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Laura Rutledge is Thriving on Her Journey at ESPN

“They don’t need to remember what I said because I’m there to make them shine, and that will be what I hope people would say about me.”

Derek Futterman



Laura Rutledge
Courtesy: Laura Rutledge on Facebook

When Laura Rutledge looks back at the early days of the revamped NFL Live, she recognizes how she occupied a cavernous studio alone while everyone else was in remote locations carrying out their roles. In trying to adhere to health and safety protocols due to the global pandemic, the network had made adaptations to many of its studio shows. Although everyone involved was excited for the new show, the external situations surrounding the endeavor placed it in a unique situation compared to the launch of other studio programming.

“I remember very early on being discouraged and feeling like we weren’t really given a fair shake, and it was basically out of everybody’s control,” Rutledge said. “There was nothing anyone could do about it, and so instead of wallowing in that, I decided, ‘Okay, we’re not going to use that as an excuse. We’re going to find some way to make this really work.’”

Rutledge had faced different levels of adversity in establishing herself and working in sports media. At this stage in her career though, she is largely recognized as one of ESPN’s versatile, star talents. Aside from her natural hosting abilities, she has exhibited unyielding poise and a commitment to enhancing her colleagues. Every weekday, Rutledge is joined by ESPN NFL analysts Dan Orlovsky, Mina Kimes, Marcus Spears and Ryan Clark on NFL Live, a show that genuinely blends congeniality with proficiency pertaining to a predominant sport.

“I know some people are like, ‘Wow, is it really this good? Do you guys really like each other this much,’ and I would just tell you it’s just family,” Rutledge said. “We’ve been there for each other through a lot over these last few years, and so I think that’s very rare to find in TV in general, but I desperately hold on to the chemistry that we’ve created because I know that it’s something rare and special.”

Rutledge left her ego behind at the entrance to the long and winding road towards Bristol, Conn., and she has worked to build off each opportunity placed in her direction. Viewing chances to broaden her skillset as stepping stones instead of obstacles, she prepares to cross these rivers with a confident composure. As time has progressed, Rutledge has improved her ability to construct bridges that put her in the fast lane of success.

The airport is a common destination on some of these drives since she frequently travels throughout the football season to host and report on various network programs. Before she was a passenger on an airplane preparing for takeoff, Rutledge was on the runway herself competing in beauty pageants. As a longtime member of the Miss America organization, Rutledge sought to win scholarship money while in college at the University of Florida. While she eventually won the title of Miss Florida in the summer of 2012, the process helped her refine key fundamentals in her sports media pursuits.

“I really didn’t know how to be in front of a camera and I would deal with debilitating nerves trying to do that, so this forced me so outside my comfort zone that I had to learn pretty quickly how to make it all work,” Rutledge said. “I think if you can be on a stage in front of people, being on a camera isn’t nearly as bad.”

From a young age, Rutledge possessed a keen interest in the arts and ballet dancing, and although she enjoyed sports, she did not closely scrutinize teams and leagues. Upon matriculating at the University of Florida, she was using some of her academic scholarship funds to pay for ballet classes and needed to find a job to help alleviate some of the costs. A friend subsequently told her she had a good voice and should consider joining WRUF, the campus radio station. In the spring of her freshman year, Rutledge applied and was informed sports was the only opening, and she did not hesitate to oblige.

In order to learn about what she was covering, Rutledge engaged in deft preparation and displayed a steadfast yearning to excel. As she focused her major on telecommunications and news, she discerned the widespread passion for college sports and made her voice heard. Outside of her own work, she watched and drew inspiration from ESPN television personalities such as Mike Greenberg, Paul Finebaum and Scott Van Pelt. Rutledge, however, thought she was going to work in radio but was open to any chance to assimilate into the industry.

After relentless attempts to land an internship, she began working with FOX Sports Florida in her senior year and primarily copied DVDs over the summer. Despite crossing through an open doorway, Rutledge felt discouraged and that the role was somewhat a waste of time.

From her propensity to take action, she approached management and asked if she could write positional previews for Florida and Florida State football. Even without a guarantee that they would be published, she set out on the project and looked to imbue the website with fresh, relevant content. In the end, every single article was posted, and the gamble parlayed itself into a position as a sideline reporter for the Tampa Bay Rays while still in school, catalyzing her career in television.

“One of the great things about a baseball season and being a regional reporter is that if you have a bad game, you can come back out the next day and do it again,” Rutledge explained. “I felt that bounce-back opportunity for me after many bad games and many times when I would think, ‘Oh my goodness – I can’t even have any success at this,’ that was really beneficial.”

Rutledge eventually relocated to the FOX Sports-branded regional sports network in San Diego, which later became Bally Sports San Diego. While there, she further bolstered her portfolio by reporting on San Diego Padres games and serving as a fill-in host in the studio. Even so, she had an inclination to do more and pitched a new show, SDLive, on which she would produce, write and host.

“I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh man, I could have done that so much better now,’ but at the time for being as young as I was in the business but also really passionate about trying to grow the producer side of my brain, it was great experience and I loved it,” Rutledge said. “I was very sad to leave San Diego; the only thing that pulled me away was the opportunity with ESPN.”

Several weeks before the college football season, Rutledge interviewed with ESPN at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and had a willingness to do anything to land an opportunity. She was subsequently added to the talent roster ahead of the debut of the SEC Network and quickly began reporting on football, gymnastics, softball and college baseball games. From the onset, Rutledge aimed to adequately perform her roles and serve as an asset rather than a liability in the grand scheme of coverage.

“I learned a lot, I think, in those early days, but I think the keys to getting more opportunities at ESPN was showing that I didn’t care what it was going to be that they were going to ask me to do,” Rutledge said. “I was going to find a way to do it and hopefully perform at a high and acceptable level.”

When Rutledge was named the host of SEC Nation in 2017, she sought to find a way to bring the feel of a college atmosphere to viewers at home. The show broadcasts live at gameday on select college campuses throughout the season with analysts Jordan Rodgers, Roman Harper, Tim Tebow and Paul Finebaum. College football reporters Marty Smith and Ryan McGee also contribute to the program, which informs viewers through entertainment and keeps them coming back each week.

“It is this mix of these really interesting, fun personalities who are very football-minded and very smart,” Rutledge said, “and so that’s a show I’m incredibly proud of and I really, really look forward to doing every single week during college football season.”

