If you’re an avid ESPN watcher, you’ve probably seen more and more of Cassidy Hubbarth lately.
This year, Hubbarth has moved outside the studio and into a role as a sideline reporter on ESPN’s NBA broadcasts. The Evanston, Ill. native just signed an extension with the company as well.
We spoke with Hubbarth this week about how she got her start in the business, who has helped her along the way, the joy of covering the modern NBA and much, much more.
The Spun: You’re originally from Chicago, and you took a pretty interesting route to get to where you are now. What was your journey like, and how did you decide you ultimately wanted to be a sports reporter for ESPN?
CH: Well, I actually grew up in Evanston, which is a suburb 15 minutes north of Chicago. I only make that distinction because while I rep Chicago hard, Chicagoans would not appreciate me saying I’m from Chicago if I’m not from Chicago. I have lived in the city of Chicago though, so I can say I’m a Chicagoan.
That aside, I grew up in Evanston, and ever since I was in middle school I knew I wanted to be in sports broadcasting. I grew up watching and loving and playing sports. Being the youngest of three, I had two older brothers and my dad was my coach for all the sports. I played every single sport except for hockey growing up. So I had this love for sports, but I kind of knew I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete. But watching the Bears every Sunday, I remember the first time I knew I wanted to be in sports broadcasting. I was watching the NFL pre-game show on FOX, with James Brown and Cris Collingsworth, and Pam Oliver was the feature reporter who did sitdown interviews with players. I just remember watching her on Sunday mornings and thinking ‘I want to do what she is doing.’ I remember that feeling of ‘this is what I want to do.’ From that point on, I sought out opportunities to explore broadcasting.
My high school, Evanston Township High School, is an incredible place. They had a television/radio/film club that I joined and I got experience calling games for my high school on a local television station. I got some experience there and I knew when I was looking at colleges that I wanted to find a place where I could study broadcast journalism. However, I come from very humble means, and I got a lot of financial help in scholarships to the University of Illinois and my parents were like ‘you’re going there.’ I went there my freshman year and I interned at a radio station and did as much as I could in the communications program, but I begged and pleaded with my parents that I needed to be at Northwestern because of the journalism program there. I applied as a transfer and got accepted. I have no idea how my parents figured it out, but they figured out a way to send me there and I finished out my degree there in three years.
Obviously, the broadcast journalism program at Northwestern, I don’t need to explain how great of a program that is, but really I got my first two jobs through the job fair there.
The Spun: Can you tell us a little about those jobs? One was as a traffic reporter, right?
CH: It was my senior year and I was walking around the job fair, and I saw this place called Intersport, which was a sports production company, and I applied for a PA job there. Also, there was another booth, Traffic.com, which was the traffic service provider for WMAQ, the NBC5 station in Chicago. So I actually landed two jobs out of school to stay in Chicago. I also applied to a PA position at ESPN, but I decided to stay in Chicago and not head to Bristol, which is an interesting decision because I remember it being really hard for me to decide to not go to ESPN. Thankfully, I was able to make my way back to Bristol.
But I was a traffic producer for Traffic.com from 3 a.m. to about 8 a.m. producing and gathering traffic information. On the weekends, I was the traffic weekend reporter in front of the green screen. I never went up in the helicopter (laughing). I did that in the morning and then I went to Intersport from 9-to-6 or 7 working as PA and then got promoted to AP and was also able to do some on-air stuff for them as well.
The Spun: You also did some work for BTN and Fox Sports South. Once you got to ESPN, what was your progression up the ladder like?
CH: I was hired as a part-time employee at ESPN. It was an independent contractor position. I was hired as the host for ESPN3, the digital network before we had WatchESPN. We would simulcast our games online for people to view, and we had to do different halftime and pre-game shows and what not. I would host the halftime during say LSU-Alabama on ESPN3 while Rece Davis, Mark May and Lou Holtz were on ESPN. So on a college football Saturday, I started to get viewed a lot, because people want to watch multiple games at a time. Even though it was not on television, I felt like I got a lot of response from people who hadn’t seen me before.
I did that, and then I started doing more digital work, like calling highlights and doing videos for ESPN.com. Then I started to figure out my way around the building and started to talk to different people about gaining more experience. I started to do some SportsCenter shows for our ESPN International network, like ESPN Europe and ESPN Pacific Rim. No one saw it domestically, but I started hosting some shows internationally and got some reps hosting SportsCenter and getting to know how to do that. Since I had such a non-traditional route to ESPN, I didn’t have as much on-air experience as some of the younger anchors who were just hired to host SportsCenter at the time. I did that and then I was able to get a full-time offer to be a studio host, where I started hosting Highlight Express and SportsCenter on ESPNews.
It’s been a journey that I had to kind of climb up and introduce myself, because even though I was there, a lot of people didn’t know who I was or that I was an on-air talent.
