ESPN’s Sage Steele sounds off on Tim Tebow, Skip Bayless and contract talks

(Photo credit: ESPN)

Anchor Sage Steele is a rising star at ESPN. The weekend SportsCenter anchor is plenty opinionated in a one-on-one interview with Mike McCarthy of Sports Biz USA.

Steele agrees with ESPN critics who complain the cable giant went off the rails with its round-the-clock Tim Tebow coverage during NY Jets training camp. She prefers the old First Take show rather than the new “Embrace Debate” format of Skip Bayless vs. Stephen A. Smith.

She believes Comcast’s NBC Sports is quietly challenging Disney’s ESPN for national cable supremacy. Her response? Bring it NBC. Brace yourself Rob King but Steele reads Yahoo! Sports during commercial breaks

Like Michelle Beadle, Erin Andrews and Scott Van Pelt, the 39-year old Steele has a decision to make. Her contract’s up in 16 months. Should she ask agent Lou Oppenheim to seek greener pastures with NBC, Fox or CBS? Or should she stay in Bristol, Conn., where she likes living with her husband and three children.

An Army brat who grew up at military bases around the USA and overseas, Steele comes from a sports family. Father Gary Steele broke the color barrier at West Point by becoming the first black player on the football team. Brother Chad Steele works for the Baltimore Ravens.

I knew Steele was coming up in the ranks at ESPN when boss John Skipper chose her to co-host the network’s upfront presentation to Madison Avenue this spring. That’s  a tough crowd of media buyers and ad agency executives. It was the kind of high-profile gig that went previously to the likes of Beadle, Van Pelt and Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic of ESPN2’s Mike and Mike in the Morning show.

Another thing I like about Steele. She’s able and willing to serve as the voice of the TV viewer and call BS when analysts like Matt Millen get off point and start bloviating.

A 1995 graduate of Indiana University, Steele started her TV career in South Bend, went to an ABC affiliate in Tampa (where she met and worked for fellow SportsCenter anchor Jay Crawford). She then joined Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic before starting at ESPN in 2007.

Excerpts of Steele’s sit-down with Sports Biz USA:

Did ESPN go nuts with Tebow coverage? Just like it did with Tiger Woods, Brett Favre and LeBron James?
I didn’t like it. Now my daughter’s arguing with me right now because she loves Tim Tebow … Here’s the the problem. When it’s Tim Tebow, when it’s Tiger Woods, when it’s Brett Favre, the numbers are such they support the bosses’ decision to do this stuff. Not all the time. We can sit there in the newsroom and argue all we want. Which many of us do. When they come out and say, ‘OK Sage, fine, here’s a rating,’ what do I say? What do I say? I can’t fight that.
But I’m going to give my opinion … Does it need to be wall-to-wall coverage every single day, every single show? Probably not. Maybe for a couple of days. That’s kind of the cool thing. We’re not afraid to try it. We’re not afraid to experiment with it. That’s what we did with Tebow. You look at Jets camp this year. Hopefully, next year it will change. Hopefully, in my opinion, we’ll do more teams and mini camps … Unfortunately, when we do stories in that manner, I can’t argue with fans (who criticize ESPN). I can’t. So hopefully we can squash all that talk and cover more teams.
But with Tebow, everybody’s been doing since he was at Florida. That’s because  he’s such a unique individual and athlete. There’s people in my neighborhood who don’t watch any ESPN — but they know who Tim Tebow is. I agree with people who are complaining. But I also agree with our bosses who say, ‘OK, it’s the business. Look at the ratings. They might hate it. But they’re still watching.’ People might hate Skip Bayless. But they’re still watching.