Rutledge continues to balance her hosting commitments on both SEC Nation and NFL Live and travels for both programs throughout the year. Regardless of the show, she looks to remain out of the way and elevate the people around her so they can flourish. Although she is in front of the camera, Rutledge looks to remain somewhat in the background to cultivate memorable moments. She truly seeks to be a team player, placing her colleagues before herself and doing things in the best interest of the show.

“They don’t need to remember what I said because I’m there to make them shine, and that will be what I hope people would say about me,” Rutledge said. “I hope that’s what my coworkers would say about me because that’s my ultimate goal.”

From watching other sports programming, Rutledge feels that conversation sometimes becomes too serious in a medium implementing entertainment value. Whenever she is working, Rutledge tries to remember people who have bad things happening in their lives and simply yearn for a reprieve.

“At this point, I’ve done so many embarrassing things on TV and had so many weird moments that there’s nothing that I’m really that afraid of because I will always just be who I am,” Rutledge said. “It took a long time for me to get there, but in life I’m sort of goofy and I love a blooper and I just love to laugh and have fun.”

While NFL Live utilizes analytics and other esoteric concepts of the game, it also confers on other topics others may perceive as trivial. There are disagreements at times, but the show largely eschews from contentiousness and retains a level of comfortability and education within its segments. Everyone on the show has respect for one another and is cognizant of the importance of actively listening rather than steady interruption. Contrarily though, there are times where entropy has etched the show into the minds of viewers, but it is always with the backing of strong trust across the panel.

“We know that of course we understand the football that we’re talking, and we love to inform; we love to be at a high level X-and-O wise,” Rutledge outlined, “but I think the most memorable moments from the show have been things that have been completely spontaneous and unplanned.”

Cast members of the program and production staff take part in a daily meeting prior to the show to discuss topics for the show. Throughout the week, the analysts on the program reveal what they are interested in bringing to light and maintain a consistent dialogue. Since the show is daily rather than weekly, it has the flexibility to move segments or discussion points in order to react to the dynamic news cycle in real time. ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter famously broke news of quarterback Aaron Rodgers being traded to the New York Jets during an edition of the program, allowing viewers to experience their reactions in real time.

“Our staff gets to weigh in on what they’d be interested in,” Rutledge said. “That’s always interesting because it gives us a nice barometer to see what fans – people who aren’t analysts but do work on the show – what [they would] care about. We really take that seriously, and then we talk to the analysts throughout the day – the people who are going to be on the show – [and] they sort of tell us, ‘Hey, I saw this,’ or, ‘I’m interested in that,’ and then we kind of sort through it and we’ll have a lot of conversations.”

Although there is some overlap in the preparation process for sideline reporting, Rutledge has had to make alterations in order to balance all of her responsibilities. She frequently feels fatigued but reminds herself of how lucky she is to be in her position. As a result, there are times where she has to sacrifice the amount of detail to complete the essential tasks prior to a contest.

During this past NFL regular season, Rutledge was the sideline reporter for Monday Night Football games in the three weeks ESPN presented doubleheaders. Additionally, she was on the broadcast for the network’s first ever NFL divisional round playoff game in addition to its Wild Card weekend game the week prior.

“I think one of the things that’s helped me a lot is finding ways to prepare where I really just focus in on whatever that sport is in a short time period and knowing that my brain can handle that and just cramming it all in and then moving to the next thing,” Rutledge articulated, “and then when I’m done with it, I kind of flush a lot out and then I hope there’s something left in case I had to go back to that team or that sport or that show or whatever it may be, and I found some success that way.”

Retaining credibility and being well-versed in the subject matter helps Rutledge suppress the surrounding criticism and misogyny to which she has been subjected. Every time she is on the air, she looks to remain consistent in her craft and serve as a role model for aspiring professionals. There were moments where she would let commentary affect her, but she has been able to effectively tune it out and not allow them to linger in her headspace.

“I think for me, I’ve always tried to live in a world where I don’t use that as an excuse,” Rutledge said. “While there may be people who would say ugly things or people who would treat people differently, I’ve tried to find ways to just move past that, and it’s not always possible, and so I’m very sensitive to people who have had examples where that hasn’t been the case for them.”

When Rutledge was seeking to ascend in the industry, she did not feel there was much assistance in finding the road forward. Whereas she used to be focused on her performances to define her level of success, she has broadened her scope and augmented the output as a whole. Rutledge believes there are chances for everyone, and she wants to assist others in knowing where to look and getting started.

“I think for me, that’s going to continue to be my priority no matter how long they’ll have me doing this,” Rutledge said. “At some point, I won’t be doing this anymore and I’ll be old news, and that’s great because that means it’s time for somebody else to take over.”

Rutledge is currently in the final year of her existing contract at ESPN, which is set to expire this summer, and she has interest in remaining at the network. At the same time though, she is receptive to other opportunities to cover the best events and continue performing a variety of different roles. Regardless of where she is next football season, she aspires to continue sideline reporting and experiencing moments of pure exhilaration.

“To be holding a microphone on Monday Night Football with people that I respect so much who are on those broadcast teams and the crew that does such an amazing job is beyond a dream come true,” Rutledge said. “It’s something that never in a million years I would have imagined, so I think just the more the better, and I would be thankful for anything that comes my way.”

Despite having hosted and reported on several games during her years in the business, Rutledge feels a nervous excitement ahead of each broadcast. There is undoubtedly a commitment to her performance, but it comes with a greater perspective of bolstering the aggregate product. In a time of mass layoffs throughout the media industry replete with dissemination platforms, it is clear to Rutledge that the industry is changing.

“I think it’s just extremely important that we never lose sight of what our ultimate goal is, which is to serve sports fans anytime, anywhere,” Rutledge said. “At times you see things that sort of looks like maybe we’ve fallen away from that, and that’s true for any business in any company, and just making sure that we’re always keeping our eyes squarely on that focus I think will allow for a ton of success for everybody at ESPN moving forward.”

Rutledge always has a strong sense of gratitude and considers herself fortunate to keep a packed schedule. Between SEC Nation, NFL Live and reporting assignments, along with being present for her family, moments of respite are few and far between.

