Charissa Thompson on her career path, women working in sports media
"Appreciate your position but plan your promotion,” says Fox Sports 1’s Charissa Thompson, one of the more visible women in the sports media, when describing her career philosophy. “Jalen Rose told me this one time and it’s always stuck with me. I live in the moment and I’m appreciative of where I am right now, but I also hope the path I’m going is one that is positive."
With Fox Sports 1 recently passing its one-year anniversary, I thought it would be an interesting time to check in with the 32-year-old Thompson, who moderates Fox Sports Live’s panel discussions and is arguably the highest profile front-facing woman at the network given her time at ESPN and additional job as a co-host for Extra. A conversation with Thompson isn’t a straight line. She’s refreshingly self-aware about the media business and her role in it. She’ll go off on tangents about attempting to find Zen in her life, her failures, her successes, her relationships (she and ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Williams recently ended their relationship) and she’s unafraid to address her interactions with people in the business. Those conversations happen all the time privately -- sports media members are inveterate gossips -- but rarely publicly as Thompson did below about former ESPN colleague Michelle Beadle.
Thompson’s career arc is not a common one. She always wanted to be a broadcaster and said as an 11-year-old in Seattle, where most of her family still lives, she created mock newscasts and recruited her brother Tyson to play Jay Buhner as she interviewed him. She left Washington State to attend community college in California before transferring to UC Santa Barbara, where she graduated with a degree in law and society. She then interned for a sports agent immediately after school and was working as a receptionist at a business management agency when she saw job opening inside Fox Sports’ human resources department.
After bumbling her way through the interview, she called up the HR head, Rob Ranieri, from the Fox parking lot and told him, “Look, that was an awful interview and I’m sorry,” she said. “But here's the deal. Being here is what I want to do more than anything. I'll be a great assistant and give you a year, but what I really want to do is work in television.”
Ranieri hired her. "I don’t want to lie,” said Thompson. “I was not a great assistant but I was super-passionate about being in that building.”
Thompson said she would log tape in the Fox Sports department at night after clocking in a full day in HR and got help along the way from a number of people including Fox Sports senior vice president of news Rick Jaffe, who helped her learn to read a teleprompter and create a quality demo reel. That led to a production job working for Fox Sports Rocky Mountain in Denver and when an on-air job opened up at that RSN, she tried out and was hired.
She eventually came back to Los Angeles to work on the dreadful (my words) Best Damn Sports Show Period before working for Yahoo! Sports, Versus and and ESPN (in 2011). She returned to Fox Sports in 2013, with the lobster-eating folks at the Creative Artists Agency helping her get a very nice pay day.
"I will always defend Fox because they are family,” Thompson said. “They don't do everything right but neither do I. But they were super-loyal to me and they have always been so good to me. I would have no career for me without them. When I am done with this trivial job that I current do -- and not to reduce it because I do love it -- I will do something involving kids.”
Below, Thompson, over the course of two phone interviews last week, talked on a variety of topics.
What do you want sports viewers to know about you that they likely do not know?
If people just see a picture of me, there is an assumption of just a bubblehead beach blonde, the stereotypical, 'Oh, she is just one of those.” And I can't change that. Stereotypes exist for a reason. But what I can do is open my mouth and the minute I have a conversation with someone, hopefully, if I have that conversation with someone who has an opinion of me based on the superficial stuff, they walk away thinking, “Oh, that is not at all what she is like.” But I don't want go around campaigning what I am all about. I hope that they can see that over time. I dyed my hair dark one time because I thought people would take me seriously if I had dark hair. I own who I am now. I am going to have blonde hair and wear high heels but there is a lot more to me than that.
You are the most recognizable front-facing woman at Fox Sports 1
Not according to the Awful Announcing poll.
What did the poll say?
Okay. Well, you are one of the most recognizable.
