ESPN’s Sarina Morales spoke with us about growing up in the Bronx, what it means to be a Syracuse alum, and how she ended up singing about the NFL.
Sarina Morales is one of the rising stars at ESPN. The Syracuse University graduate is on the team for the early morning SportsCenter from 7-10 a.m. Her journey to Bristol is a little bit atypical, and she sat down to talk about it with us, in addition to other topics.
The Spun: You graduated from Syracuse, which is obviously well-known for its communications and journalism programs. How and why did you decide you wanted to get into that field?
SM: I went to Syracuse with the intention of getting a degree in broadcast journalism from Newhouse. I grew up in the Bronx. I played baseball for 10 years. I don’t look like I played baseball but I still go to the cages. I was like, you know what, I have all this knowledge of the game, I like writing a lot and I like asking questions. So when I went to Syracuse, right off the bat, I wanted to be the next Yankees sideline reporter. That’s all I knew. I grew up watching Yankee games all the time with my dad. I emailed Suzyn Waldman back when we had AOL emails. I thought that was like the thing for me to do.
The Spun: After you left school, you kind of had an atypical experience starting off your career. What was that like?
SM: I graduated from Syracuse in 2008, and the market crashed. It was hard. I couldn’t get a local news job out of school…To be at Syracuse, knowing that is the place to be and get a degree in journalism, I felt alright. But then when I left—my mom is a schoolteacher, my dad works for the projects—there’s no one in my family that knows anything about reporting. When I sent out my tape, I didn’t even know if I sent it out right or maybe I didn’t ask my professors the right questions. I sent out my tape, and I didn’t hear back from anybody. I couldn’t get a job. I ended up moving to London and traveled around Europe for a year. That was a really great experience. When I got back in 2009, I applied for a job at Nike.
The Spun: We watched some of your video work at Nike. What was that gig like for you?
SM: It was a field reporter job with content. Basically, it was a dream job. You interview their athletes, you talk about their products, you get Nike swag. It’s sort of like the first of brands putting out their own content, which I think we’re going to see more of at some point. It costs too much to make a commercial anymore. At some point, the brands will just be like ‘Well I’ll just be a content creator.’ That was the first time a brand did that. Nike was really innovative. It’s interesting, when I applied for the contest, you kind of expect the same thing out of everyone. Which is, ‘Hi, I’m so and so, and I’m really good at sports and I like sports and blah blah blah.’ I was like, I’m not going to do that, because everybody else is going to do that. I basically took that idea and flipped it and humble-bragged. I was like ‘Look, you shouldn’t hire me because I’m awesome at sports. You shouldn’t hire me because my name is Sarina and an interview with Serena Williams would be the best thing ever. You shouldn’t hire me because of this and this. You should hire me because if you don’t, I’ll be selling Reeboks at Foot Locker.’ Which was partly true, because I would have never gotten a job in sports! So Nike had a sense of humor and hired me, and it was great.
The Spun: After Nike, you headed to truTV. Describe how that transition went.
SM: I figured I’d go back into small market television. I applied for jobs, but I didn’t get any offers again. I did catch the eyeballs of ESPN at that time. They told me ‘We like you, but we don’t know what to do with you. We’ll be in touch.’ I guess it took four years to get in touch (laughs). So then I went from Nike to truTV. I worked in digital media marketing. I thought maybe I’d do NCAA basketball, but I ended up working on Impractical Jokers. That’s a hilarious show, but I wanted to do sports. There was this guy Hayes Tauber who used to work at ESPN and then went to TruTV and then National Geographic. I used to go into Hayes’ office at truTV and watch the Yankee game…He was like ‘I didn’t realize you were a sports fan.’ I told him I’d love to do sports, but the market crashed, and I didn’t have a job. I needed to pay my student loans. He was like ‘Good to know.’ Things like that that you don’t think anything of, he ended up going down and taking a National Geographic job in Washington, D.C. He asked me if I was looking for work, and I applied for a social media job at National Geographic.
The Spun: You led us right into our next question. Working at Nat Geo is not something you typically see on the resume of someone working in sports. That must have been a really interesting experience, no?