In the moments where they do occur though, she thinks about the people who have and continue to support her on the journey. Instead of tracking a bonafide rise per se, she keeps her eyes focused on the road and free of distractions continuing forward towards an unknown final stop.

“I’ve worked so hard to earn every single thing and to earn it through credibility and professionalism,” Rutledge said. “And so to me, nothing that comes my way is worth doing unless that’s how I’ve earned it, so I hope that continues. Maybe one day I’ll stop and smell some roses, but for the meantime I’m just going to keep on trucking as long as they’ll let me.”

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I Love ‘The Dynasty’ AND I Hate the New England Patriots

In the end, the real reason I am writing this column is to encourage content creators to keep doing these sorts of shows. Keep them coming.



Bill Belichick picture with the graphic for The Dynasty documentary
Courtesy: Apple TV+

I have a confession to make to start out this week’s column. When I first saw the previews for ‘The Dynasty’ on Apple TV+ about the New England Patriots, I threw up a little in my mouth. No way was I going to dedicate any of my precious time to watching a series about Belichick’s cheaters.

I was born and raised in St. Louis. You might be familiar – middle of the country, have that arch thing and yep, two-time losers of NFL franchises. So, if you think YOU hate the Patriots, imagine being me.

In February of 2002, I was doing on-air work with KFNS in St. Louis, co-hosting morning drive and doing football shows on the weekends. I had also been doing play-by-play for a local basketball team and traveled with them, so when it came time to decide who would get to travel to the Super Bowl and who had to stay back, I drew the short straw and stayed.

Financially, this was actually a great deal for me. Pretty much all the other hosts got to go to New Orleans and our sales team had sold a ton of remotes for the days leading up to the game. I recall doing a remote that Saturday morning from a closed business, being rented by someone just to sell merchandise. You know the typical remote setup of a table and two folding chairs? This had no second chair and no table. I believe we were getting power from the business next door.

Then came game day. The Rams were favored by 14 points. I did the pregame show from a packed bar and had several of our other hosts on live from New Orleans. The atmosphere was incredible. If you knew St. Louis pro football history up until this point, you would understand why everyone was in complete disbelief that in a few hours, the Rams – a team from St. Louis – was going to win its second Super Bowl in three years.

Then, the game happened. Instead of the Rams being labeled as a “dynasty,” it was the Patriots and Tom Brady who were being celebrated.

And I still had to do a postgame show. Live from an emptying bar with no atmosphere in it whatsoever. My cohorts scheduled to join me down in Louisiana were of little help. One of them had lost his voice during the game and the other was too despondent to say much.

Then spygate, deflategate, a couple of dynasties, and as I said, I hate the New England Patriots with a passion.

However, when ‘The Dynasty’ came out and I saw the comments being made about it on X and heard several sports radio stations mentioning it, and realized how much I love good storytelling, especially when it has to do with sports and hearing the behind-the-scenes stuff that was going on. So, I decided I would watch it, but I would “hate watch” it. You know, fully prepared to dump all over it and not enjoy it, but see it so I know what others are talking about.

I wrote not that long ago about the NASCAR show on Netflix. It truly inspired me to at least have an interest in what is happening in racing as I am now aware of more of the drivers, and their stories, than ever before.

Similarly, with ‘The Dynasty’ you get a better feel for what was going on with the Patriots from the beginning. Bill Belichick was who he was and pretty much didn’t change. That guy you saw at the press conferences who avoided as many questions as he answered, that’s just him. He is a football coach, he cares about football. His focus is on winning the next game and he doesn’t really care what your agenda is.

He might put on a suit for your cameras, but he isn’t talking about topics he doesn’t want to discuss. He isn’t going to “play the game” and say things just to give out a sound bite. If he is willing to talk on a subject, he gives you his honest answers in short sentences. He saw coaching his team as his job and didn’t really feel the need to talk any more than he had to about most things. I believe when analyzing games becomes Belichick’s job, he will be really good at hard-core, nuts and bolts football talk.

On the other hand, I am wathcing Tom Brady and realizing he could really be special as a football analyst. He reminds me more of Kurt Warner than I thought, in that he is so good at talking about and explaining football. He isn’t doing it from a place of ‘Hey, look at me, I won all of these rings, I am the expert on this stuff.’ He is talking to the audience and saying what he feels in a very natural way. But, there is a lot of passion behind what he is saying and that is a good thing. You can tell he absolutely loves the game.

The more I watch Brady I also think about how much he must really want to do analyst work and be great at it. Why else would he do it? He can do anything he wants to do, go anywhere he wants to go, be with pretty much anyone he wants to be with. And, you automatically know that somewhere between 40-50% of the people are going to be nasty to you just for doing it.

In the end, the real reason I am writing this column is to encourage content creators to keep doing these sorts of shows. Keep them coming. The NASCAR one was great. I am getting in to the F1 racing show, which started several years ago. The shows about the Lakers, especially the HBO show, Winning Time, were fantastic. Apple’s Lionel Messi one was another that was really well done. ‘Full Swing’ and ‘Quarterback’ from Netflix were excellent. Netflix announced recently there will be one on the downfall of the Montreal Expos that I can’t wait for. Inject these in my veins. Give me all of them!

I love this era we are in when it comes to content. So much so, I will even watch when it’s about a team that I absolutely hate.


The Best Thing I Heard This Week

I love podcasts. I love the industry because it is all based around listener choice. What is it you want to dive into? There’s a podcast for that.

Sports media is of course of great interest to me and the national guys who do sports media podcasts really do an excellent job. I will miss the Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast, which Sports Business Journal and the New York Post had been doing. I look forward to seeing what, if anything, might happen in the podcast space now that Andrew Marchand has moved to The Athletic and John Ourand is with Puck. The SI Media with Jimmy Traina podcast is also a great listen each week and this week Gregg Giannotti of WFAN was his guest. Really a good listen.

Austin Karp from Sports Business Journal is who has taken over the Sports Business Journal and New York Post podcast, which is now known as The Sports Media Podcast. He was the guest on the Sports Media with Richard Deitsch podcast recently, which is another I never miss.

Having the two of them on one show allowed them to cover a lot of ground. Of note, I thought the part of the conversation where both said they believe the NFL will soon add at least one more streaming-exclusive playoff game was quite interesting.

You can listen to the episode by clicking here.