The Spun: What was the transition like for you being on-air in the studio and now out in the field covering games?
CH: It has been a lot of work. I have been at ESPN now seven years come this August and I have been in-studio for 95 percent of that time. Sure, I’ve done some stuff out in the field, but really, before that, you could count on your hands how many times I had done sideline reporting. So to do sidelines for arguably our biggest sport at ESPN, given that we have the NBA Finals on the air, and for college football, I felt an enormous responsibility and an enormous amount of pride that ESPN trusted me in this role. It’s learning a different skill set and building muscle where really I had no muscle. I felt very confident in the studio. My final year at NBA Tonight and NBA Coast-to-Coast, I felt really good with my knowledge level and my ability to handle any crazy live show situation. So, I really felt like I was in a groove, and it has been a journey for me to build confidence because I’ve had to really continue people to prove to people to trust me at ESPN and I finally trusted myself over the last three years that I finally knew what I was doing. So to go from ultra-confidence to having to learn a whole new role, it has been an incredible experience. I will say there have been a lot of times where I feel like I have a lot to learn, but I’m really grateful to be able to cover the NBA, because I feel like I know it really well. I know the story lines, I know the players and I know the game. That kind of basis has helped me attack this role as sideline reporter with a certain confidence that helps me focus on learning the environment and learning the intricacies of the job without worrying if I know what I’m talking about.
The Spun: One of the fun questions we like asking people at ESPN is who have you gone to for advice since you’ve been there? Who took you under their wing or was someone that you looked up to or tried to model yourself after?
CH: Well I will say that I’ve had a number of producers who I consider to be mentors and really like guardian angels in my career. Early on, it was a woman named Maureen Hassett-Lindsey who helped me make the leap from doing on-air digital stuff and adding some opportunities in television. Then, another person in that regard who was a big advocate for me was the late, great Anthony Mormile, who was from the beginning such a cheerleader for me. There were a lot of times that I felt beat down and didn’t have the confidence that I could hang at the Worldwide Leader, and he was always there giving me the confidence that I could keep pushing forward. Those two people really stand out as mentors for me.
As far as on-air people, the one person that I really have looked up to the majority of my career and when I think about quitting or what it is to be a true professional, it’s always Stu Scott. Basically, after my first year, when I was doing ESPN3 work, I started meeting more people and people were starting to see me here and there even though they didn’t really realize what I was doing. Stu reached out to me and had no business doing so. You could argue he was the biggest star at our network. He offered advice and encouragement, and from there we just became good friends. We really didn’t talk about work that much. We just talked about our families. He had two young daughters and we obviously talked about his courageous battle with cancer. We became really close. He was such a great friend. He had so much going on but he would always reach out if there was something big going on with me that he was noticing. I wish I would have asked him more advice in my career but I just valued our friendship so much that I wanted it to be about us two individuals.
There were many times where I would see him getting ready for SportsCenter and he just was in so much pain. It didn’t look like he could get through a segment, let alone two hours of SportsCenter. But as soon as that red light turned on, he had no cares in the world. The energy and professionalism he put into every single show–he knew everyone’s name and addressed them with decency and respect as one should. For him being such a big star, you could see how much he cared about every single show like it was his first show he’d ever done. I just try to remind myself that if Stu could battle everything he battled and put on the performance of a lifetime every time that light came on, I don’t know what more motivation I need.
The Spun: Now, with your NBA coverage, what was it like covering this MVP race on a nightly basis? Obviously you covered so many Thunder, Rockets, Cavs, Warriors and Spurs games.
CH: That’s what is great about it. It’s something where I have to pinch myself because not only do I get to cover my favorite league–college football and the NBA are my two favorite sports–but because I work for ESPN, I get to cover some great games on a weekly basis. This MVP race to me, I know everyone likes to complain that there is no parity in the NBA and it is just going to be the Warriors and Cavs again. Fine, but even if it is, if you didn’t appreciate what we watched this year out of Russell Westbrook and James Harden and even Kawhi (Leonard) and his staggering improvement this year, all the way down to the breakout stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Isaiah Thomas and John Wall making the leap. If you don’t feel like the NBA is in a great place because the stars are shining, then I can’t do anything for you. It’s been awesome watching all season.
I had a really incredible opportunity. Like I said, I love studio hosting, but there area lot of moments where I’m talking to players and sitting in coaches meetings where it hit me what a cool job I have. But I don’t think any moment tops the opportunity I had to interview Russell Westbrook after he tied Oscar Robertson at home for most triple-doubles in a season. As awesome as studio hosting is, it could never reach the excitement and intensity of being able to be in that moment with an athlete as they are experiencing and making history. My job as a sideline reporter is to first of all, not get in the way of the game, but to help complement and elevate the game broadcast. The post-game interview is the biggest opportunity to help elevate a moment. So I felt really fortunate to have that moment with Russell where he seemed genuinely proud of what he had accomplished. Being able to get that authentic reaction from him was the highlight of my rookie year on the sidelines so far.
