Cindy Brunson has been a household name in the world of sports television for more than 15 years. Her career has included 13 years with ESPN as an anchor and studio host on flagship program SportsCenter. She’s currently working for the PAC-12 Networks and we had the opportunity to have a Q&A session with Brunson about her career, sacrifice and her advice for young women.
CC: What led you to pursue a career in sports broadcasting?
What led me to pursue a career in sports broadcasting is the simple fact my father didn’t have any boys. It was just me and my younger sister Kim. Early on, I realized being able to talk and watch sports with my pops would be a fun exit to take on my personal entertainment highway.
When I was 9 years old, my dad would have his friends over to watch football on Sunday’s and my mom thought I’d be the perfect person to take the fellas drinks and snacks to our rec room. Well, when I first heard those guys whooping and hollering at the TV, I wanted in. So late one Sunday night I grabbed the encyclopedia (yes, those were the dark ages of pre-internet/Google) and learned all of the referee signals and rules of the game. When I was next asked to bring my dad’s crew snacks, I put my tray down and lingered a bit. Then it happened. There was an intentional grounding call that my dad’s friends were booing. I chimed in, “the referee made the right call there because the quarterback threw to space, there was no eligible receiver in the area.” My pops eyes got real wide, and his friends started giving him props for raising such a smart little fan and just like that I was IN.
My dad then began including me in his sports world beyond just watching NFL games on Sunday’s with his pals. Trips to see the Sonics, Seahawks and Mariners play became our new normal and it was intoxicating. I will always cherish the time we spent together on all of those game days. In fact, I feel even more of a connection to my hometown teams, because I started my love affair with them, in that mausoleum that was the Kingdome. While we didn’t have a choice of venue, when Safeco Field and Century Link came along, it certainly made me realize how much we loved cheering our teams because the Kingdome was a dicey place to watch sports, especially baseball.
As pops and I were bonding over sports, I was becoming more aware of the world around me and possible opportunities to find a job somehow connected to sports. I’d seen Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy reporting about the NFL on TV and at the age of 12, I decided I wanted to talk about sports on TV, period. By the time I was college bound Robin Roberts was at ESPN and seeing someone who looked me doing what I wanted to do, sealed the deal. My goal when I hit Pullman, WA was simple. Graduate from Washington State University and start making my way to Bristol, CT.
CC: You were the co-host of ESPN’s SportCenter and anchored ESPNews. How did working for one of the premier sports networks in the world help you become who you are today?
After graduating from WSU (Washington State University) in 1996, I’d planned to get to ESPN in 5 years. Thanks to A LOT of hard work and with the luck of a blind squirrel finding a nut, I got the call from Bristol in the summer of 1999, just 1 year into my second job in TV. Now when I started at ESPN, SportsCenter wasn’t on all day long. There were just 3 shows, at 6p, 11p and 1 am eastern. To make sure the company didn’t miss on breaking news ESPNews was launched in November of 1996. When I arrived, it was like the Triple-A team. If you succeeded there, then you got the call for your cup of coffee on SportsCenter or other specialty shows on ESPN. My experience on ESPNews was invaluable because it let me cut my teeth and learn about the sports I didn’t grow up like the NHL and international soccer. I was afforded the chance to learn on the job. I’m sure folks today, are expected to have a much greater knowledge base because we all carry computers in our phones and can instantly call up stats/stories from around the globe on the NFL, cricket or tiddlywinks.
I’ll be forever grateful for having worked at one of the premier sports networks in the world. Being there for 13 years honed my skills and strengthened my crazy work ethic. Most importantly, beyond professional successes, I met and married my husband during my time in Bristol. As I look back, I’m still amazed Steve and I found the time during our incredibly hectic and demanding work schedules to carve out a life beyond the ESPN studio walls.
CC: Working in sports media comes with many sacrifices. One of which is usually personal time. How has the move to Arizona impacted your life off of the air?
Our move to Arizona has dramatically changed our personal lives for the better. I’ve seen Steve more in the last 5 years, than I did in the 10 years prior while we were at ESPN. Luckily, we still seem to like one another and enjoy each others company, ha ha ha! Seriously, it’s the little things like not having to worry about holidays. Thanks to Steve’s Diamondbacks schedule he’s pretty much guaranteed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years off. Something we were never afforded with any kind regularity at ESPN.