In Case You Missed It

Last Wednesday, BSM’s Derek Futterman profiled 93.7 The Fan in Pittsburgh’s Colin Dunlap who is set to receive the Champions Award at the upcoming BSM Summit in New York. Derek shared the story that earned Dunlap the award, which involed him assisting a caller who had called in on the topic of West Virginia head basketball coach Bob Huggins and his struggles with alcohol. The caller shared his story and ultimately said that if he didn’t get some with his own alcohol problems, his wife was going to leave him. Dunlap offered to help him find a treatment plan and went out of his way to assist the listener.

When you read the article, you learn more about Colin Dunlap and find out this wasn’t an isolated incident, it is more of just who he is. Read more about a host going out of his way to use his platform in the best way possible by clicking here.

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Kaylee Hartung Balances ‘Thursday Night Football’ and NBC ‘Today’

“Two years in, I think I’m at a place where I’m proud of the relationships that I’ve built and proud of how hard I’ve worked.”

Derek Futterman



Kaylee Hartung
Courtesy: Nathan Congleton, NBC

In a regular season matchup between the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers, there had been significant history made by halftime. After two quarters of play, the Chargers found themselves down in the contest 42-0, a record deficit by an NFL team through half of regulation play. The score rendered collective aghast around the league and left fans stunned, and it was up to the Amazon Prime Video broadcast of Thursday Night Football to contextualize and synthesize just what was happening. Sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung was expecting her pre-scheduled interview with Chargers head coach Brandon Staley to be fully upended, awaiting a team representative to deliver the update.

Nonetheless, Hartung made eye contact with Staley and could tell that he was walking over for the interview. She was thoroughly surprised and knew that his team was in the midst of significant tribulation but grateful that he respected her and the aspect of the broadcast for which she is responsible. Hartung surmises that coaches generally do not want to talk to her at halftime because they usually address the team and review plans for the remaining stretch of gameplay. As a result, she aims to be succinct and direct in her questioning to gain real-time insight, a short endeavor with a lasting impact.

“I’m not a reporter who ever wants to ask a ‘gotcha’ question to a subject, no matter who that subject is,” Hartung said. “I want people I interview to tell me exactly what they mean and give me insight into what they’re thinking. That’s how I think of it is, ‘How can I help the millions of people watching learn something in this moment when I’m the only person who can ask that coach that question?’”

Much to Hartung’s astonishment, Staley eloquently responded to her query related to the team’s substandard play. The Chargers ended up losing the game 63-21, and Staley was relieved of his head coaching duties the very next day. Of course, the team was battling a short week between games since they were playing on Thursday Night Football on Amazon. The OTT streaming platform landed the package of games in an 11-year agreement reportedly worth about $1 billion annually. The pact, however, came into effect one year early because of a willingness by previous rightsholder FOX Sports to exit its contract.

Prime Video was tasked with putting together a strong broadcast team of commentators and production personnel to execute the league’s first-ever regular streaming-based platform, enlisting the assistance of award-winning producer Fred Gaudelli. With play-by-play announcer Al Michaels and color commentator Kirk Herbstreit, the company compiled an experienced lead commentary booth.

As the search to continue building the lineup persisted, Hartung was in conversations with the company about the sideline reporting role. After the initial surprise of being contacted for the job when she had not reported on the sidelines for five years, Hartung met with the executives involved and was convinced the opportunity was right for her.

“Amazon was never trying to reinvent the wheel in doing this; they wanted to deliver,” Hartung said. “From the very beginning, their vision was to deliver a broadcast to the quality that NFL fans not only expect but demand, and I think we’re doing that.”

When Hartung was 10 years old, she and her family endured the loss of her father after he was involved in a plane crash at an airshow in Baton Rouge, La. As the family was mourning, the faint volume of CNN encompassed part of the setting to simply provide noise. Suddenly, a brief 30-second anchor voiceover recalled the plane crash and provided relatively superficial details. At the time, Hartung did not understand why the news outlet was not reporting on her father, what he accomplished and the life he lived. The rapid news report caused Hartung to ponder over infusing stories with more details and humane aspects.

Since her mother worked at the Louisiana State University Tiger Athletic Foundation, Hartung frequently had field-level access and behind-the-scenes opportunities surrounding the sports teams. At the same time, Hartung had remained passionate about news media and watched NBC TODAY, going so far as to write a paper in seventh grade saying that she would one day work on the show. Fast forward to last fall and Hartung finds herself as a correspondent for the program, frequently making multiple appearances per week and balancing it with her other related obligations.

Although Hartung was in her second year on Thursday Night Football, it was the first where she had to balance the work with NBC TODAY. Even though she had to sacrifice significant amounts of sleep on certain days, it allowed her to remain true to her roots as a news reporter while also covering sports. For much of her career, Hartung had to reluctantly make a choice between these niches but ultimately fluctuated between the two because of her passions for both.

“I think I’m very lucky to get to cover both, and I’ve been working my whole career to get to cover both and now I’m finally able to, and that for me is a personal win because I don’t want to just be a sports reporter or just be a news reporter,” Hartung explained. “I want to be a great reporter, and I think there are incredible stories to be told on both sides of that coin.”

CBS News Face the Nation reporter Bob Schieffer was sending Hartung’s work with the property to Sean McManus, who at the time was serving as president of CBS News and CBS Sports. She eventually received a call from the CBS College Sports Network to gauge her interest in being a sideline reporter for college games, a proposition she did not pass up.

The company had a newspath affiliate program involving correspondents in different bureaus, and she was looking to be accepted into the rotation. When she assumed that CBS News was not interested in granting her this chance, she auditioned with and eventually joined the ESPN-affiliated Longhorn Network.

The first contract she inked with the entity – a two-year deal with a third-year option – ensured five appearances on ESPN. By the conclusion of her first year, she exceeded that total nine times over and flourished at the company. Hartung was part of the launch of SEC Network in 2014 and treasured building something from the ground up, an opportunity she invested time and effort to effectuate.

As her career has continued, Hartung has recognized how fundamental it is to remain ready for the next opportunity – even if it seems premature at times. Despite not being ready to leave ESPN, the call from CNN to serve as a correspondent was a summons back to news she answered. In the ensuing two years, Hartung affirmed that she consistently showed up on the worst day of people’s lives and navigated through initial uncertainty and discomfort.