The Spun: My next question spins off of what you said about college football and the NBA being your favorite sports. What about those two sports drew you to them and makes you enjoy covering them?
CH: Well, growing up in Chicago, I grew up a Michael Jordan fan. Being a Bulls fan and being an NBA fan is in my blood because of that. The NBA is my first love.
Now, college football is my first professional love. After I worked at Intersport and Traffic.com, I got my first agent who helped land me my first big break at Fox Sports South covering SEC football down in Atlanta. It was my first big on-air responsibility and it was covering college football. Northwestern was fine, but they weren’t world beaters or even competitive during the time I was there in school. I lived at home and commuted and worked full-time, so as much as I loved Northwestern, I probably wasn’t as involved with the student body as much as I should have been. So, I didn’t have a huge connection to our football program at Northwestern other than covering the team to get some more experience.
My first real introduction to college football was covering the SEC down in Atlanta, and of all conferences to cover, I basically was hit over the head with the awesomeness and craziness of SEC football. Part of my job was to go to a different SEC school every weekend and do a ‘Man on the Street’ piece talking to different fans. I just fell in love with the culture around SEC football and the passion. I love passionate people and when people just have this unshakable passion. That’s where I kind of dove headfirst into SEC football and fell in love with it because of how much everyone else loved it. I was convinced and my heart was stolen right away. From there, I did some college football stuff for the Big Ten Network and then I was hired to ESPN to cover college football. I think I’ve worked on college football in some regard every year since I’ve been on ESPN. I have such a tie to it and that’s kind of where my love for the game derived from.
The Spun: You’re obviously someone with a major social media presence. It is very important for anybody these days to have it. How important is social media for you, whether it is Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, whatever? How long did it take you to get that all down and get that presence honed to where it is now?
CH: I’m still working on it. It’s a struggle, because it has gotten to the point where you have to produce your own social media. I will tell you that it has changed for me dramatically since I don’t have a daily studio show anymore. When I was working on NBA Tonight and NBA Coast-to-Coast, all the studio shows covering the NBA, I had content that I could produce on the daily basis. When I’m on the games, I’m a rook, so I need to focus on doing my job correctly and not producing my social media. So I do kind of feel I’ve been slipping a bit on posting things. Not that I’m trying to be fake with what I’m posting; I want it to be organic. If I don’t feel like I have something that is fun to share, I won’t share it. If people are loyal viewers of my social, they probably realize I’m not posting as much as I used to. It’s weird, because on the surface it seems like silly things to worry about, but it helps me be engaged with the game and understanding how viewers are consuming the NBA. That was a big part of when I was hosting NBA Tonight. I would follow the conversation on Twitter on a nightly basis, just to get a different perspective on what people care about–the story lines, the jokes, the memes. It is important to be in touch with that. So I’m learning how to get more involved socially with my new role.
The Spun: This is your first year out in the field as an NBA sideline reporter. Looking ahead, what kind of goals do you have for next year and how are you looking to grow and develop in that role moving forward?
CH: I mean, I have tons of goals. There’s so much I learned this year. Because I was a house cat my entire career at ESPN, getting out and having to network and get to know the players, the PR staffs, developing relationships, I barely touched the surface. I really want to develop relationships with more members of teams, assistant coaches, and to build up a rapport and a better understanding of how to communicate with each team better. If something happens during a game, I know I can trust those relationships to figure out how to do my job better.
This goes back to what I was saying about trying to complement and elevate the game. Sideline reporting, unlike studio shows, you have these small pockets to really enhance the viewer’s experience. Sometimes if you don’t make it perfect, you could get caught up in ‘am I getting in the way of the game?’ So learning how to, less is more, but finding the right approach to giving viewers entertaining and illuminative reports or questions with the coaches and taking opportunities when we sit down with the head coaches before games. Just really being plugged in with the players and coaches, because I’ve been told by a lot of people I talk to that it’s the hardest easiest job to do, because you’re not asked to do as much as the play-by-play or analyst but when you do contribute, you want to be able to make an impact.
The Spun: You recently signed a multi-year contract extension at ESPN. How tough was it to celebrate that accomplishment while at the same time dealing with ESPN making the cuts it did elsewhere? Was it bittersweet?
CH: Without a doubt. I mean, it was sobering to say the least. A lot of good friends lost their jobs. I felt like it’s a time for me to celebrate. It’s been a long journey. You know, I did that Q&A with our PR, and I felt like this contract was a milestone for me. I’ve been looking forward to this deal to feel legitimized. But at the same time, it was hard to really celebrate it keeping in mind all of my friends whose worlds were crushed the week before. It was hard to put into words my feelings about the contract, with basically just keeping the thought of survivor’s remorse out of my head.
