When John Wildhack asked Sage Steele to meet him on the morning of Oct. 11 inside the lobby of the St. Regis Monarch Beach resort in Dana Point, Calif., the site of the recent three-day ESPNW Sports Summit, Steele thought little of it. The longtime SportsCenter anchor was in the middle of negotiations with ESPN -- her contract was up in February 2014 -- so when the network's executive vice president of production asked her for a meeting the day before, Steele figured Wildhack simply wanted to take the temperature of where she stood with the negotiations. Instead, Wildhack surprised her with a question during a 15-minute meeting:
Was she interested in being the host of NBA Countdown?
Hell, yes, she was. Steele had been looking to focus on a single sport as opposed to continuing along the SportsCenter path, but she also knew her next contract would be an important one given she was turning 41 in November. She needed time to discuss it with her family -- the job included significant travel -- and her management representatives. But after a week, she called Wildhack and told him she was in.
"Countdown had not had a host for a long time and they seemed pretty set on keeping it that way," Steele said in a phone interview last week. "I had asked about the role in the past and I had always had interest in it but I was surprised. I've been in the business for 18 years and I have loved every moment but I've never been able to focus on one sport and really own one. It eventually was a no-brainer for me."
Last week ESPN formally announced it has reached a multi-year extension with Steele, and included in that new deal is hosting the Friday and Sunday editions of NBA Countdown on ESPN and ABC with new analyst Doug Collins and returning analysts Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons. The quartet will make its debut on Friday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. (The Wednesday NBA Countdown group consisting of Doris Burke, Avery Johnson and Rose debuts Nov. 13).
Historically, the one constant for NBA Countdown has been change; the show has shuffled its talent lineup at the rate Leo DiCaprio switches girlfriends. Earlier this month, Magic Johnson unexpectedly resigned from the show (and ESPN). Asked directly whether ESPN management had promised her the role of host for multiple years, Steele said, "I don't want to get into details on that, but in capital letters, I am not concerned about change."
Steele does not have a lot of experience working with the cast outside of Rose but said she was thrilled by the rehearsal chemistry when she and the new Countdown group did a mock show last Tuesday evening at ESPN's Los Angeles studios. Steele said that she and Simmons bonded over the travails of raising young children. "I was pleasantly surprised at how well it went because when you put four people on the set who are pretty much new each to other outside of Bill and Jalen, it is a whole different dynamic," she said. "But we had a blast. We really hit it off."
Steele said her role would be a traditional host: leading conversation, asking follow-up questions and taking the show in and out of commercial breaks. (That will be different than Burke, who will be a hybrid of analyst and host.) She will remain based in Connecticut and travel to Los Angeles the day before each Countdown show airs. Steele has three young children -- 11, 9 and 7 -- so time away from home was a major concern for her. Steele's husband, Jonathan Bailey, who previously worked in IT and consulting, has been a full-time, stay-at-home dad for the last 11 years. The two met as undergraduates at Indiana University. "I got lucky that I found the right guy who was willing to put his professional dreams and his ego aside," Steele said. "If he had not done this, there's no way I have this career. He has sacrificed so much."
Interviewing Steele usually leads to talk about her family. Her father Gary was the first African-American football player at Army. Her mother is white. Steele classifies herself as bi-racial. Asked if she sees her new job in pioneering terms given that there have not been many women of color in prominent studio hosting positions, Steele said, "If someone sees me on TV, they are not thinking there is a white girl with curly hair," Steele said. "They are saying there is a black girl with curly hair. But I don't look it as a pioneering role. That's not what I'm trying to do and never have been. My parents went through so much -- my dad, obviously, and my mom as well, being an Irish Catholic girl from Massachusetts marrying a black athlete. It was really bad when they got married in 1971.
"My mom and dad always talked about who we are as people and how we carried ourselves and not about race," she continued. "I'm not trying to diminish anything. Trust me, you look around and there are not many [women of color], even on SportsCenter. I believe I am the only African-American, bi-racial female host and I have been for the past several years. I don't like that. I wish there were more.
"But I have learned over the years to pick and choose my battles and I am choosing to focus on my family first because some day this will end. Some day someone will be sick of me and I will have too many wrinkles and if I have not focused my energies on my home first, I will have so many regrets. If people want to put me out there as a pioneer, I am so honored and that is great but I feel I am a woman who is doing well in a man's world and doing it the right way. I feel like so many women feel the pressure to do things differently, to dress differently, to behave differently and maybe succumb to other pressures. I just try to do my job, do it the right way and make my family proud."