“It was very infrequent that I smiled through two years on television at CNN, and so frequently people would ask, ‘Do you miss sports?,’ and my answer was a resounding ‘Yes’ with every time I was asked that question, but I think those two years at CNN for me were just an incredible learning experience,” Hartung stated. “I’m very proud of what I did in the situations I showed up in and the way I could serve the people whose stories I told, but I didn’t feel like I was being the fullest version of myself.”

Hartung continued her work as a correspondent for ABC News beginning in 2019, contributing to programs such as World News Tonight, Good Morning America and Nightline. Although she was enthusiastic about the role, she recognized that Amazon Prime Video and Thursday Night Football was the right chance to assimilate back into sports media. Reflecting back on the 2022-23 season, it is evident to Hartung how much she has grown in the role.

“I’ll be completely honest and say I was terrified [in] Season 1,” Hartung said. “I hadn’t been on the sidelines in five years and I was nervous. I was nervous with every game, with every time that red light came on knowing how big of an opportunity this was, knowing how badly I wanted to be great and knowing how many eyeballs were watching.”

Since Hartung had not covered the NFL before, she needed to establish relationships and develop sources around the league to compile strong, comprehensive and accurate reports. Simultaneously, she was assimilating into a new role with new colleagues and working to foster friendships and chemistry with her teammates. When they were in Houston for their first preseason game together, she vividly remembers a moment of bonding that served in constructing the current product.

“We all walk back into the hotel lobby after the game and everybody’s kind of looking around like, ‘What do we do next? Where do we go?,’ and there’s a bar in the hotel lobby, and before you know it, we’re all sitting around a table, last call comes, Al’s telling stories and we’re asking the hotel, ‘How much longer can we stay?,’ because we don’t want to go anywhere,” Hartung recalled. “That was Week 1 and guess what? That happens every week – it doesn’t get old.”

Even though Hartung presumes she and her colleagues are suffering withdrawals from not being able to spend quality time with one another, she reflects on the year with gratitude and excitement. Amazon generated a 24% increase in total viewers from the previous season, averaging 11.86 million viewers across its 15-game slate according to data from Nielsen Media Research. All of those contests finished ahead of other programming on broadcast and cable television, including the first-ever NFL Black Friday Football contest. Part of that success can evidently be linked to Hartung, who is collecting and disseminating information to enhance the overall presentation.

“Your credibility is everything in this industry whether you’re covering news or sports,” Hartung said. “Two years in, I think I’m at a place where I’m proud of the relationships that I’ve built and proud of how hard I’ve worked.”

Hartung’s football work week begins on Sunday and is largely focused on the two teams she has coming up on Thursday night. Because of the detail required in her job, she makes sure to watch full games and meticulously takes notes from the sideline reports for the previous week. In the days beforehand, Hartung catches up on sleep and prepares for the week ahead, which is filled with meetings, interviews and collaboration.

“The most fervent fans of those teams don’t want to hear the same stories told a week later, right?,” Hartung said. “You want to keep building whatever storylines exist, so if my two teams are playing at the same time on Sunday, I’ll watch one game in real time and follow the other.”

On Monday morning, Hartung has a Zoom call with the broadcast’s producer and director, along with two producers dedicated to the sideline role and a former NFL athletic trainer. The session is a review of the week prior so they can position themselves for sustained performance and improvement and the first of several meetings ahead of the Thursday night broadcast.

By the time Tuesday approaches, she is on the phone with Michaels and Herbstreit to speak with head coaches, quarterbacks and other star players involved in the game. There are also times where Hartung has to interview players unannounced because of their tight schedules, underscoring the necessity of remaining on standby.

In addition to her Thursday Night Football work, Hartung is compiling and reporting on separate stories for NBC TODAY, achieving a delicate balance of two esteemed entities. On most weekday mornings, she is awake by 2:30 a.m. and tries to accrue respite whenever she can, including on airplanes although she tries to avoid red-eye flights.

“I’m always to the city that we’re in by Wednesday morning, go to practice and then have dinner with the crew on Wednesday night,” Hartung explained. “I have a sideline production meeting on Wednesday night where we go through all of my material that I’ve gathered through my own calls and whatnot, and then our big production meeting Thursday morning and kickoff Thursday night.”

Over the course of the game, Hartung has several stories prepared and is ready to interject with her reports when called upon. The key is finishing by the time the ball is snapped so Michaels can deliver play-by-play of the action. Everything changes, however, when there is a significant injury that can alter a season, let alone the ongoing game, for a football team.

“It is reporting in its most elemental and basic form where you’ve got to get the questions answered that are clearly [at the] top of everyone’s mind and concern,” Hartung said. “….You go in with as much of a plan as you can have and then you throw it all out the window and the game breaks out.”

During the week, Hartung apologizes to every player she speaks with because of the condensed week that they are facing. While part of the job of sideline reporters is to bring casual and die-hard fans newfound information and insights about their team, she understands the difficulties in amassing the totality of that material in a five-day span. Hartung is devoted to carrying out her responsibilities without taking shortcuts to achieve the final story, yearning for others to avoid the feeling she had while mourning the loss of her father.

“When they hear their story told, do they feel like I did that justice?,” Hartung said. “….It’s about how you make people feel. Whether you’re the subject or you’re the viewer, it’s about how you make people feel.”

Hartung was in Las Vegas reporting on Super Bowl LVIII for NBC TODAY, delivering updates and following both the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs throughout the week. Coming off a strong regular season for Thursday Night Football and joining NBC Sports for two playoff games – including the Peacock exclusive NFL Wild Card contest – she had to adapt her reporting style to news. There are several occurrences when Hartung reports on sports for the morning show, adapting her approach while displaying her knowledge and rapport with several teams and leagues.

“The stories you’re telling are different, and it kind of goes back to the way you want to make fans care about the games; the way you want to help raise that level of investment fans have – and when I say fans, I mean the TODAY show audience,” Hartung said. “I really enjoy that I get to help the TODAY show audience invest more in their care of the NFL.”

Part of the Thursday Night Football game crew attended Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas and celebrated when reports emerged that the outlet had landed the rights to exclusively stream an NFL playoff game next season. Prime Video is reportedly paying $150 million for the contest, which will take place during the Wild Card round. It remains unknown whether it will be the only streaming-exclusive presentation.