Katie is a bitter brunette and I love her so much. She says what I want to say. Katie is Michelle Beadle and Michelle Beadle and I have made up by the way. At least that's my version in this new Zen place in my life. I went up to Michelle at the ESPYs and I don't care if you include this, because it is the truth. I was like 'enough is enough.' Then I was hugging her too much and it was weird (laughing). I just feel like I’m no longer at a place to have bad blood between people. I am so over that. I want to be supportive and positive. Now, Katie Nolan, I love her and she says whatever she wants. I won't go far as she does publicly. I will say things in the comfort of my own space and say a lot of that to close people, but in order to maintain a professional position for some things I can hopefully do in the future, I won't [go] where she does but I respect her for doing it.
I'm glad you brought Nolan up. Obviously, her video last week [see below in column] about women in the sports media gained some traction and touched some nerves. Let me read you something she said: “Women in sports television are allowed to read headlines, patrol sidelines and generally facilitate conversation for their male colleagues. Sometimes, they even let us monitor the Internet from a couch. And while the Stephen A. Smiths, Mike Francesas, Dan Patricks and Keith Olbermanns of the world get to weigh in on the issues of the day, we just smile and throw to commercial.” How did you react to those words?
I disagree with them. [CNN’s] Rachel Nichols, for example, is someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for and she tackles tough issues like Ray Rice and garners a lot of respect. There are plenty of women in the business who don't just smile and go to commercial. To reduce it to that, I don't agree. But Katie is entitled to her opinion and I know what she is trying to say and she’s not trying to be irreverent about it. It's like the whole Fox reputation, that Fox only hires blondes. Yes, there are a lot of blondes here, but all the blondes are different. To paint the picture that women in sports just take you to commercial is incorrect. But I understand her message. I am not disrespected by it, but you have to know what Katie is about.
Okay, so amplifying that topic. Do you aspire to offer your opinion on the air? If yes, why? If no, why?
Do I aspire? Aspire would insinuate that I'm not allowed.
No, I don’t mean that. Let me rephrase it. Do you aspire to have a forum to where you can offer sports opinion on a regular basis?
So there are a few layers to this. Growing up there was always a phrase that my Dad used: The coach is not always right, but he is the coach. So there are decisions that are made from an executive level and they are in those positions to make those decisions, and I have to respect that. They are the coach here. I might not agree with them, but they are my bosses and I do what I'm told. And that’s not in a subservient role, but I respect the process. That place is a family to me. I started at Fox in Human Resources and I probably know more than I should. Maybe that's why I have this job. I know where the bodies are buried. That said, I respect what my bosses are doing. Have we done everything right? Absolutely not. Maybe we should not have gone so over the top with the launch and maybe there was too much focus on the word fun. But the intention has always been right and that is to provide an alternative.
Will we make mistakes as we keep fine-tuning? Yes. I know that you have been critical of us and it's your job. I also have a job to do. [Fox Sports president] Eric Shanks has a job to do. So would I want to do a long-form sit-down show? I would love to do that. I’m taking steps where I can one day hopefully end up on something like a morning show where I can do a talk about sports, and have sit-down interviews with either a First Lady or Kim Kardashian. But for right now at Fox Sports 1 and as Fox Sports Live tries to find its identity, I will play whatever role they need to me play. I hate to keep making sports analogies but this is a way for me make it relatable. We are dealing with a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator, and a new playbook.
Adjustments will be made, but they know I am opinionated. We have production meetings and I say a lot of things that I really wish I could say on air. But I would be remiss and not telling the truth if I didn’t say that I am trying to protect what I want to do in the future as well. It takes one comment or outlandish thing. I know that [ESPN NFL reporter] Josina Anderson's intentions were good [on her Rams’ story] and look how the poor girl dealt with all that feedback. So I tread lightly, not because I don't have a strong opinion, but you have to have a game plan.
What has worked on Fox Sports Live and what does not?