Do you prefer old First Take or new ‘Embrace Debate’ format? 
Every time I go into the grocery store, I talk to this sweetheart guy. He’s probably 70 years old. He asks, ‘Have you gotten rid of Skip Bayless yet? You have to get him out of there Sage.’  We have this argument every single time. I say, ‘I love Skip.’ I know people think I’m crazy. They think he’s awful. I love him on TV — even though I don’t agree with a lot. But I love him off TV more importantly. You can’t argue with the numbers and the numbers have been excellent since this whole embrace debate thing.
By the way, Jay Crawford should have patented (Embrace Debate). That was his baby. I do miss the old First Take. Which to me was a talk/highlight/debate show. I think how they did it was excellent. But the numbers talk. And Skip gets people riled up. Now with Stephen A. on there as well …I have mixed feelings about it. But I get it. I support them. I support Skip. I support Stephen A. I think they’re brilliant and geniuses at what they do and how they do it. As you probably know, Skip has no life. This truly means so much to him. He works his butt off. You could disagree with him all you want. But I tell people he usually has something to back it up. It is just what he lives and breathes. I appreciate the show as it is now because he is just in a zone.

Do you want to resign with ESPN? Become a sideline reporter like Andrews? Or move into morning TV ala ESPN alumni Robin Roberts and Josh Elliott of ABC’s Good Morning America?
Not the sidelines. I respect people who want to do it. But I have no interest in it. Mostly it’s personal. With my family, I have no desire to travel that much. It’s funny you asked we what I’ve wanted to do. For the first time in my life, I’m content. It’s really weird. This was my goal: to anchor SportsCenter. And I’ve achieved it.
Listen, my contract up in 16 months. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’d love to stay here because I feel like there’s a lot more I can do. … Robin has always been my (model) in the business. The fact that I’m sitting in the chair she sat in is crazy to me. But I like that talk show format … With Robin, I could see myself doing something like that … I no longer have this end-all, be-all job. Because I’m in it. In a way, it’s scary. All our lives,  when you’re in first grade the teacher asks you what you want to be when you grow up. Well, I guess I’ve grown up. I’ve done it. Now I’m trying to figure out what’s next.
Maybe what’s next is to stay here and do a better job  of it … I did the NBA Finals this summer. I kind of fell into it. I loved it. I’d love to have more ownership of things like that. Play a greater role in the NBA, not just during the Finals, but during the season … I need to have something to keep Striving for.

Did Andrews and Beadle make a mistake leaving ESPN?
I really believe to each his own. With Erin, maybe she felt like there wasn’t much more she could do at ESPN. She did do so much here. I don’t blame her for trying other things. I think it’s healthy. She’s 34 years old. She’s young. Why not go try it? You know? She established herself to the point where she could pretty much name what she wants to do. If she wants to get out of sports, she could do it tomorrow. I don’t blame them one bit.
I do think you have to be careful. Very rarely are you able to come back. You just have to be careful. Because there’s a lot of people who want to work at ESPN who’ll probably do it for less money and worse hours. Be careful what you wish for. That something I’m really thinking about myself.
My family loves it here. My kids? This all they remember. They don’t even remember being in (Washington) D.C. It would have to take something really good to take me away from ESPN – assuming they want me. Maybe I should ask that question first.
But there’s a lot of people who have left lately. … We are a machine. The amount of programming we push out every day? It’s overwhelming. It is overwhelming. I think sometimes it is too big for some people. You have to find your niche.
That’s why I feel so lucky to be on the weekends. Because I have my niche … It’s not just that ESPN’s a cool place to work and the athletes watch it, etc. It’s a good company. I don’t know. It would take a lot like for someone like me to leave.

 What web sites and blogs do you read?
Of course, But I shouldn’t say this, I really like Yahoo! Sports. I know what a lot of our analysts are going to say. And what a lot of our guys are going to say. So I read them. But I really like Yahoo. I really like the way they do it there too. It’s a good contrast to do both. I like how any game, NBA, NFL, NHL, all of it, you go there, there’s a preview, there’s a box score and there’s a recap. So I can look at the end of the game. The numbers during and then afterward. Then you can go to anybody’s column after the game and see what they they were thinking.
That’s another thing that happens during commercial breaks … I love following certain people and reading the articles they post. It’s important to not just get perspective from the ESPN guys but the other guys and gals out there as well.