“I think it’s a credit to the work that we’ve put in through these two seasons,” Hartung said. “Our crew with a playoff game – it’ll be good TV. I love the way I feel like our crew on the whole is different and is unique in the scheme of the NFL broadcasts, and I think that we have a certain level of excitement and enthusiasm for the game each week that a playoff game will only heighten.”

As Hartung continues to excel as a news and sports reporter, she wants to be an asset to her colleagues and overall consumption audience. There have been moments in her career where she has struggled internally with confidence, one of which was her assimilation to covering the NFL.

At the conclusion of the first year of Prime Video’s presentation of Thursday Night Football, Gaudelli bestowed Hartung with the most improved player award. Humbly accepting the honor, she regarded it as a compliment and excitedly anticipated the second year. With innovation abound and a plethora of possibilities ahead, Hartung looks to perpetually improve both on set and along the gridiron.

“I feel fulfilled professionally right now in a way that I am just so grateful for,” Hartung articulated. “It sounds so cheesy when I say it that way, but it’s true. I’m quite literally getting to live out a dream, and I just hope I get to stay on this ride for as long as possible.”

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Day Spent With: ESPN Radio

“Every show that comes out has to hit our expectation to make sure we’re living up to the standard and what our audience is expecting.”

Derek Futterman



Day Spent With – ESPN Radio

For our fifth Day Spent With feature, we sent Derek Futterman to Bristol, CT to learn what goes into a full day of programming at the ESPN Radio network. My thanks to Justin Craig and the entire management and on-air teams for making him feel welcome and providing full access to everything he needed.

If there’s one thing I love about Mr. Craig, and he was like this as a producer, he is always well prepared. In arranging the schedule for Derek’s visit, his entire day from 8am-6pm was accounted for. From meeting with the shows to PR to zoom calls with ESPN NY/ESPN LA to individual manager meetings, if there were issues to explore and people to meet, they were on his schedule. That type of detail is what sets great programmers apart. It’s why JC is one of the best.

Still planned for this series are days spent with sports television shows, a market manager, a social media manager, and a media buyer. We also left room for one additional project should something interesting come up. If you or your brand wish to be involved and have an idea you want to pitch, please email [email protected].

Now without further adieu, here’s Derek Futterman’s Day Spent With the ESPN Radio network.

– Jason Barrett

Some snow is still present on the ground at ESPN Headquarters in Bristol, CT, slowly melting away after a Nor’easter recently blanketed 13 inches worth of flurries above the town. Aside from a more strenuous commute though, this doesn’t slow down anyone on the 120-acre campus the network has called home since 1979. Beyond the entry gates are two adjacent digital centers, each containing colossal television and video production facilities with state-of-the-art technology. In the distance is the ESPN teleport farm that communicates with satellites to distribute programs to several million homes around the world. There are also plenty of network interfaces around the campus capable of disseminating audiovisual content via digital channels.

On this particular morning, two control rooms are filled with producers, directors and coordinators operating First Take on ESPN and the UnSportsmanLike simulcast from ESPN Radio on ESPN2. There are also researchers and loggers monitoring the news cycle and compiling information for use across network properties, always ready to react to breaking news or haste developments.

Up the stairs on the second floor are studios used for award-winning television broadcast institutions, including Sunday NFL Countdown, Outside the Lines and the network’s flagship program, SportsCenter. The original desk, chairs and backdrop are on display in the building next door, accessible by a skybridge spanning over a heated outdoor patio.

The journey towards the ESPN Radio studios continues through several hallways adorned with production facilities, offices and sports memorabilia. Those inside the building complex have transformed and innovated sports media as we know it, seeking to live up to its mission statement and providing value to consumers and partners. Turn a corner and down a long hallway displays a sign with the ESPN Radio logo, identifying the primary location of the division that was first established in 1992.

The radio section of the building contains several studios and control rooms, many featuring radio boards and remotely-operated cameras. There are microphones outfitted with the ESPN Radio mic flag, the heralded letters carrying ethos and prestige serving as a reminder of its sublime history and ongoing journey.

Outside of the studio where the network launched Mike & Mike is the office of Justin Craig, senior director of network talk and operations responsible for overseeing the ESPN Radio vertical. Although his days include several meetings and managerial tasks, he has not lost sight of the formatics and fundamentals of radio broadcasting and connecting with listeners.

“Every show that comes out has to hit our expectation to make sure we’re living up to the standard of what our audience is expecting,” Craig said. “There is an expectation that we’re providing them the information that they need with the personality they expect.”

Craig occupies an office previously used by Stephen A. Smith with a clear view of the fight song corridor dedicated to college football. On the top of a writable wall, he has enumerated ‘relevancy, relatability, ratings/revenue and relationships,’ adding them all together to reach a summation equivalent to ‘results.’ All of these factors ascribe the audience, which patronizes the programming and offers feedback in the form of compliments, criticisms and suggestions.

“You have to make sure that you’re focused on putting content out there that is smart, curious and focused on making a person that’s listening want to listen longer,” Craig said. “I’m going to get my impressions and my audience to stick if I’m interesting, curious and if they can learn something along the way.”

A New Sound on ESPN Radio

The top right corner of the wall has the ESPN Radio lineup listed for reference, which was revamped last fall featuring a blend of established and new radio hosts. While the network opted to alter its complete programming slate, the move was necessitated by company layoffs and a deeper radio partnership with Good Karma Brands.

Morning radio co-hosts Keyshawn Johnson and Max Kellerman were affected by these layoffs, while co-host Jay Williams re-signed with the outlet but moved away from the weekday radio lineup. Evan Cohen, Michelle Smallmon and Chris Canty were installed into mornings, hosting the new simulcast program, UnSportsmanLike, commencing a new era for ESPN Radio and its affiliates.

Megan Judge, senior director of marketing and events for ESPN’s audio portfolio, explained that the hosts of the show have immense talent but are still becoming familiar to a national audience. As a result, the company has adopted a personality-driven approach to promote their content to consumers to help showcase the program. Judge is ultimately focused on demonstrating the value of being an ESPN Radio affiliate by leveraging their properties and personalities to help drive ratings and revenue growth.

