for the Bears were like, “You’re gonna do what? You’re gonna interview Peanut? Watch out, he’s gruff.”
Yeah, he can be.
So the interview ends, and it came out fine after editing, but during the interview I never really felt like it (claps hands) took off like I’m used to. So after we were done, I went back over to him and said, “What is it that reporters never ask you about that you wish they would?” And he said, “They never ask about your family. They only want to know about what you messed up on Sunday. They only care about you for their stories.” I saw it in the press room with Cutler – we hammer these guys like they’re fucking Pentagon officials. Do you think we’re going to see a shift toward more comedic stuff or more light stuff in newspapers?
I think newspapers have to do a little bit more of that, because they’re losing out on other outlets. For ease, but also because people want to be entertained. They feel a need to be entertained more than educated now. People don’t give a shit whether they’re smart and informed. They just want to laugh and then go back to being idiots.
But the thing about Peanut is, no matter who you talk to, you’re going to get a different answer. Jay Cutler would say, “Please don’t ask me about anything except for football.” He doesn’t want to be grilled for shit like that. Brent Seabrook, when I was doing all of the funny stuff for Mouthpiece Sports, I could tell he absolutely hated it. He did not want to have a conversation about anything that involved his personal life. Other athletes thought it was funny to talk about that stuff, or wanted to talk about their kids or their charities or whatever. I think it’s a crap shoot. You ask them something and they say, “Why are you getting personal? My job is to talk about the sport that I play. My job is not to share my personal life with you,” or what Peanut said.
Like what you said about being a journalist – I don’t really care what role someone else tries to put me in. When I used to do some of the Mouthpiece stuff, I remember very specifically someone said, “What a waste of a press credential,” about a piece I did where I had all of the Cubs players act like the water cooler that Carlos Zambrano had destroyed was somebody on the DL. It was very Daily Show, John Oliver – everyone’s dead serious about something that’s completely a joke.
I thought it was awesome, and so many people loved it, and Dempster just nailed it. And then there were people who were like, “You wasted a press credential. I can’t believe she got in there and that’s what she did with that access.”
You’re never going to please everybody. When I write for ESPNW sometimes it’s very serious, and sometimes it’s funny. When I’m on the radio with Waddle and Silvy, most of the time I’m being a jackass, but sometimes they ask me something and I give them a very serious point of view because I don’t think it’s worth joking about. When I’m doing ESPN Chicago, sometimes I’ll cover an event that’s more serious, most of the time I’ll go fuck around and hope the people will play with me and give me something that everybody isn’t seeing from nine other people.
I hear a lot of women say, “I don’t want to apologize for being beautiful, but I’m also more than just a pretty face.” How do you toe the line between doing these things that have sex appeal, and still keeping your independence so that people don’t go, “Oh, that’s just a great face.”?
The only time I think I’ve ever traded off my looks intentionally was when my career started, and I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I was still doing behind-the-scenes producing stuff, but I wanted to do on-camera stuff, and I wanted to be doing interviews. I saw a breakdown for a fantasy football show done by ESPN producers, the guys who do Rome Is Burning, both radio and TV. The gig was hosting fantasy football, but you have to be wearing small clothes. That was the gig. You’re doing fantasy football, but it’s called Fantasy Football Girl, so you’re supposed to be hot and giving them the info that they really need, Sit-or-Start, this guy’s a bust, it’s all real info. I helped write all the scripts, but I had to wear jerseys that were cut to look like tank tops.
Like A League of Their Own with the skirt uniforms.
Exactly. At the time I wasn’t like “This is awesome! I’m so excited to wear these outfits and have people gawk at me!” I was like, “This is how it works, I guess.” You get those gigs that you need to put on your resume, and you’re going to get paid and you’re going to shoot at Jim Rome’s studio and it’s going to be publicized and there’s money behind it and you get to get a writer’s credit and a hosting credit, and you have all this film for your tape and your hosting reel – all these things are good. You find me a guy who wants to work in this industry that if that was an option wouldn’t do it. You know what I mean?
I regret it because it’s out there and people judge me because of it, but I don’t really, because I had to keep working my way up. That was a great way for me to learn how to be on camera and use a teleprompter. But I haven’t done anything like that in forever. I don’t think I’ve done anything that was actually overtly about looks or being a girl. I’m always being funny. In fact I make myself look unattractive a lot for the sake of humor. That piece with Peanut Tillman, he’s making fun of how I run slow, and how I’m top heavy, and whatever else. And I was huffing and puffing and running like a dumbass.