SportsCenter just celebrated its 50,000th show. Do you think the new NBC Sports Network, with its own new morning highlights show, is trying to take on ESPN nationally?
I still think SportsCenter is the best of the best. Now, there’s more competition coming along. I’m excited by the competition.
To me, in business, you’ve got to have it to maintain your success and continue to be the best. (SportsCenter) has certainly changed over the years. It’s not nearly as personality-driven as when I was watching in college and afterward sitting at my desk at Comcast Sports … To me it is so unique. What else can you compare to it? Nothing. Especially not in sports …
I think it will be interesting if someone else, another show, can come and knock SportsCenter off its pedestal. But you know what? Please try. It will only make us better. That’s truly the way I feel about it.


I’m told by ESPN insiders the brass in Bristol regards you as a rising star. Comment?
I’m criticized sometimes by friends and colleagues for beating myself up too much. Not being as confident as I should be at time. But that’s just me. It’s that underdog role. My Mom always laughs. She says her three kids always take such a long, winding, uphill road.
I achieved my dream of hosting SportsCenter on ESPN. But now I have to continue to kick butt. In my mind, I’m not kicking butt yet. I feel like I have so long to go. I don’t know what the definition of star is? Rising star? I don’t really know what that is. Do you compare yourself to (Chris) Berman? … I have a long way to go…

You also fill in on the 9 AM and 12 Noon weekday SportsCenters. Which do you prefer: Weekdays or Weekends?
The weekends really have powerful meaning to me. I grew up watching the weekend Sports Centers with my Dad. I love the weekends. That’s when there’s a lot of eyes on these programs. That’s when so many of the big-time sports happen, whether college football or the NFL. It’s most exciting to me on weekends. Family-wise, weekends are difficult. Because I have three young children, and I do have to miss some activities, and that kills me. But overall I have a really good schedule. I try to balance the positive and the negative. There’s no such thing as a perfect job.

On frequent on-air partner David Lloyd.
He’s amazing. We have a great team on the weekends. During the week, a lot of things rotate. On the weekends, we’re the same — same producers, same coordinating producers, same editors, same camera people, same teleprompter and same co-hosts. So I love my job right now. And I really didn’t think I would because of the family side of it. But overall, I love it …They had talked to me about doing this weekend job once before. But I said no. Because of what happened with me at home. What it does to my husband. Frankly I didn’t want him to leave me.

What does your husband do?
My husband has been a stay-at-home Dad for 10 years. He gave up his career when we were in Washington D.C. and I was at Comcast. … This was not what his plan was in life. He had never changed a diaper before we had our first child. This was not planned. I was pregnant. We were thinking about a Nanny, Day Care, what do I do. Then I actually gave birth. I went, ‘Holy Crap, I just can’t hand her off.’ We did some numbers-crunching. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on the day, I made more money. That’s how it happened. We knew my earnings potential was greater.
He was in IT training and consulting. He worked in Georgetown. We loved our life. But we really made it a priority. We wanted one of us to be home….We could have used that second salary, especially then. But for us it was more important to take care of the home front. And so he has done it. It’s funny. Two weeks ago on the first day of school. Our youngest went to his first day of school … For the first time in the decade since he quit his job, all three kids are in school. Full-day. It was a crazy, weird thing. It was emotional for me. And for him. Because it’s like he sacrificed a lot. Financially and career-wise. And that day at the bus stop two weeks ago was like, ‘Oh my goodness, we did it.’