“With UnSportsmanLike, we have the ingredients to bake an incredible cake,” Judge said. “Chris, Evan and Michelle are true professionals; they’re fantastic at what they do; their chemistry is great.”

Even though the program films at the ESPN South Seaport Studios in New York City while being produced in Bristol, the synergy between the crew is hardly inconspicuous. Show producer Nuno Teixeira is at the studio by 4am and listens to SportsCenter All Night in addition to sound from the night before. Before the start of the show, he brainstorms with his colleagues and amends the rundown that has been compiled from the prior day. The program then begins its four-hour foray with regular communication between the radio and television productions for the program.

As the show reaches its conclusion, associate producer Pat Costello and board operator JoVante Lawrence complete several tasks, including editing audio and uploading clips. Television producer Mark Morales takes the walk from the digital center to the radio facilities to participate in a brief post-show meeting before watching as the hosts record audio promos for the next day. Craig and other executives routinely offer assistance and suggestions for the programs – which also comes through weekly listening sessions with every show – but they ultimately trust their employees to execute the job for which they were hired.

“I do my best not to hover because you have to entrust upon them, but you’re educating across the way by listening, chiming in [and] by offering up feedback on a regular basis,” Craig said. “That’s why I so appreciate the listening sessions that we do for everyone to continue that bond and partnership with each and every person that we have here.”

Good Karma Brands and ESPN Radio

Cohen also works for Good Karma Brands as its vice president of content, responsible for interfacing with market managers and content directors to benefit fans, partners and teammates. The media conglomerate owns several ESPN-affiliated stations in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and West Palm Beach, possessing control over operations and content. The company also operates ESPN New York 98.7 under a local marketing agreement (LMA) and handles marketing and sales, responsibilities for which Cohen is not directly responsible. The New York and Los Angeles-based ESPN Radio affiliates continue to manage their own content after each lost its program directors – Ryan Hurley and Amanda Brown, respectively – during the aforementioned company layoffs.

ESPN New York is set to depart its 98.7 FM frequency that it has been leasing from Emmis Communications since 2012, a decision made by Good Karma Brands that will end the LMA. Data compiled by Good Karma Brands demonstrates that 60% of ESPN New York listenership occurs outside of terrestrial radio.

Although ESPN New York recently lost the New York Jets to Q104.3 and iHeartMedia, it has retained the MSG Radio Network consisting of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, focusing on digital distribution enabled through its last media rights extension. At the same time, the station’s programming will remain available on the 1050 AM frequency owned by Good Karma Brands, a refined proposition those at ESPN are preparing to actualize.

“I feel we’re just going to do the same content and our listeners will find us no matter where we are, but my challenges as a programmer may be different from those of a seller,” said Jonathan Winthrop, manager of audio operations at ESPN New York. “I don’t necessarily have to convince anyone other than the audience where we are. A seller may have to convince their current clients that nothing’s changing [and that] we’re going to do the same robust numbers regardless of where we’re putting our content out.”

Winthrop frequently meets with Craig to discuss the content and strategy, along with relaying information from Good Karma Brands. Additionally, he and Greg Bergman, manager of audio operations for ESPN LA 710, speak several times a week pertaining to the trajectory of the outlet. Bergman shared that he had constructive one-on-one meetings to help talent improve and expressed that the station is in its best place in years with everyone pulling in the same direction.

Last summer, Good Karma Brands assumed responsibility over operations and sales for ESPN Radio and the company’s podcast entities. Shortly thereafter, Good Karma Brands founder and chief executive officer Craig Karmazin and president Steve Politziner traveled to Bristol to meet ESPN staff. After the typical introductions and pleasantries, Karmazin asked a question and received a straightforward response from a member of ESPN that was largely expected.

“Craig just kind of paused and he said, ‘Is that a real no or is that an assumed no?,’” Judge recalled. “It’s a simple question, but it sort of put me back on my heels that I think with where audio falls in the priority list for ESPN and the day-to-day of being part of a really, really, really big organization, I think we had gotten into the habit of taking assumed no’s or sometimes not even asking the questions internally about, ‘Could we do this?,’ or, ‘What if we tried to make this happen?’”

Since partnering with Good Karma Brands, Judge has detected both a new energy and new sense of possibility within the building. While outside critics have argued previously that ESPN Radio was losing some of its luster, internal operations carried optimism and excitement surrounding the expansion of a decades-long business venture. Craig believes that the entity is consistently evolving and possesses cognizance over the importance of consumer accessibility.

“Find me a location that is exactly the same now as it was back then, and I’ll find you a product that’s having challenges,” Craig said. “I’m thrilled with the direction that we’re headed.”

The Daily Grind at ESPN Radio

The broadcast of UnSportsmanLike coincides with the national morning television program, Get Up!, hosted by Mike Greenberg emanating from New York City. Greenberg’s setup, however, is somewhat unconventional in that he immediately makes the transition from television to radio within one minute. Because of this expeditious turnaround, he communicates with producer Brendan ‘Bubba’ Peregrin throughout Get Up! to prepare for his radio program. Furthermore, program co-host Paul ‘Hembo’ Hembekides diligently monitors the news cycle from Seaport and safeguards against overlooking key developments.

“[Greenberg has] been doing this longer than anybody, so the challenge was figuring out how to get everything switched over at Seaport in that minute SportsCenter and show open, but a lot of the topics are the same,” said Liam Chapman, program director for weekday shows at ESPN Radio. “If it works on Get Up!, it will work on radio.”

Chapman has worked at ESPN for over two decades, during which he has produced Mike & Mike and overseen programs such as Bart & Hahn and The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. Today, he is responsible for network scheduling along with #Greeny, Carlin vs. Joe and Freddie and Harry. ESPN Radio does not receive PPM ratings until several months after a ratings book, but even so, he emphasized how the sample size is not ideal for the amount of people who have the meter. As a result, a lot of the evaluation of his program relies on other qualitative metrics that implement his avidity and ear for radio.

“We all learned from Bruce Gilbert about the personalities to bring in, so for me it’s basically, ‘How do I feel? How do the hosts feel? How does Justin and the rest of the management team feel and how does the production team feel?,’ and I think this is the best we’ve felt about a full lineup in a good number of years.”