CC: How has your view of the industry evolved throughout the years?
My view of the industry hasn’t really changed. You still have to outwork everyone around you. Get the facts right and ALWAYS remember you’re serving the fan. What has changed is how people want to receive their information and the increased importance of live sporting events. I’ve always believed the games themselves are the best form of reality television because you never know what’s going to happen after the 1st pitch, kickoff, or drop of the puck. I was lucky to be at ESPN when SportsCenter was the 800 lb gorilla and now in just a few short years, it’s having to bend to the will of the demand of the streaming consumer.
CC: In all professions, people such as Suzy Kolber have paved the way for the next generation. How have her experiences helped and impacted women in the business?
Folks like Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya and Lisa Salters to name a few have been the gold standards of how to do the job at the highest of levels. It’s easy to identify, they are not about being stars or simply on TV, it’s about the journalism and serving the fan in the most professional ways possible.
CC: You’ve experienced everything from Anibal Sanchez’s no-hitter, to Barry Bonds’ chase for the home run title. Which memories stand out the most?
Asking me which sports story memories for me stand out, is like asking parents of 9 which kid is their favorite. At the top of the list is a 2 birds one stone deal for me. I hosted my first 1 am SportsCenter in February of 2001 with my now-husband Steve Berthiaume. Hosting the 1 am show was a HUGE deal back then because it was the show of record and the list of those allowed to do it was wicked short. My final show at ESPN was the 1 am SportsCenter on December 29, 2012. A nice little bookend to a pretty good run.
August 7, 2007, I was co-hosting the 11 pm SportsCenter alongside John Buccigross and Barry Bonds broke the all-time HR record with then career jack number 756. It was really amazing to be a part of all of the reporting/journalism forces coming together to cover the historic moment.
Another incredible circumstance was Thanksgiving weekend of 2009 when Elin Nordegren and Tiger Woods marriage imploding became national news. To be hosting the weekend morning edition of SportsCenter and being alongside Bob Ley on that Sunday morning, in particular, was like helping and watching a masters class in journalism all at the same time.
Since joining the Pac-12 Network I’ve learned the beauty of being at the game live and how incredibly impactful and intoxicating it can be to see sports stories unfold right before your eyes. Those are just a few of hundreds of amazing instances of covering sports I’ve experienced to date.
CC: Many women want to break into the industry or are struggling to succeed. What is your advice for those women?
My advice to young women trying to break in or who may be struggling in sports broadcasting is to be open to doing something in the field you may have never thought of. When Steve was hired by the Diamondbacks, I had NO idea what I would do to continue my professional career. I’d never thought of anything beyond ESPN and had planned to be there as a studio host for decades. Hindsight being 20/20 and the reality of recent cuts in Bristol only reinforce what I’ve learned since hitting Arizona. Be adaptable and ready to change. I’d never done basketball play by play, men’s hoops sideline, college football sideline reporting, or had hosted MLB pre and post game coverage or been a dugout reporter. I’ve done ALL that and more since leaving ESPN.
If you have designs on covering baseball or soccer, learn Spanish. Folks who can conduct bilingual interviews are valuable, period. Know your least favorite sport, as well as you know your favorite because the opportunity won’t likely be there for NFL coverage but you could crush Lacrosse and jump from there.
Be crazy comfortable with all the technology involved in being a one-woman band and keep your digital footprint professional. While you may look great in your bikini, a potential boss may not take you seriously if those kinds of snapshots dominate your Facebook page. Outwork everyone around you and be a nice guy. Nobody wants to work alongside a jerk, so don’t be that guy. Try to tell the viewer/listener something they may not know. Whether it’s an obscure stat or better yet a personal story which creates connectivity from the athlete to the fan, think outside the box. Write, write, write, write and write some more. If you can’t look at a box score and write a game story, then how are you going to be able to talk about what happened coherently? Put your phone down and TALK to people. You can find some of the best stories by simply engaging with fans or just people out and about.
Finally, be yourself and have fun! I’ve been so crazy fortunate to work in the candy aisle in the grocery store of life covering sports. Let that joy shine!
*Photo courtesy of Cindy Brunson