I was told this a long time ago by [former ESPN executive producer and current Today show executive] Jamie Horowitz. I didn't get the full Jamie Horowitz school of broadcasting because by the time I was Michelle's replacement [on Sports Nation] he was heavily involved with the reconstruction of First Take. What I did get from Jamie and he is the person I learned the most about television from and I admire him in that regard, he talked a lot about brand. Who are you? I remember on a whiteboard a couple of months after getting the SportsNation job, he wrote down everything from the first job that I had to the street that I lived on growing up and everything that showed who I am and what I believed in.
For example, you know that Michelle is very opinionated about everything. Michelle has an identity. Skip Bayless hates LeBron James. There are different things you associate with those people because you buy the brand. I will watch a show because I like who is on it. So I really like Gary Payton. I really like Donovan McNabb. I am going to watch that show. Our show is all about the people and as a producer it is about putting those people in the best position to succeed. So I think the thing that has worked best on Fox Sports is the acquisition of talent such as Adrian Wojnarowski and Colleen Dominguez and using Pam Oliver, we have a lot of different people who can help grow the brand. So the thing we have done right is the acquisition of good talent. One thing we have to work on is putting that talent in good positions so they can succeed.
It is very hard to get people to change viewer habits, and to even educate people when a new network is on your cable system. In your opinion, why has Fox Sports Live been unable to break through ratings-wise so far?
I know people live and die by ratings. I understand that, but there has to be a certain level of tolerance for the fact that this thing is just a year old. So if we can get people to our channel, how long do they stay? That is our job. One of the first shows I worked on at Fox was Best Damn Sports Show and it was really hard to get consistent viewership at the end because if we said watch us every night at 11 PM, we were not on every night at 11. That was a regional and national problem for us. For me it is all about getting viewers to the channel and it’s above my pay grade how to do that. My job is to get them to stay once they are there.
Does working in entertainment help you, hurt you, have no impact when it comes to Fox Sports?
It helps me in visibility. Our audience for Extra is predominantly women. Demographically, I have a ton of male followers for the small group of followers that I have. I work in sports so I get that. For me, helps with the female audience. Now there will be some who say she is a sellout; she's not a real sports person. People are going to say that crap about me anyway, that I am not a hardcore sports journalist and I can't change their opinion of that. I moderate a show on Fox Sports 1, I’ve worked sidelines, I’ve hosted rodeo shows, I hosted game shows. I will be covering some of Erin’s [Andrews’] NFL games when she goes to baseball. I have become a little callous to the opinions of others because they are not paying me. If my employers are happy with the job I am doing and I respect what I am doing, I’m good with that. The opportunity with Extra was great for me.
I understand this business. It is fleeting. I had the opportunity to sit down with Leeza Gibbons who previously hosted Extra. And there will come a time I will be a previous host on Extra. There will be a time I won't be on the sidelines or moderating opportunities. For me, when the opportunities come, I will take them all. I don't mind if I have five jobs. So there’s probably a reason I’m not married and don't have kids. Hopefully, there will come a time when I have that. But I have been married once.
No kidding. I didn’t know that?
Oh, yeah, at 25. It was the best and worst decision I ever made. I learned quickly that I don't need to be married again, but there are people who come into your life for a reason. I love my ex-husband and it has taken us a long time to get back to being friends. I went to break up with him one night when we were going out. He recognized it and said, “Are you going to break up with me?” I said, “Yeah, it's not working out.” Well, I ended up walking out of that restaurant, drove to Hollywood, got a tattoo on my finger and got married that Saturday. That was me literally living in the moment and thinking, “Maybe he's right, maybe I am always running away from relationships. Sure, lets get married.” Whoops.
The moral of the story if there is one is that I live in the moment. Not recklessly, and that is what age has taught me. My decisions are a little more methodical now and not knee-jerk. But I do live in the moment and I am in a Zen place. I am reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power Of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. It is a reflection of the space that I am in my life right now. I went through a lot of bad stuff and I was very angry for awhile. I think you put out there what you want to receive and for me I am in a great place. I love what I do for a living and I know it won't last forever. But I have a motto walking around Fox -- "Team Solution." I want to be part of the solution and not problems.
How’s that tattoo now?