How did you feel about hosting the Upfront before a tough New York crowd of advertisers, industry insiders and media people?
Certainly it doesn’t hurt. I have to admit, I was surprised when they asked. I was part of it the year before with Beadle. I had my little part. I was fine and I was honored to do that. Then they said, ‘Hey, we want to do you the Upfront.’ … I just was surprised and flattered. What I wanted to do was just shut up, do it it and not ask questions … Again, I was really surprised they called my name for it. Tried not to fall off the stage. Tried not to screw it up, you know?

So you say Jay Crawford came up with the whole ‘Embrace Debate’ idea for First Take?
It’s all Jay Crawford. He should be making money off this. Jay was the sports anchor in Tampa. He was at my wedding in ’99. We had him over for dinner last week. I love that man. He is a great friend. I think he’s so good and so natural. … I know he does miss First Take, how it used to be. He’s so good at the debate part of it. He’s so good at calling out Skip when he needs it.

When I covered Eric Mangini as coach of the Jets, he was absolutely wooden. He’s surprised me as an analyst, especially how good he is breaking down game film on TV. Think “Mangenius” will stay at ESPN or go back to the sideline?
I hope he stays. It wouldn’t suprirse me if he goes back to coaching. So many of these guys have it in their blood. … I was pleasantly surpised too. My brother does PR in the league. I had heard about him. He doesn’t have this boisterous personality. Even on TV now. If you take away the fact that he’s not Herm Edwards with his energy and listen to what he says, he’s phenonomal. And that’s the key. For us, as broadcasterers. We don’t know everything. That’s why we have the analysts there. … I have to really listen to every single thing he says. Sometimes I forget I’m on TV. I’m trying to listen, soak it all in and follow it up … I hope he stays because I think NFL fans are learning from Eric Mangini. I bet you they’re all surprised too. He doesn’t have the personality of a Marcellus (Wiley) or Herm (Edwards) or even a (Mark) Schlereth. He’s quiet. But he makes you listen. If you do, you come out of it with a lot.

Your father Gary Steele broke the color barrier for West Point football in 1966. Talk about his influence.
He was heavily recruited by Joe Paterno. He made the choice between Penn State and Army. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions. But he had to fulfill his military obligations. They knew it but drafted him anyway. That’s how good he was … He never talked about it. I had to learn about my Dad and his success by talking to people like Lee Corso and Bob Knight.
I graduated (Indiana) in ’95. I built up the courage one day to walk up to (Knight) in the hallway and ask him if he remembered my Dad. He said ‘You bet I remember him.’ He put his arm around me and started telling me stories about my Dad. It was surreal. I learned about my Dad through other people. Through coaches. He’s such a humble man. He wasn’t raised to talk about this stuff … He’s the main reason why I wanted to do this. Not because he pushed me into this. But his overall athletic influence. He also encouraged me knowing there were so few women in it … He really pushed me to go for it. Even though at the time I was this shy, pathetic kid who was afraid of her own shadow. How would I ever make it to national TV? It was their confidence in me even though I had none … My Dad is black and my Mom is white. They experienced some horrible things. They were like, ‘Don’t let any of it get in your way. Go for it.’ If my Dad can get through being taunted when he went to play games at other campuses, I can probably get through being the only woman in the locker room. You know? Get over it.


  1. Brock Lesnar says:

    Pretty! This has been a really wonderful post.

    Thank you for providing this information.

  2. MsMar says:

    This headline is MISLEADING!! They make it sound like Sage is complaining about ESPN and trying to get her into trouble! Ugh! So irresponsible! I love Sage! She is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and a great person to work with! Always pleasant! Please READ THE WHOLE ARTICLE and don’t judge her by the title!

  3. mike says:

    Hi Brock, thanks for reading. Sorry you didn’t like headline there MsMar. We’ll try harder. Mike

  4. kathy m says:

    Enjoyed this post. Didn’t know about Sage until recently. My son & husband REALLY ADMIRE her!! My son wants to follow her footsteps, broadcast/ journalism/ sports junkie he’s in high school. What was Sage college major & how can he email her?
    Thanks again for the good post.

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