Sarah Spain: The Face of Chicago Sports

By John Gorman

Some time ago, we checked in with our friend and former colleague, Sarah Spain, about her unique and varied career path, her life back home and her thoughts on what gives her a winning edge. Since we love the story so much, and that piece no longer exists online, we thought we’d bring it back.

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Three years ago, Chicago native Sarah Spain left LA to take a job back home. Retread? Retreat? Never. Just another winning move on the road of a rising star.

Sarah Spain. An alliterative couplet of captivating phonaesthetic beauty rivaling “cellar door”, it’d be a hard name to forget by it’s own merit.

But the woman behind the name intends not to rest on anything’s own merit: Not her crest-commercial smile, nor her Ivy League degree and, least of all, her snappy moniker.

If you’re a Chicagoan, you may have heard her on radio or seen her on TV. If you’re an out-of-towner, you’ve probably noticed her on the internet as the whip-smart conversationalist who puts athletes at ease, opening them up like mussels in a steam bath.

Sarah Spain is an ESPN1000 Sportscenter Anchor, espnW contributor and ESPN Chicago reporter, and maximizes spare breaths by fanatically updating her Twitter feed to the delight of over 30,000 ravenous followers. No time to rest, there’s a vast uncharted sea of opportunity out there waiting to be explored.

One thing you’ll note about Sarah is ‘rest’ comes sparingly, in carefully tucked-away metered doses. A weekend in Mexico. A short drive to Wisconsin. Aside from that, even when simply relaxing with friends, Spain is a non-stop whirlwind of go-get-em, a Type-A+ personality with a 450-horsepower mouth. She’s lightning-quick with a comeback and likes to remain on the move.

Adventures Out West

The Spain Train first gathered steam in Los Angeles, January 2006, just before Super Bowl XLI. Her hometown Chicago Bears punched their ticket to the big game, and she wished to somehow punch hers. With passes priced at roughly twice your mortgage payment, and scarcer than the single-wing, she devised a desperate scheme, to auction herself off as a date (importantly, not as an escort) so she could watch her beloved Bears compete live.

The move attracted unforeseen cascades of attention – landing her in the tabloids, at A-list parties, and as flavor-of-the-month blogosphere cover-girl. It would have been so easy to climb up on that tree to roost, but Sarah was still searching for a sturdier professional foundation.

“I had zero idea whatsoever that it would turn into the crazy mess that it did, but I have no regrets. It most certainly helped my career in that it gave me contacts throughout the industry, got my name out there and helped give me an extra push when I was an unknown looking to get on-air and get published. Everything changed after that — still get hate mail about it, to be honest — but I handled myself with respect throughout the whole thing, did some pretty crazy networking because of it, proved myself worthy of getting the jobs I wanted, and that’s why it worked to my advantage and the story hasn’t just become a “remember that one chick who…””

Sweet Home Chicago

Many-a-dream-seeker go all-in on the LA experience, but the whispers ’round the streets of Hollywood tell cryptic tales of shattered aspirations strewn about, and Sarah Spain would not be one. She left LA to come back to Sweet Home Chicago, to meet up with her destiny there.

She recounts, “Hollywood parties, the attractive people everywhere, etc. After about three years, heading into four years, I started to realize that it wasn’t the place for me. It took me taking two weeks off and trying to find a job in Chicago to realize I could actually move UP in the career I wanted by moving back, and not be like so many who have to give up their dream when they leave LA. Thankful every single second that I made the move. Every single part of my life besides my tan is better here in Chicago.”

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It’d be knee-jerk to attribute Sarah’s summit to looks and charm alone. It’d also be lazy, foolish and wholly inaccurate.

No overnight success, Sarah’s secret ingredient is her preparation. Almost from birth, she’s been stockpiling confidence, knowledge and experience to use as opportunity-ensnaring dragnets.