Before the start of Carlin vs. Joe, Chapman takes part in a pre-show meeting with the hosts and producers of the program. Throughout the half-hour discussion, there are several ideas brought forth for consideration, including creating a list of what producer Evan Wilner would do for $600, inspired by former late-night host David Letterman.

About 20 minutes before the show, everyone checks the rundown and makes the necessary adjustments to the lineup. Of course, that does not predicate any potential news, something Wilner emphasized to his colleagues in the early days of the program. Being situated within ESPN on its Bristol campus has advantages in this regard that facilitates adapting to real-time developments.

“We might only have four minutes in a break, but we will figure out exactly how to re-route the entire plan if need be,” Fortenbaugh said. “It’s a very fluid show.”

Fortenbaugh is largely working from Bristol where he also appears on various television programs such as ESPN BET Live, First Take and SportsCenter. Conversely, Carlin hosts the program remotely, a pattern that continues down the rest of the lineup. All of the hosts outside of a typical studio setup, which includes both Amber Wilson and Ian Fitzsimmons on the evening program, have the necessary technology to work effectively.

Remote Events, Studio Operations and Production

Outside of its talk programming, ESPN Radio broadcasts approximately 270 live play-by-play events annually, such as out-of-market NFL games, MLB postseason play and several NBA matchups among other properties. With the sheer volume of obligations in this department, Pete Ciccone is working several months ahead of time to make sure things are set and always maintaining a broad perspective. As the program director of remote events, he schedules update anchors and monitors station operations while ensuring fans are properly informed so they can intuitively find the game.

“Not every sport is the same in terms of distribution,” Ciccone said. “Most of them, thankfully, are on hundreds of affiliates as well as SiriusXM and our ESPN app, but it’s not one size fits all.”

Tim Thomas is involved in shaping the network’s messaging in his role as production director. Throughout the day, he is fielding requests from ESPN Radio properties and creating show opens, rejoins and general station imaging. Cayman Kelly is the primary station voice and someone who Thomas works closely with. No piece of production usually exceeds a 30-second duration, something Thomas attributes to dwindling attention spans.

There is clear cohesion and collaboration taking place daily across departments to create informative and entertaining content. Most of the talent pre-pandemic were Bristol-based and in studio for interviews and appearances, a point to which Chapman believes the network has returned. Despite Harry Douglas hosting his afternoon radio program remotely, the technology in the studios minimized latency and permitted real-time interaction with on-site co-host Freddie Coleman.

Coleman welcomed ESPN betting analyst Erin Dolan to the Freddie and Harry show for an in-person interview, taking place shortly after she finished filming ESPN BET Live. Since the show has taken the air, Dolan, along with many other ESPN personalities, have been situated in the radio studios for guest spots and provide unique insights and perspectives on sports news. Show producer Shannon Penn has an outline of Dolan’s segment loaded into AP ENPS, which allows Coleman to reference it in real time and keep things on schedule.

“Even though Harry wasn’t there, the chemistry between Erin and Freddie was so good and the chemistry between Freddie and Harry is so good that it just makes for a better interview,” Chapman said. “All the interviews in studio just are better, and I think it’s because of the face-to-face.”

Weeknights and Weekends on ESPN Radio

The studios are situated in a central location on campus that provides ease of access to other areas around the network. Furthermore, there is updated technology and streaming functionality both for audio and video, positioning each for success.

The people within these studios, however, represent the engine that keeps the train moving forward at all hours of the day to provide over 9,000 hours of talk and event content every year. With affiliates around the country in most of the top marketplaces, it is imperative that the network recognizes the time difference and broadly appeals to the target audience. Continuing its content flow for weeknight shows – Amber & Ian, GameNight and SportsCenter All Night is Mike Urrunaga – who works hours outside of the standard 9 to 5.

Urrunaga frequently attends meetings in the late-morning before arriving on campus in the afternoon to meet with producers and monitor new developments. In addition to the fans, the weeknight programs are integral resources for the morning shows to utilize as they prepare to take the air at dawn.

“We’re very much trying to generate, ‘Okay, here are some topics that you would want to talk about that you can talk about,’” Urrunaga said. “We look at the rundowns that they have setup in the afternoon to be like, ‘Okay, is there something that they are looking at that we can add to depending on what’s going on in the evening?’”

Stosh Cienki, who is the program director of weekend shows for ESPN Radio, works to deepen listener relationships and progress conversations that took place during the weekdays. His work week begins on Wednesday and runs through late Sunday night. His responsibilities include listening sessions, scheduling, planning future events and of course, meetings. Along with his weekend duties, Cienki serves as a mentor to his colleagues, offering advice to streamline their development and processes.

“A lot of the producers we have here are young,” Cienki said. “As someone who’s been here as long as I have and having gone through many different shows, that’s an area where I probably have the biggest impact – just trying to develop guys who have only been here a year or two and show them the right way to prep and get ready for these things.”

Serving Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.

At the end of the day, several ESPN Radio staffers drive across the street to a full-size gym owned by the network to participate in a company-wide volleyball league. The intramural offering is one of several during the year and something Craig found out ahead of last season. Having played volleyball in the past and being recruited by his colleagues, he decided to participate and has subsequently demonstrated his skills on the court. Stepping away from the speakers and connecting outside of the building ultimately fosters friendships and builds rapport, intangible features of the new lineup those at ESPN Radio hopes it is emitting to consumers.

“It’s cool because you want to have those outside-of-the-office activities that allow that camaraderie,” Craig said. “Talk about a culture – that’s where your culture is created.”

While the management team of ESPN Radio has a wide array of responsibilities, everything ultimately centers back to what Craig has prominently displayed in his office. In order to produce successful results, there is a harmonious consensus that relevancy, relatability, ratings/revenue and relationships are the means that comprise the whole.

This is put into effect through a strong workplace culture that promotes friendships, teamwork and a sense of belonging combined with discernible passion for the craft. Those involved in the ESPN Radio operation genuinely enjoy their occupation and look forward to connecting with listeners by remaining dedicated to the the company’s overarching objective, “Serving sports fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”

“Many hosts have said it over the years – this is the toy store of life – and I consider it the universal language,” Craig said. “Everybody speaks sports in some capacity, but it’s the relatability aspect that gets them to stick around and want to do more, but you have to create that culture within the building and have strong leaders in it that are willing to help everybody grow and succeed.”

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