It took nine removals. It's faint now. I also covered up his last name on my ribs -- yes I had that -- with a feather. My new favorite symbol for freedom. He got “Charissa” on this arm. Yes, it’s still there. We went to dinner the other night and I laughed that he better find a girlfriend with the same name.
If I interviewed you 20 years from today, would you still be in the business?
Twenty years from now? I’d be 52. God, if I was lucky, I would be doing broadcasting part time and doing stuff with kids the other half of the time.
So on a more short-term basis. Are there things in sports broadcasting or beyond sports broadcasting that you would like to do?
Yes, a Michael and Kelly position or a morning show, something where you see the convergence of all my worlds, where I can still do sports. To be honest: I love what I am currently doing and I am not just saying that as a BS answer. I love the combination I have. I love during the day I can talk about Fashion Week and then at night go and talk to Randy Moss about Calvin Johnson's multiple touchdown night. I really do have the best of both worlds. Now how long I can be able to do both jobs, I am not sure. I don't want to use the term "dream job” because that sounds reducing what I am currently doing but I would say a morning show so I can combine sports and news.
Is there a Fox sports property that you have yet to work on that you want to?
Pam [Oliver] has done a lot of interviews which run on Sunday. Interviewing people is one of my favorite things to do and I have not done enough in my career. That's sort of my next thing. Once the dust settles on my new Extra role, that is definitely something I would like to do. I'd like to add more one-one-one series interviews in sports.
All women in this space face in an ordinate amount of sh-- in social media. What has that space been like and how have you navigated it?
Deadspin did me a favor very early on in my career. They wrote an article titled “Charissa Thompson Continues Down Suicidal Path to Frumpyville.” I had dyed my hair black and had glasses and was working Big Ten games and NFC North assignments. I did a ton of Lions games in 2008. So I was exhausted, threw on my glasses, dyed my hair and did not tell my bosses. I was so sick of being the quote unquote blonde and being thought of as a bubble-headed beach blonde like Don Henley talked about. Early on I was so impressionable, thinking I’m just another blonde girl. So they write this headline and I am bawling, crying. They had a screen grab and it looked like I gained 60 pounds. The next week -- and this is youth succumbing to social media and Deadspin carried a lot of weight because everyone in the business saw it and I was completely insecure -- I dyed my hair back to blonde and it fell out. I was a hot mess.
The point of all of this was that I learned early on not to care. I can’t go around trying to appease everyone and if I do, then you just become vanilla. If no one has an opinion of you, you are really not doing your job. So I don’t do things to garner a response or be outlandish. I’m not Michelle. If I had to put my finger on it, I just know who I am now. I don’t care if my hair sucks or my dress is too tight because I should not have had that entire bottle of wine. I own my sh-- for lack of a better word where I used to be insecure about it.
The stuff on Twitter I really care about is if it involves it my family or previous boyfriends. It bothers me and is appalling that people are so ignorant and mean. You would be appalled at the sh-- Jay and I dealt with as an interracial couple. I was called a mudshark and other horrible things. And the stuff they said to Jay about his motorcycle accident. I feel bad for him he still has to deal with idiots like that. He is still my best friend and we didn't break up in a contentious nature. But regarding social media, that’s the part that makes me sick to my stomach, that some people live in that ignorant existence.
How much do you worry about aging in a business that values youth?
I am not ashamed I have to Botox my forehead because HD can be a bitch! But if my face doesn't move, my dad will kill me! I want to be honest about the aging process, but I see a hot young thing on the sideline and some of the younger girls coming up, it makes me feel old. I know that I am on the other side of the business being in it seven or eight years. So I am aware of it, but I am totally honest about the process. I am somebody personality-wise that is self-deprecating by nature. But living in LA I also want to make sure I don't turn into one of those girls. If I went back home to Seattle and my lips were done or my face was all plastic, my dad would disown me. I want to stay youthful, but not go overboard in the process.
You mentioned you made peace with Michelle Beadle at the ESPYs. Why did that moment need to exist?