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.
1. Television networks are walking a tightrope when reporting on head injuries. As awareness grows, however, the NFL's broadcast partners know it's a topic that cannot be ignored. But are audiences developing concussion fatigue?
1a. The television partner that remains the best hope for long-term substantive reporting and discussion on brain trauma and concussions is ESPN given its investment and commitment to investigative reporting on Outside The Lines. As an alternate example, at least this week, I give you CBS's The NFL Today. The network mentioned Brett Favre fearing he might have some memory loss. For three seconds. In a Halloween-inspired segment where NFL Today staffers bobbed apples out of a fish tank.
1b. Hilarious hawking by Fox Sports announcers Dick Stockton and Brian Billick on a second-quarter touchdown catch by Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. "Hey, Coach, let me tell you, this could be one of the top-10 plays on Fox Sports 1 later on," said Stockton, who deserves a box of chocolates from Fox Sports co-presidents Randy Freer and Eric Shanks for the soap-selling. "It's a candidate!"
1c. ESPN Sunday NFL Countdown analyst Cris Carter showed nice timing on Calvin Johnson prior to his 14-catch, 329-receiving yards day against Dallas. "We have never seen anyone in the history of the NFL with the size and speed and what he does," Carter said. "Now Dez [Bryant] gets a lot of the coverages like Calvin, but he can't stretch the field like Calvin. Calvin also plays in the slot. Right now, it's not even close. Alright. Everyone else is fighting for second, third and fourth. But the best receiver in the National Football League is Calvin Johnson."
1d. As of Oct. 26, the NFL said 10 game telecasts this season have been watched by 25 million viewers -- up 400 percent over last year (two) and surpassing the total for the full 2012 season (eight).
1e. NBC's Sunday Night Football has averaged 22.7 million viewers (through Oct. 20). According to the network, it is the best seven-week start for an NFL primetime package in 17 years (24.8 million in 1996 for Monday Night Football) and up five percent from this time last year (21.6 million average). That number is likely to come down a tick after Week 8's Packers-Vikings game.
1f. New York Times reporters Richard Sandomir and James Andrew Miller examined the NFL Network on the eve of its 10th anniversary.
2. ESPN's next 30 for 30 film is a good one. This is What They Want, which chronicles Jimmy Connors' run during the 1991 U.S. Open at age 39, premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. The film examines the famous tournament run, as well as the larger-than-life Connors who remains unflinchingly unapologetic about his win-at-all-costs-damn-the-consequences attitude toward people on the ATP Tour. (ESPN president John Skipper had to sign off on the use of the word assh--- , a description ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe, who lost to Connors in the opening round, used to describe his adversary.) "We wanted to use the 1991 tournament as a prism for Jimmy's life and we told ESPN this would be an unvarnished look at Jimmy, letting people say what they really think," said co-director Brian Koppelman, who directed the film along with David Levien. (The two filmmakers are also responsible for Rounders, Solitary Man and Ocean's Thirteen).
Former top-10 player Aaron Krickstein, who famously lost to Connors in the fourth round of the tournament that year, comes off like a champion of humility in the film. The directors gave Connors credit -- as do I -- for answering questions he knew would not make him look good. "On the last day of filming we read the comments everybody said about him and he just took them like body blows," Levien said. "In the end, I think Jimmy has to recognize himself up there."
2a. Regarding the a--hole word: ESPN has inserted a language disclaimer at the top of the Connors film and also blurred the middle finger in a couple of photos when Connors is shooting the bird. As you'll see, the word is important in the context of this narrative, so kudos to Skipper and ESPN to roll with it.
3. Steele said she knows NBA Countdown is more in the spotlight than other shows, at least among the sports blogosphere. A couple of years ago, a hot mic caught her and Rose making plans for dinner in Miami, with some speculating it was a date between the two. That moment came up again last week. "We're still laughing at that because Jalen and I were going to dinner with 12 other people," Steele said. "So when this was announced, I got all kinds of that on Twitter. Bill, of course, is the focus of a lot of it. I guess I feel like I am ready for it because it has been a progression for me at ESPN. I know I'll be getting more criticism and I'm human -- sometimes that hurts. But if you want to take the next step in your career and do more, this is part of it. Basically, I'm telling myself to get over it because it will come, no matter how good we are as a team. At the end of the day, my husband likes me, and I think my kids like me."