Behind every well-adjusted, driven woman who can roll with the punches of an unforgiving media industry is a caring and loving home life. She sincerely praises her parents for being solid, supportive role models and sharing her entrepreneurial spirit. Sarah also studied hard at Cornell, graduating as a Golden Key honor student. These early years instilled valuable lessons of “Hard work, professionalism, friendship, humility, integrity, and the great benefits of diversity.”

She also learned the value of teamwork (and, we assume, fitness!) from her “2x Ivy League Champion” track team. The girl who chats up athletes, to no surprise, is also a gifted athlete.

Success On Her Own Terms

Sure, Sarah could have taken that education and chased the dollar in business or law, but instead she shipped herself to LA to find work as … a restaurant hostess. She caught on at a PR agency, then signed on to FOX as a production assistant for “The Final Score,” eventually working her way up to assistant producer. She worked for the show for three years, learning the ropes and X’s and O’s. She took odd Hollywood bit-parts to get her comfortable on-camera. All the while, Spain made sure to take copious notes and never, ever turn down a business card or burn a bridge.

She’s made it her mission to be overqualified for everything she’s ever attempted. Before every video, before every interview, she’s voraciously fact-checking, researching, editing and consulting with her contacts. Sarah runs the extra mile to avoid coming off unprepared or inauthentic.

It’s because of this that she consistently stays true to her brand, which is, refreshingly, ‘true to herself.’ Though she takes big risks, she never does so at the expense of sacrificing her core strengths. And, thus far, it’s proven to be a winning formula.

Sarah-Spain-espnW

“I don’t follow the traditional, polished model of reporting and I don’t write according to any sort of journalistic ideal,” Sarah says. “I put my sense of humor and my personality into what I do and I think that keeps it from sounding like everything else out there. I’m honest and self-deprecating and a bit controversial at times, I’m always looking to be entertaining and funny and show the athletes for who they really are, and I think people really respond to that.”

She adds, “I’ve never turned into a negative, mean-spirited writer to get more hits on a blog, I’ve never played the role of giggly girl to try to get or keep a job and I’ve never undercut anyone else to get anywhere. There isn’t really anyone out there doing what I want to do, so I have no choice but to make my own path. Instead of fitting into a stereotype or an idea of what I think people want, I’ve just always been myself and, amazingly enough, it seems to be working so far.”

Even when she deviated from the script slightly to become the first “Fantasy Sports Girl,” which in later incarnations became a widely-criticized cheap-thrill T&A showcase (Think: Fantasy Focus as presented and produced by the staff at the local Hooters), Sarah made sure to place her humor, and not her body, front and center, and used the experience as yet another networking opportunity. (The series’ producers also produce shows for ESPN.)

Because, make no mistake, she covers sports because she loves them, and not because execs pegged the young, charismatic head-turner as kryptonite for the predominantly male demo. Spain’s a hardcore Chicago sports connoisseur who loves great rivalries, stories of redemption, funny guys, history-changing teams … and prefers the bleachers to the box.

“The first couple times, being press is amazing, but when in doubt I’d rather be tailgating with a beer and screaming my head off with the crowd. As press, though, you get the inside scoop, the players’ thoughts — and, as far as a JOB goes, that can’t be beat.”

Although she makes her bacon lapping the sports circuit, Sarah’s no one-note virtuoso. She’s plenty knowledgeable and talented in music, art and poetry, and hopes to someday “get back to that.” Maybe one day when she doesn’t need to fear hopping off the fast track to fortune.

“I’m in a great place, but it’s a constant struggle to keep some moments of my life open to the other things I love. I certainly can’t pause now, but maybe down the road I’ll have the ability to take a year off and write a book abroad or take a hiatus and dive back into some of the other cultural pursuits that I’ve been missing out on. We’ll see … There are a million things in the world I’ll never get to see, read, hear or know, and that’s always a sad realization.”

For many, that final part alone would be reason enough to give up, overwhelmed and exhausted.

For Sarah Spain, it’s inspiration, as well as an invitation, to keep joyously and tirelessly chasing life wherever it may lead.

Even if it leads back home.

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