I'll be honest with you and age has done this to me. I don't have time to waste beating around the bush. I'm not so worried about popularity and how many votes I'm getting in Miss Congeniality. I am who I am and I'm very comfortable with who I am. It is taken me time with that and being comfortable with that. I haven't done everything right, but I am the first to stand up and say that is my bad and I apologize and move forward. Michelle and Erin [who Thompson is very close with] had some weird beef and I don't know where it came from. It totally preceded me. That is their thing. Michelle was cool to me when I showed up at ESPN and then I felt it sort of shifted and all of a sudden she did not like me. I don't know what the inception of that was, nor did I care to ask, or care that much about her personally to even bother going next level. It felt like high school. Why don't you like me? Well, I'm over that sh--. I'm here to do a job, go to work, leave and if you want to be part of my life, great. If not, whatever.
So there was a weird tension between her and I and when the SportsNation thing happened, it perpetuated it for whatever reason. But I was sick of showing up to events, having her be there, and having everyone around me be like, "Oh, God, are you okay?" So at the ESPYs, we were at a sushi restaurant and I was with Stephen A. Smith and Jamie Horowitz and some other people. She walked in and everyone got weird again. So I walked over to her and said hello.
At the ESPYs the next day, I talked to her and said I'm not sure what this is all about. I'm not interested in being friends with her, but I’m just not interested in having weird tension. She can still have an opinion of me and think I am whatever I am and I'm all good with that. But what I did not want was to continue to have this weird thing going on because I am pretty cool with most women in this industry. So if there is a tension -- and I am not going around handing out valentines to everyone -- I just did not like how contentious things got and how awkward things were every time we were in the same room. For me and for the maturation within in myself, I said “Dude, I’m sorry, we’re good, let’s move on.” I am different than I used to be and I have to raise my hand if I have done something or hurt someone’s feelings. I have no problem apologizing, but that was one where I did not even know where it came from. So instead of continuing down that road, I wanted to be over it.
My overall theme is happiness. I have settled into who I am. I am learning and growing every day. I have made mistakes, but I hope that I can look back at the road I have traveled and appreciate how far I’ve come and that I have a long way to go. I am thankful of my life. I understand my job doesn't define who I am, but as I go to bed each night I count my blessings not my troubles because I am lucky to do what I do. But what I do is not who I am. If my parents are proud of me, that's when I have done my real job.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines the biggest stories of the week in sports media.
1. Gus Johnson has stepped down as Fox's lead soccer broadcaster. Here, Johnson and Fox Sports president Eric Shanks explain why to Sports Illustrated.
2. A sampling of thoughts on Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice from the Sunday pregame shows.
ESPN’s Tom Jackson on Peterson: “He (Peterson) committed abuse against this child. If you talk to most African-American men -- and I know much of America is hearing about this for the first time -- I was whipped -- a switch by my mom, a belt by my dad. What was done to me and what was done to that four year-old are different things. That is abuse of a child. The shame of it all: Adrian Peterson doesn’t know that he did anything wrong to this child. … There’s something here that’s bigger than even this issue -- the NFL entirely. We started the week players beating up women. We ended the week with players beating up children. We are in a very serious state here in the National Football League.”
Fox Sports senior correspondent Pam Oliver on Ray Rice: “I worry about his wife and I think about her a lot. Victims tend to support their abuser and that’s frankly what Ray Rice is, he’s an abuser. And that’s what I think women can take from this: Put yourself in her position and maybe think about her more than you think about Ray Rice.”
ESPN’s Ray Lewis on Peterson: “Anytime you make a child bleed, that’s abuse. Anytime you physically harm a child where people can see them go to school, that’s abuse. But when you are raised the way I was raised -- I’m telling you, if my mother wasn’t as hard as she was, the streets would have gotten me the way the streets got a lot of my other friends who didn’t get the proper discipline.”