3a. Steele said her new contract also includes working on SportsCenter in August and September, hosting the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and likely some ABC-related opportunities.
4. With the start of the season only days away, I invited four avid NBA watchers -- SI.com's Matt Dollinger, Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Dwyer, longtime NBA writer Holly MacKenzie and Sports Illustrated senior writer Phil Taylor -- to join me for a roundtable on a number of television-related topics.
5. The MLB Network inexplicably did not air the MLB umpires press conference live following Game 3 of the World Series on Saturday (ESPNNews aired most of it). The network did eventually show some clips from the news conference -- and did have a live, on-set softball interview with executive VP for baseball operations Joe Torre, which was a nice get -- but what a missed opportunity. If you are selling yourself as the baseball network of record -- and MLB Net did provide comprehensive conversation of the call -- how can you not show a press conference involving one of the most controversial calls in baseball history live and in its entirety? Too often sports networks fall in love with showing their analysts talking about the live news (a press conference) happening in front of them.
5a. The World Series viewership so far:
Game 1: 14.4 million viewers.
Game 2: 13.4 million viewers.
Game 3: 12.5 million viewers.
Game 4: 16 million viewers.
5b. Through four games the World Series is averaging 14 million viewers, up 11 percent over last year's World Series (Giants-Tigers), which was the least viewed World Series ever.
6. Charles Barkley tells SI.com he has zero interest in Twitter. "I do not tweet ever," Barkley said. "I don't want any drama or headaches in my life. If you tweet, it doesn't matter what you say: Half the people like it. Half the people hate it. Fans are funny: They want you to say their team is great and their favorite player is great. As you know, that's not true. So I choose not to have that drama in my life. One of my favorite people in the world is [ESPN analyst] Herman Edwards. He always says: "Don't press send!" I think you have to understand you can't make everybody happy and I don't want to argue with people. It's a waste of time."
6a. I asked Turner Sports analysts Steve Kerr and Reggie Miller where LeBron James should be rated on a historical context at this point in his career:
Kerr: "It's so hard to rank players because they played in different eras. LeBron is in the middle of his career, so I don't know where to put him. But I think he is so incredibly unique and talented and fun to watch. The story is how far LeBron has come in the last two years on every level. Where he was three years ago with "The Decision," with his play in the Finals against Dallas, the way he handled the post-game interview after Game 6. He was really at a low point for him relatively speaking, [but] what he has done the last two years is remarkable. He handles himself with grace and class. He's elevated his name. He is now a champion and he carries himself like one. I think it's fantastic to see the resilience, particularly in modern society with what he faces. I love what LeBron has done and I have a ton of respect for him. He's on his way. He's already top 10 [all-time]. Beyond that, we'll see where he goes."
Miller: "That's so tough. He is still in the middle of his career and has a chance to win one, two, three or four more championships. It's hard to put him into context with Michael Jordan, Bill Russell or Kareem. He is the one guy, along with Kobe, who still can catch Jordan. If you are going by a physical fitness or basketball standpoint, in my opinion, he's a top-10 player. He has always gotten better since his rookie year and he is putting up historical numbers. I would certainly put him as a top-10 player, but until his career his over and I see the number of championships, it's hard for me to pit him against Michael, Kareem, Magic, Larry [Bird] etc.
7. This week's notable sports pieces:
• Eli Saslow on how fourth grade changed the life of LeBron James.
• Grantland's Bryan Curtis and Patricia Lee reported a great oral history of the 1989 World Series.
• The MMQB had a week-long special report on head trauma in football.
• A fantastic piece featuring fashionistas and others blasting baseball's "depressingly schlubby" uniforms.
• David Shoemaker offers eight legendary stories from pro wrestling.
A fantastic week for non-sports pieces of note:
• Indiana Daily Student reporter Jessica Contrera's story on the closing of a Waffle House is as good a feature as I've ever read from a college student.
• American photographer Angelo Merendino photographed every stage his girlfriend went through in her battle with cancer. Heartbreaking and beautiful.
• A terrifying story on what we have done to oceans.