I guess what I can take away is that when the announcement was made, a lot of my friends who lost their jobs were some of the first people to reach out and congratulate me. I think, for the most part, people are happy when people they care about, good news happens. It’s just hard to really compartmentalize what is going on for me when the layoffs at ESPN are a national story. It is hard to not get consumed with it in conversations with colleagues and people who have been let go on a daily basis. It is definitely a sobering time and one that makes me feel very fortunate and thankful I can still continue to build up my dream.
The Spun: What advice would you give to someone coming up in the sports media industry? It seems like it is changing almost on a daily basis at this point.
CH: My advice is just, as I’ve walked you through my history, is try and do as much as you can and don’t limit yourself. Even though you want to be on-air, if an opportunity to produce comes up or to work digitally writing a blog or doing a video blog or a podcast, just try to do as much as possible. You just never know what kind of opportunities will pop up, and unless you are spreading your wings as far as you can, you are limiting yourself to not understanding how this business is growing and shrinking also. You’ve got to be able to get in where you fit in and the only way to be able to do that is by casting a wide net and having as many skills as possible. I can’t say there is an exact route, because we all have our own stories and you just have to kind of continue to work.
The Spun: There’s really no such thing as a ‘dream job’ these days, or think you’re going to do things in a linear path. It’s always just about being on the lookout to always be doing something or improving or moving up in some respect.
CH: Right, exactly. And I always get asked what it is I ultimately want to do in this business. My answer is always this and I said this even before I got NBA Tonight, which was a dream come true at the time and if I get it again tomorrow, it still would be. I want to continue to work with a group of people all focused on a singular goal, where we are working on building our chemistry on a daily basis and continuing to provide a good product that people are interested in. That may sound general or generic, but we’re in a time where there is so much competition, and if you’re not invested in building a connection with viewers, they won’t be committed to watching you and then we’re all out of luck.
I guess maybe that’s my production background. I want to be able to be on the air and also implement my experience behind the camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if years down the line, if I try to have a career solely in production. But right now, I am having the time of my life on-air.
The Spun: Now that the tough part is over, I have a couple of fun questions to end this on. Being a Northwestern alum, what was it like to see them finally get into the NCAA Tournament this year? Was it as big of a deal to Northwestern alums in the media as it seemed to be to outsiders?
CH: I mean, I was so annoyed with how many people were annoyed with Northwestern fans! Come on, we had never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever been to the tournament. Stop hatin’! Can we live? It was really exciting. The thing is, I couldn’t really follow closely the run up to it, because I was covering the NBA and doing two games a week at the time. But, I was doing a lot of the NBA games with Doug Collins (whose son Chris is Northwestern’s head coach). So being able to be with him and experience his excitement was amazing. I remember that buzzer-beater against Michigan, on the full-court pass, that finish happened during the first half. I had my computer up, and he’s covering the game, so I’m seeing on Twitter the replay of the game-winning shot blowing up. I was the first person to run over to Doug at halftime and show him the play. He just hugged me and was so excited and happy. Just to see that pride, which everyone saw during the tournament and the Big Ten tourney, his heart was outside of his chest for his son. His excitement pretty much encapsulates the excitement for Northwestern fans. It was a really fun ride, and they did us proud.
The Spun: Lastly, I couldn’t do this interview without asking this: Chicago pizza or New York pizza?
CH: I would be disowned if I didn’t say Chicago pizza, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love New York pizza. But I actually prefer New Haven pizza.
The Spun: You stole the next part of the question! I was just about to ask about New Haven pizza.
CH: New Haven pizza is bomb! Actually, one of my favorite places in Chicago for pizza is a New Haven-style pizza place. I just feel like you can’t really make the comparison between New York pizza and deep dish, because they are not the same. If you want to talk New York pizza and New Haven pizza, they are very similar. I’m a pizza aficionado. I love pizza. There are some slices of New York pizza that are better than some slices of New Haven, but one of my favorite pizzas is in Chicago, this place called Peace, which serves New Haven-style pizza.
As far as my place for Chicago deep dish, it’s Gino’s East. Most people like Giordano’s or Lou Malnati’s. Lou Malnati’s is No. 2 for me. Actually, Gullivers is No. 3 and then comes Giordano’s next maybe. I’m not a huge fan of Giordano’s. It’s also because I lived across the street from a Giordano’s and I think I ate it like almost every weekend when I was grinding with that traffic job. I think I’ve just been scarred for life from it.
Note: Cassidy Hubbarth’s interview is part of a series of Q&As we’re doing with various media personalities. You can read our recent interviews with ESPN’s Antonietta Collins here, Michele Steele here, Dianna Russini here, Sarina Morales here, and Sam Ponder here.