CBS’s Boomer Esiason on Peterson: “That guy should never be on the field again. I don't want to hear about how he grew up, what he learned. This was a whipping of a four-year-old boy for god's sake! All I'm telling you right now that is sickness to me. That player should never be on the football field again until he is held accountable either by a court of law or he seeks the help you speak of.
ESPN’s Cris Carter: “My mom did the best job that she could do, raising seven kids by herself, but there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong. It’s the 21st century. My mom was wrong. She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me. And I promised my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what they want to do.”
ESPN’s Mike Ditka: “A parent has a right and an obligation to discipline their child if it’s done in the right way. My dad whipped my butt. Did I deserve it? Yes. … I wouldn’t be here today if that hadn’t happened in my life. That was a great thing. I didn’t like it. I cried, but every time I got it … I became a better person for it. That’s all I can say.”
2a. Last Sunday’s Niners-Cowboys game drew 28.0 million viewers, the second most-watched Week 1 NFL telecast ever on Fox and the most-watched program on any network since the Academy Awards in March.
2b. Here's my piece on how CBS and NFL Network handled the Ray Rice/Roger Goodell story on Thursday Night Football.
2c. This Bill Polian interview and re-interview was as strange a sports TV sequence as you will ever see.
4. Sports Pieces of Note
• SI’s Jon Wertheim and Emily Kaplan on Greg Hardy.
• Fox Sports commentator Katie Nolan nailed the ghettoization of on-air women in sports here.
• NBC News reporter Luke Russert, for The MMQB, on what it means that the Bills are staying in Buffalo.
• Read this last paragraph on Ray Rice from Amy Davidson of The New Yorker.
• Philadelphia sports columnist Mike Sielski on the Ray Rice story and what it says about the way the NFL is covered.
•Tremendous work by CNN's Rachel Nichols during this interview with Floyd Mayweather.
• ESPN’s Matthew Berry examines how (and should) a fantasy football writer deal with stories such as Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice.
• "SI Now" host Maggie Gray offered a really thoughtful video essay titled: “Why I don't feel as comfortable covering the NFL.”
Non sports pieces of the week
• "I am a 14-year-old Yazidi girl given as a gift to an ISIS commander. Here’s how I escaped.”
• Disturbing, important journalism via The Atlantic: Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness.
• Compelling read via GQ on the sexual assault of men in the U.S. military.
• The Washington Post offered a quiz: Is this a line from ‘The Great Gatsby’ or a New York Times profile of Lena Dunham?
• A really moving essay from a 9/11 widow.
• Via Ben Dolnick: A week of watching people in the NYC subway.
• From SB Nation’s Sarah Kogod: “I can't tell you why Janay Rice stayed. I can tell you why I stayed.”
• The way to beat poverty.
5. The Aug. 31 edition of Outside The Lines -- the final Sunday episode that will air on ESPN in 2014 -- drew 831,000 viewers. The following week, as the program shifted to ESPN 2 at 8:00 a.m., it drew 125,000 viewers.
5a. Sports.Mic writer/editor Bryan Graham points out that UFC champ Ronda Rousey was featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces In The Crowd in the issue that hit newsstands on 9/11/2001.
5b. The ESPN ombdusman weighed in on how ESPN disciplines people. Remarkably, some ESPN staffers declined to speak to the ombudsman, something New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has said has never happened to her on during her assignment. On the same note, Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing examined ESPN's inconsistent discipline.
5c. ESPN’s Curt Schilling resumed his role as Sunday Night Baseball analyst Sunday night for the Yankees-Orioles broadcast. Last December, ESPN announced Schilling was joining the Sunday Night Baseball booth. Two months later, Schilling announced he had been diagnosed with mouth cancer. His cancer was in remission.
5d. ESPN college football analyst Andre Ware got a raw deal in this Montgomery Advertiser piece when the writer suggested Ware favored one Alabama quarterback over another based on race. That was a popular message board sentiment, but to make that claim at a legit outlet without asking Ware was totally unfair. An ESPN spokesperson described the article as “unacceptable,” and Ware later went on The Paul Finebaum Show, where he refuted the notion.