It’s always going to be talked about. No matter what job you’re in as a woman, your value is first based upon your appearance. Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, ridiculously smart women that are in their position by no virtue of their looks, and they’re constantly asked, “How do you get your arms so toned?” or “Whose outfit are you wearing?” That’s just society, and that’s life, and I would never try to disagree with someone that said that I partly am where I am because of my looks or whatever, but I would like to think that it’s more than that, particularly in the jobs I have now. I’m in radio and writing. I’m pretty sure it’s not because of my looks.
There was an interview, Women Like Sports, 5 questions, and you were saying “men like to hear sports delivered by men.” What is the value of the female perspective? You’re announcing way more men’s sports than women’s… you love MJ… is there a specific value in the female perspective in broadcasting and analyzing men’s sports that we need more of?
Yes. On the broadest level, women are 50% of the population, probably more. 53 or something. So to have such a big market that has such a big female audience, and to just ignore all of those people as far as who they’re listening to and what they’re hearing is ridiculous. There aren’t industries where women say, “You’re a man. This isn’t the place for you.” There’s tons of industries where men say that about women.
The argument that, “She never played a snap in the NFL, what does she know?” John Clayton, believe me, did not play in the NFL. That’s not how it works. It’s the same idea of “Middle Aged White Guy delivers your news,” if that was the case, and in a lot of cases it is. They might feel the way they do and they might feel everyone around them feels the same way, but that’s because everyone around them is the same as them. When there’s issues that come up that are gender-sensitive or that may or may not be viewed differently by genders, it’s a bunch of dudes in a room talking about it, and then they all agree with each other, and then everyone says, “Well that’s the only way to look at it, then, because we all agree.”
Tiger Woods is a perfect example. Every guy that I work with in sports feels the same way. “His wife will be fine. She’s got however many millions of dollars in the settlement. She’ll be fine. She’ll get over it. I’m happy to go root for him and I hope he does great because I miss him.” That’s not how most women I know feel. If you are constantly ignoring that more than half the population exists and has a take on things, you’re missing out on that.
And I think – and this is not based on research, it’s a personal opinion – but look at the Penn State stuff. If there was a woman in a high position there who was in on that secret – I don’t know this for sure, she might get caught up in the industry, protecting the brand and the name the same way – but she might also be incapable of being as hard-nosed about it as the men were.
I’m never that person who will say, “We’re all the same! Equality for every single little thing!” There are differences in men and women. And some of that is empathy. I think women are more inherently empathetic than men. And in some situations, empathy fuels your opinion on things.
I do think I get different answers sometimes. Sometimes it annoys me. Sometimes I think I get less specific answers because they’re like, “This is a woman.” They don’t say, “Well, when we switch defenses from the cover-1 to the cover-2,” stuff like that. They kind of make it more vague. But also, that’s not what I’m there for. I’m usually doing my own story that’s different.
My one thing that I think makes a big difference that isn’t gender-specific is I figure out what I think they’re going to say, and I say it for them so they can’t. “You’ve got the Canucks coming up next week. I know you’re supposed to say that every game is important, but doesn’t this one mean more to you?” Then they can’t say, “Every game is important.” I’ve already stolen your stupid, cliché line that no one wants to hear, and I do that a lot. I’ll say, “I know you’re supposed to…” “I know the easy thing is to say…” and then they usually think of something better to say. That’s not anything other than trying to weasel around people who are trying to be boring and cliché.
As far as being a woman goes, I do think there are times when you almost get the feeling that someone’s flirting with you, and what comes out of that is a much more playful and fun side of them, which is what a lot of people want to see. A lot of my Blackhawks stuff, I would get letters from all over, like middle of Canada, like, “I’m a Leafs fan, but I started watching your Blackhawks videos and now I love them. Those guys are so funny. They have such great personalities.” They wouldn’t know that if it weren’t for me going in and trying to show people who they are.