SM: It was supposed to be a six-month thing but it ended up being full-time. It was a social media coordinator job…Keep in mind, I don’t know anything about animals. I didn’t know enough social media at the time to be a social media person. But he told me I could learn and it might be healthy for you and you might have some unique ideas since you come in with a unique perspective. One of the key things he [Hayes Tauber] said to me was ‘I know you want to be a sports reporter and do interviews and be on camera. If you could work that into your job in any way here, by all means do it. If I think it works, I’ll be supportive of that.’ I ended up having a jolly old time at National Geographic. I went from part-time to full-time to being a manager in their social media department. I ended up growing their Nat Geo Wild page from 300,000 followers to six million. I ended up involving sports when I could. During Sunday football, I’d tweet out something like ‘The Chicago Bears are losing right now, but we have real bears winning on Nat Geo.’ It was such a good time writing these social media posts and connecting them to pop culture and sports…And then one of things I did was an on-camera thing for a contest on becoming a Nat Geo explorer. I posted video of it on YouTube as a representation of my work on camera. I posted it on YouTube and Rob King, the head of SportsCenter, took notice of it. The video only had like 200 views and I feel like 199 of them are my mom. It was just my work. I had some of my Nike stuff on my YouTube page. I’m by no means trying to compare myself to Justin Bieber, who was also discovered on YouTube, but my work was also discovered there. I ended up going and doing some interviews [at ESPN] and getting hired.
The Spun: What was it like having this non-traditional, non-linear path to ESPN? That’s not the typical experience for everyone.
SM: We get into this habit of groupthink with sports, where you always look at sports the same way. You see a baseball game and you take a look at the players on the field, you see a fastball, whatever. But people who are not sports fans may see a baseball game in a completely different way. Coming from a non-traditional sports reporting background, I also had sports experience with Nike and from playing sports my whole life. I had the whole experience with Nike and blogging and National Geographic and working in digital with truTV and the on-camera stuff and things I did with National Geographic. I had all the parts, but I had never been given the opportunity to do it all in one place. When I got the job, I initially said I was going to go do some more social media stuff on digital. But it ended up, I was very fortunate that after about a year working at ESPN, I got put on the SportsCenter AM show. I work with awesome humans like Kevin Negandhi, Jay Harris, Jaymee Sire, Randy Scott, a really smart producer like Mark Eiseman. I’m working with veterans now. I’m working with people who have been in the industry so long, so I’m like ‘Oh, so that’s how these things work.’ But I’m also asking ‘Why haven’t we done things this way,’ and sometimes it’s like ‘I don’t know, we’ve never done that,’ and sometimes it is for specific reasons. It’s nice, because I’m coming from a place that is non-traditional, but working with people who have been in the industry so long, it’s a nice balance.
The Spun: Going back to your Syracuse roots, now that you are out in the field, what is it like being a part of that Syracuse media fraternity? It runs pretty deep.
SM: It’s crazy. I went to speak at Syracuse for Latino Hispanic Heritage Month (LHHM) and I was like ‘I’m not worthy to be here.’ I was pinching myself. Again, I grew up in the Bronx. None of my family has a background [in TV]. I don’t have connections like this. You always hear about how so-and-so’s father works here and you can get the connections through here. I went in blind. I didn’t know what I was doing. So to be even in the same conversations of Mike Tirico and Bob Costas going to the same school, and being a person that gets brought up to speak and is really, really special. I was super honored and grateful. It’s just surreal. It’s nice to know that Syracuse has such a great journalism background, that even with my non-traditional background, everything I learned in class, the fundamentals, I still use today.
The Spun: You mentioned going back there and speaking at LHHM. What was that experience like for you?
SM: When I went up to Syracuse, I was just supposed to do one speech that I had prepared. I was just going to do that, and then a lot of the professors asked me to come by and speak to their class the night before. All of a sudden, I found myself with no breathing time or room to think. I think in my eight-hour day I spoke to seven different classes. Stuff like that, I love it. There have been times where some of my friends who are teachers have asked me to go down and speak to their students also.
The Spun: Getting into something a little on the humorous side. You were part of that whole His and Hers Anchorman skit. How did that come about and what was that like to work on?
SM: Michael [Smith] and Jemele [Hill], they’re awesome. Anchorman is sort of a classic comedy now. We’d put it in that category, at least for me, because I’m younger. I watched it in college, and now we’re doing this and I’m making fun of it. It was hilarious. Michael and Jemele came up with the Anchorman thing because SportsCenter AM launched back in February after the Super Bowl and I think they wanted to get more people involved. We were all like ‘Heck, yea.’ Jay Harris got his arms cut off. Kevin Negandhi with the crazy wig was awesome. Randy Scott was awesome. Jaymee Sire of course looked like Veronica Corningstone. My hair was poofed to the max and I had blue eye shadow. It was awesome. We all love Anchorman obviously that was all their idea. They do stuff like that all the time.
