The 2016 NBA Finals tip off tonight from Oakland, Calif. And ahead of the Steph and LeBron show, tipping off tonight on ABC, we caught up with the host of NBA Countdown Sage Steele. TVNewser chatted with Steele about the current sports TV landscape, her rise from local TV news, and her wildly fulfilling, often chaotic off-camera life.
TVN: You’ve covered many NBA Finals for ESPN/ABC, and the spotlight is huge. How does your preparation for NBA Finals coverage differ from regular season coverage?
Steele: Well, I would say the best part about Finals coverage is being on the road. I wish I could do NBA Countdown from arenas around the league, as opposed to the studio. I love the energy that comes with being at the arena. For me, it’s actually easier to focus on a specific Finals match-up as opposed to doing NBA Countdown during the regular season, where we have to talk about lots of games and we aren’t always able to cover everything. With the Finals, we’re down to just two teams and we can really dive deep. We are also going to have NBA champion Paul Pierce coming on-board this year for Finals coverage, which is great. He has been there, done that. I always enjoy that new perspective. There is just going to be so much to talk about, I wish we could have a two-hour pregame show!
TVN: Talk to us about your transition from local television to national television. You came to ESPN from CSN Mid-Atlantic, but before that you were at WFTS, the ABC affiliate in Tampa, along with ESPN’s Jay Crawford and NFL Network’s Scott Hanson. Heck of a sports department. Can you talk about that time?
Steele: First, I was working in Indianapolis before Tampa. I loved my time in Indianapolis, but I wanted to move on. Jay (Crawford) was the person who signed off on me being hired in Tampa in 1998. I was the third member of a three-person sports department, and it was a really great time. I got married in Tampa to my college boyfriend, and Jay and Scott were at my wedding. My kids still refer to him as “Mr. Jay.” It’s so cool how this whole path has evolved 18 years later. Jay remains one of my best friends and a mentor. Back when I was so green and felt so in over my head, he took care of me. Now, we’re more peers but I don’t forget those days. Tampa was pretty great.
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TVN: There are plenty of young sportscasters looking to make that next step in TV. Talk about the importance of having a talent agent to help navigate this cutthroat industry.
Steele: I have the best agent right now in Nick Khan at CAA. He’s a friend and I trust him with everything. “Trust” is very important when having an agent. In terms of being on the local side and trying to move up, it’s hard to say. I remember back in the day going to Wal-Mart and buying 20 VHS tapes and dubbing them down for hours at a time before sending them out via snail mail. In retrospect, I guess I could have used an agent to make the right phone calls to the right people. But I also think it is different today for broadcasters who are trying to move up, maybe a bit easier because you can just send a link out to someone. Today, everything is so much more accessible with new technology and all the different ways to view things online. Back in the 90s, there wasn’t as much accessibility. With that in mind, I think you can wait as long as you want before getting an agent. Do it on your own for as long as you can. Sometimes, these employers are turned off by agents. Once you get to a certain level, though, it’s different.
Personally, I never had what it took to walk into an office and negotiate my own contract with a GM. I have a lot of strengths and weaknesses, and one of my weaknesses is negotiating. For me it was tough because I never wanted to seem greedy, and I always wanted to seem appreciative. I never cared about the money I made. But I learned after a while that it is a business, and if you don’t take care of yourself, no one will. So when you get to my level, it’s important to have someone on your side that knows the market, knows the marketplace, and knows what you truly deserve based on the position. I would never be comfortable at this level without the right one.
TVN: There has been a lot of talk in 2016 about the movement of ESPN on-air talent. Mike Tirico is heading to NBC Sports, Skip Bayless to FS1, reports of Chris Berman’s departure after the 2016-2017 NFL season. Matt Hasselbeck, Charles Woodson, Randy Moss joining Sunday NFL Countdown, etc. What do you think about these changes?
Steele: First of all, many of these people are my friends and I’m sad that they’re leaving. Skip was so good to me when I first got to ESPN, especially when I was on First Take. There’s Skip Bayless on TV and then there’s Skip Bayless, the human. I am sad to see him leave, but I’m thrilled for him at the same time. I am devastated about Mike Tirico. When I got the NBA Countdown job, he was one of the first people to reach out to me. That gesture meant so much because he is a person who I have always looked up to. Listen, I think competition in this industry is really healthy. I don’t know how our executives view it, but that’s how I view it. I also believe that this process is cyclical and that there will be a bunch of people coming and going from outlet to outlet. There is just so much opportunity out there right now and the business is changing. I’m thrilled for them and “to each his own,” I’d say. I am in the middle of a contract and I have three years left on it. Frankly, I hope to have 30 more years here at ESPN, but who knows? But because they’re my friends, I’m just so darn happy for them that I don’t even care about the business part of it.
TVN: What are some of your favorite sports to watch?
Steele: I’m an NFL girl at heart. I covered NFL teams as a reporter for nine years, Colts, Buccaneers, Ravens. That’s always where my true comfort zone has been. I did SportsCenter for five years, and learned a little bit about a lot of things, but my real passion is the NFL. I’m also passionate about college basketball, especially my Indiana Hoosiers. I’ve instilled that in my son, who often goes to sleep with his candy striped pants on!
TVN: You must have some time for hobbies outside of the office, right? How about activities with the family?
Steele: My kids are 10, 12 and 14. It can be utter chaos. One of my hobbies is consuming a glass of red wine every night, which I think is necessary in order to stay a good parent! I love going to the gym. Right now, I go three days per week, but I want to go more often. I like going to these boot camp-type classes where I can get my competitive juices flowing. I’m also really into equestrian. I have been riding horses for my entire life, and my daughter now rides as well. I started riding when I was living in Europe as a young Army brat. It’s a dangerous sport, but it’s one of the only things I can do where I’m just totally able to block everything out and focus. I also love to go fishing. It’s sort of tough to do where I live in Arizona, but when I go back East I try to do that. I guess I’m such a tomboy!
TVN: Who are your mentors in this business?
Steele: I was such close friends with Stuart Scott. He was my mentor, my close friend and also a friend of my family. When he got really sick, and we kind of knew what was coming, I just promised myself and promised him that I was going to live my life and live it well. That may sound cheesy. I had always been a bit hesitant in my life and not wanting to take chances. Now my mindset is to just “go!” I also think that an active lifestyle sets a good example for my kids. I’m enjoying living at age 43 with three adolescents, trying things and never regretting. I feel just so fortunate to be in my position. I’ve accomplished my dream; how many people can say that?!