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Indiana University Journalism

ESPN’s Sage Steele to lecture March 24

IU Journalism | March 10, 2014
sage steele
Courtesy photo
ESPN's Sage Steele is the school's March 24 Speaker Series guest. The talk is free and open to the public.
– By Claire Aronson

IU is the place that changed her life.

Sage Steele, BS’95, host of ESPN’s NBA Countdown, said she would not be where she is in her career if it weren’t for IU.

“I have such an emotional attachment to IU,” she said in a recent phone interview. “When I’m on campus, I’m walking through the arboretum, the union and past Ballantine Hall, I remember those moments as a student. I truly believe everything happens for a reason, and if I made one different decision, I may not be where I am today.”

Steele will recount her path from those days on campus to her broadcast career with one of the nation’s top sports organizations when she lectures at 7 p.m. March 24 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Her talk is part of the school’s Speaker Series, and it is free and open to the public.

Steele made the leap to the host position on NBA Countdown in October, and she continues to co-host the network’s SportsCenter. Steele joined ESPN in 2007 after covering sports for other broadcast media, including WSBT-TV in South Bend, where she was a producer and reporter; WISH-TV in Indianapolis, where she covered Indianapolis Colts, NCAA Men’s Final Four, NASCAR and the Izod IndyCar Series; and WFTS-TV, covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and NCAA Men’s Final Four.

In 2000, she joined Fox Sports Net in Tampa as a reporter and covered Super Bowl XXXV for the 2000-01 NFL season. She then worked for Comcast SportsNet before joining ESPN.

Steele said her inspiration for pursuing such a career started with her athletic family. As a 12-year-old eighth grader, she announced that one day, she would host SportsCenter on ESPN.

“To realize that I’ve accomplished this is pretty cool, and pretty flattering and overwhelming at times,” she said.

Steele has visited IU many times since graduating from the School of Public Health with a focus on sport communication, and she said she relishes the chance to talk to students, especially.

“I think it’s important to share with people the entire story,” she said. “Starting with IU, I will talk about the journey of chaos, tough decisions, drama and the amazing opportunities along the way.”

For example, at one point as a student, Steele was on academic probation because her GPA fell below 2.0. While the sport communication courses were exactly what she wanted, looking back, she said IU’s huge lecture classes were not right for her.

“I saw a major and knew exactly what I wanted to do for a living,” she said. “But I was overwhelmed, and I needed some more one-on-one. When I was on probation, it was scary. I got a call from the dean at the time over Christmas break, and he said, ‘If you don’t shape up next semester, you are out.’ It was mortifying and embarrassing. I knew I was smarter than that. I had to make a change.”

The experience forced Steele to start from scratch and reinvent herself. She was 19 years old, and it was a low point for her, she said.

“It was the beginning for me in how to deal with tough situations,” she said.

As a female sports broadcast journalist, Steele said she faces challenges in the industry every day but recognizes that, thanks to the women who came before her, the climate is much better than it once was.

Still, she's tested.

“One time, a driver was taking me from the airport to the hotel, and he tried to quiz me and stump me with trivia questions,” she said. “Would you do the same thing with a male? Half the time, I don’t recognize it anymore, but it still is there and I choose to plow through it.”

With her move to NBA Countdown, Steele jumped to an even higher level in the echelon of female sports broadcasters. As a co-host on SportsCenter, Steele has to know a little about a lot of sports, but as the host of NBA Countdown, she has ownership of one sport – basketball – which is unique in the industry, she said.

“I’ve always loved the NBA,” she said. “It’s really different in its own way. It is kind of cool to focus on one thing, but there is also more pressure. I just jumped on the opportunity and haven’t looked back since.”

Once a week, Steele flies from her home and ESPN’s headquarters in Connecticut to Los Angeles, where the NBA Countdown is produced. This schedule means leaving her husband and three children at home.

“It’s a tough commute,” she said. “I am still learning to balance.”

Despite her busy schedule, Steele said she always make an effort to come back to IU. In 2009, she returned for a panel discussion on sports media, and has visited to talk to individual classes and groups. She also came to IU when she was awarded the Anita Aldrich Distinguished Alumni Award in 2011, presented annually to graduates of the IU School of Public Health who have demonstrated outstanding achievements in professional excellence. She also was one of three speakers at IU’s Diversity Leadership Conference last October.

“It’s not only what I should do, but what I want to do,” she said. “If I could provide insights to students interested in the business, I feel like I’m giving back a little bit. It’s one of the very few things I almost always bend over backward to do.”

Steele will have plenty of advice and a few cautionary tales when she talks to the crowd March 24. Some of that will be directed at students in the audience. For example, she said developing writing skills is one of the most important things someone aspiring to work broadcast journalism can do.

“Writing is huge,” she said. “It is something I always push for students to really focus on.”

She encourages students to make sure they are pursuing sports broadcast careers for the right reasons, not to meet athletes or simply because they love sports. The point, after all, is to be a great storyteller, not a starstruck fan who is intimidated when asking heroes tough questions.

“You have to be ready to be a true journalist," she said.

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