The Spun: Being a part of that morning SportsCenter and getting after it early in the morning, what is that camaraderie like with your colleagues on that show? What is a typical day for you like?
SM: We’re very close. We know Kevin is a big Philly fan. Jay Harris takes iPad selfies and I make fun of hm every time he does. He also has the best family ever. Jaymee is a foodie. Randy lives in an eight-year span of random 1990s and 2000s references. He’ll quote Beavis and Butthead or random movies. They all have their own quirks and what not. I’m the token New Yorker of the bunch. That part is great. Kevin is a fashionable guy too, so if we do something like talk about Cam Newton and what he wears, that’s going to be a Kevin Negandhi kind of thing. I love our crew. Mark Eiseman, he’s a wonderful producer. He plays to our strengths, which is obviously important. The morning crew, we have a great time. If you follow me or Jaymee, we Snapchat stuff all the time and do behind-the-scenes stuff all the time.
As far as the regular schedule goes, I wake up every morning at 3 a.m. Usually, I will snooze for 10 minutes and then really wake up at 3:10, 3:15. I get my coffee together and take a wake-up shower again. I get my stuff together and I’m out the door around 3:30, 3:45. I get into work around 4:15. I start cranking out writing and stuff like that, while I’m sitting down with the different producers…You come in, you’re cranking out stuff, the people hand you sheets and you start thinking about things for the show. Then you go to hair and makeup around 5:30, 6 o’clock. I’m usually out of there around 6:30 and then I’m in the studio. I get mic’d up, and get in the SportsCenter studio at 6:55. We go on the air at 7 and then we’re on for three hours. We have a post-show meeting. We talk about what was good, what wasn’t good, what we have prepared for tomorrow, guests that are coming on the show. We do a little pow-wow. I go home. Some people take naps, some people eat lunch. I do a little bit of both, or I go to the gym. I do any of those activities by 5 p.m., and then by that point, I’m usually opening my laptop up and thinking about the next show.
The Spun: You mentioned before about being a huge Yankee fan and obviously on social media I see you’re still a big fan of your alma mater. What is it like being a sports fan still and working in sports? Are those two things connected or are they opposite?
SM: It’s everything. [For the World Series], I was so tired but I was so excited seeing the stuff they put together for the show after Game 7. I stayed up and watched Game 7 of Cavs-Warriors. That was another really cool moment. Especially, with our show, we’re the first SportsCenter to come on live with coverage in the morning. A lot of people will stay up and turn the TV off immediately after the game is over, because people have to go to work. So they turn on the TV in the morning to see if they can get the important stuff they might have missed in the post-game. For us, it’s cool because we put the show together for them. To be a part of that is super cool.
I also love, love, love NCAA basketball. I cannot wait to watch Syracuse. I watch all the games. I have a problem. I walk, I pace my apartment. I’m really glad, because last year when we started the show in February, I looked at the schedule to see if I could stay up for games. I pick my games now, and all the games were at 7 p.m., which is great. I could watch the games and then go to bed. But it’s super cool, to be part of conversations about these teams because you love them so much.
The Spun: We have to ask you about your singing chops. You came up with a couple of different songs about the NFL and fantasy football this season. How did that happen?
SM: I mean, I do put it down in karaoke. I won’t say that I don’t like singing, because I love singing in my car and at karaoke. I don’t know, maybe I listened to Weird Al as a kid one too many times, because I change lyrics to songs all the time. In one of my fantasy football leagues, I got to keep Gronk. I don’t know why The Little Mermaid song was in my head that weekend, but you know how you get songs stuck in your head. That was stuck that weekend. So I kept saying ‘I’ve got QBs and questions aplenty’ and I kept singing that part of it. I said, I’m going to write this song, “The Little Gronkmaid,” just for my own sanity, because I keep singing it in my head. I wrote it in like three or four hours. I had a couple of my friends look at it and laugh, and I had one of my friends come over and tape the Gronk video. I didn’t realize that people were going to like it.
At that point, Field Yates and Matthew Berry were like ‘Could you sing this on our podcast.’ I did that, and they asked me to do it like once a month. So the next one, Christina Aguilera ‘Genie in a Bottle’ came on in the car, and I started singing ‘Rookie in a Huddle’ to that. My most recent one is ‘Rookie in a Huddle’ [about Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz]. It’s fun for me. I do enjoy singing and I enjoy writing. When you put the two things together, it is fun.