I think that unless you’ve really done sports, like really hard core, full-time, you don’t (pause) you get it, but your idea of pre-game rituals and teamwork and connecting with your teammates to get to a higher goal is more superficial because it’s based on you hearing about it or viewing other people doing it. From about freshman year in high school through college, I was competing and training year round. You wake up and you’re doing things that most – you know, normal people don’t sit in an ice bath. Most people don’t know how it’s painful to walk up stairs because you messed something up and now it’s permanently in the wrong place.
I don’t do it a ton, but I try to make it clear that I used to be an athlete. I do think that a lot of men, if they see a half-attractive woman, think that she just wants to be around athletes. The number of people who have asked when they hear my job, “Oh, so you really like sports?” Like, “No, I think they’re okay and I fucking devoted my whole career to them.” No one would ever ask a guy sports reporter, “You really like sports?” It’s such a joke.
When I worked at Mouthpiece, I was in the Blackhawks locker room for probably two weeks. I had been in there maybe six times over that two weeks. And one of the other writers told the PR people that I must be doing something with the players to get better stories than him. That I must be doing something, because I shouldn’t be getting different and better stories than he was getting. Some older guy. He’d been covering the team forever. It was complete bullshit. And it was some older guy who was set in his ways who probably wasn’t asking questions to get the guys to open up to them.
I was also 28 and talking to them like a normal human being, which allowed them to relax and talk to me like a normal human being. They wanted to be funny and interesting and they responded to me in a different way. Maybe that’s something where as a woman they just kind of relax and play with you, or maybe it’s because I seem like a cool person instead of a nerd-bomber. Some people underestimate that as a reporter, if you don’t come across as a nice person or a fun person, then maybe the people don’t want to have fun with you.
There’s a lot of male reporters who go out to dinner or go golfing with the people that they cover. And that’s considered like, Just keeping tabs on the guys you cover. But you can’t have those relationships as a woman without it being scrutinized. I certainly don’t hang out with the guys I cover the way the male beat reporters do.
And of course male beat reporters playing golf with athletes are, I’m sure, on some level, getting off on the idea that “Hey, I’m playing golf with…” whoever.
Yep. Yep. I told a story when I was hosting about how when I was in college, my friend went to high school with Carson Palmer, who at the time wasn’t anybody yet. He hadn’t won the Heisman. I didn’t pay attention to USC football. We were there for the summer hanging out, and on the 4th of July we ended up at some place playing Truth or Dare. One of Carson’s dares was to put a rat in his mouth. The family had a pet rat. And I was telling this story because it’s just a funny story, and these text messages were like, “Now we know how she got her job. She blew Carson Palmer.” And I’m like, “Exactly how would blowing Carson Palmer in 1999 or 2000 or whatever get me a radio job in…”
But that’s the first thing – or, like everyone’s always asking me if I’m dating Kris Versteeg, because he and I are good friends, and I had that really funny piece where he was rapping in the locker room. He’s like my little brother. Never in my lifetime. But people are unable to see a girl and a guy have a friendship and get along, whereas another beat reporter guy they’re like, “Oh, that’s how it works.”
I like having a voice on things and having a take, and I newly appreciate that I’m getting lots and lots of emails from girls in high school that are like, “I want to do what you do,” because I didn’t have anybody who I felt that way about when I was growing up. And maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough, but I don’t think there were that many that seemed approachable and funny and like them, as opposed to being kind of stiff.
If you can do that, and that’s what makes you happy, that’s awesome. Sometimes I wish I was like that. But I want to go to a Broadway play, go home and watch a DVR of the Blackhawks on fast forward so I can skip the commercials, and then read poetry, and then go to bed and wake up and listen to some music, and then go to work. I just feel like by doing all that stuff and being interested in all that stuff, it adds to me being an entertainer.
I always tell people when they ask me for advice, “Be well rounded,” and not just in skills. Know how to write, edit, report, cut tape, film – I mean, I do all that. I edit my own video. I’ve had to film it myself. I do every job that you have to do. But I also say just in general, don’t get so obsessed in doing this that you have no other personality traits, because not only will you be boring, but unless you’re the best of what you’re doing, you’re not going to do anything better than everyone else. I’m not doing sportswriting better than anyone else, but I’m doing sportswriting-and-I’m-funny pretty well.
Check back every Wednesday at Eye on Chi for more of Jack M Silverstein’s People with Passion interviews with Chicago journalists. Coming up next week: Chuck Swirsky, radio play-by-play announcer, Chicago Bulls.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)