• The New Yorker on The psychology of online comments.
• Grantland's Wesley Morris delves into the cultural crater of "12 Years a Slave."
• Why young people In Japan have stopped having sex.
8. NBC will air the Breeders' Cup Classic live in prime time next Saturday (8-9 p.m. ET), part of 9 1/2 hours of Breeders' Cup World Championships coverage over two days. (All 14 Breeders' Cup races will be televised live by NBC and NBCSN.) "The primetime window allows us to capture dramatic visuals as the sun sets against the track and nearby San Gabriel mountains," said Rob Hyland, the coordinating producer for NBC Sports. "For the casual viewer flipping through the channels on Saturday night, we want to give them a reason to stop and watch."
Hyland said a key element to producing a successful horse racing broadcast is to make sure the content presented to viewers is understandable and inviting. "Speed figures, fractions and pedigree are not the centerpiece of a network horse racing broadcast," Hyland said. "We want to make sure that we give the audience the best seat in the house and take the viewers to all the places that make a day at the races unique from other sporting events. For that reason, the pacing of the show is fairly quick as we take viewers from the stable area, the grandstand, the jock's room, the paddock, the betting windows and the infield."
9. Your weekly update on the ongoing burial of Outside The Lines. The Oct. 20 Sunday show was up a tick, drawing 175,000 viewers from 152,000 viewers on Oct. 13. (For context: The last Sunday OTL show on ESPN -- which aired an hour later -- drew 846,000 viewers.) "The Sports Reporters," which follows OTL on ESPN2 at 8:30 a.m. ET, averaged 220,000 viewers on Oct. 20. Colin Cowherd's football show -- which airs on ESPN2 from 9-10 a.m. -- averaged 248,000 viewers. If you want a network comparison, CBS's Face the Nation, which airs at 10:30 a.m. ET, averaged 3.30 million viewers on Oct. 20.
10. Nice work by Sports Business Journal reporters John Lombardo and Terry Lefton in what I believe is the first in-depth profile of soon-to-be NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
10a. Really liked the candor of Fox Sports Live host Charissa Thompson in this interview with USA Today's For The Win.
10b. NBC Sports announced last week that two-time Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir, 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski and 2006 ice dance silver medalist Tanith Belbin will join its Winter Games coverage in Sochi next February. Weir and Lipinski will serve as analysts on figure skating coverage while Belbin will work as a reporter for NBC Olympics' Sports Desk and will present features for The Olympic Zone, NBC Olympics' 30-minute daily show for NBC affiliates.
10c. NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury had some strong words on Sabres head coach Ron Rolston: "The talk in Buffalo is that this guy is in over his head. I'll tell you right now, he's in way over his head. In fact, he's drowning."
10d. Former Islanders owner John Spano, the subject of a recent 30 for 30 documentary, had some equally interesting things to say about Milbury: "Only thing he does worse than announce is coach."
10e. With kickoff delayed for one hour 15 minutes because of concern that lightning in the area could reach the stadium, Fox's college football coverage of Oklahoma and Texas Tech on Saturday eventually finished on the Fox News Channel because of the network's commitment to the World Series. Why opt for Fox News Channel instead of FXX? (Fox Sports 1 was airing another CFB game at that time; FX was considered but was unable to accommodate due to prior commitments.) Fox Sports PR said because of the channel reach: Fox News Channel is in 97 million households while FXX is in 72 million.
10f. Nice call, Fox execs. The Oklahoma-Texas Tech game drew an 1.1 overnight rating on FNC, an increase from the usual 0.8 rating FNC had drawn in the time period in recent weeks.
10g. The Guardian weighed in on Fox Sports MLB analyst Tim McCarver with the following headline: "Why World Series caller Tim McCarver is hated but should be respected."
10h. I thought U.S. National Team goalkeeper Tim Howard had a nice debut as an analyst for NBC Sports Network's coverage of Chelsea-Manchester City on Sunday. Howard was understated and conversational; his voice was way too soft for the broadcast but that can be improved. U.S. goalkeepers have been successful as analysts after their professional careers have ended, and Howard looks like he can be another one. My colleague Grant Wahl gave him positive reviews.
10i. Fox College Saturday drew 69,000 viewers last week (Oct. 19). At the same time, "My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic" on Hub Network drew 280,000 viewers.