Elle Duncan has been a fixture on ESPN over the last few years. The Atlanta native is one of the most popular SportsCenter anchors, but her journey to Bristol was unlike many of her colleagues.
We sat down with Elle and talked about that, how she’s balancing her career with being a new mom, her role in tonight’s coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game and more:
The Spun: So tell us a little bit about tonight’s BlimpCast. You and fellow SportsCenter anchor Matt Barrie are going to be in the Goodyear blimp above the game doing commentary. Is this the first time ESPN has done something like this?
Elle Duncan: They tried to do this earlier this year at a Florida State game with Marty [Smith] and [Ryan] McGee, but they actually got grounded because of bad weather. They ended up having to scratch it, which wold have been the first time they had ever done it or attempted it. On social media, it was such a cool concept that people wanted to see, they decided they wanted to bring it back for the national championship game.
TS: You’re up there the whole time right? Like pregame, during, after?
ED: We are up there for the whole game. We had a meeting [Thursday] and they told us to anticipate being on this blimp for five-and-a-half hours. They told us to bring provisions. We’re also in pretty close proximity so I’ll have Altoids and snacks and perfume because we’re kind of going to be on top of each other, myself and Matt Barrie, for about five hours.
TS: Under those conditions, it has to help that you’re working with someone [Barrie] you’re close with and work alongside all the time.
ED: It’s great because I think part of what makes these Megacasts really cool is that it’s part of the game and it’s about talking about the game and content is important, but at the same time, it’s really about seeing where the conversation goes. Having good chemistry and entertaining people. We use the Megacast in support of the actual broadcast. We’re not asking you to watch one over the other. We ask you to watch them together. We’re not going to do play-by-play. If you’re watching us, you’re probably watching the game as well. So I think it’s cool to have an opportunity, me and Matt, to post up in a blimp in this really cool setting and see where the conversation goes.
TS: So, moving off tonight and looking back a bit. What was your journey to ESPN like? Looking at your resume, you did TV, you did radio, you did sideline reporting for football and basketball. You weren’t just an anchor on camera.
ED: It was certainly an interesting journey. I think I took a pretty circuitous route. I tried to do almost any job that people would give me because I felt at the very least it would give me experience to lead to the big picture. I always wanted to be at ESPN. I was a broadcasting major in college. I left college early to start doing radio, which isn’t something that I was really interested in doing long-term, but it gave me the chops to learn how to ad-lib and entertain someone for four or five hours. So I took those skills and started to apply them to other things. I took a job hosting the gospel music channel show. Not because I knew tons about gospel, but it was very early in my career and I wanted to learn a TV set, I wanted to learn production terms, I wanted to learn the lexicon. I wanted to do interviews. I took this job because I knew at 21, 22 years old that it would give me the experience for the next job. At one point, I was working four or five jobs at the same time, because I knew I wanted to be locked, loaded and have a full arsenal of weapons before I came to war with everybody in the country who wants to be at ESPN (laughs).
TS: One of the fun things we love to ask about is if there was any person in particular that you looked up to or used as a guide when you got to ESPN. Also, now that you’re established there, have you tried to be that person with some of the newer anchors and personalities?
ED: I think it’s interesting because you always have these people who you kind of look up to as the gold standard for what you do. For me coming in, I always looked up to Michelle Beadle. I loved her personality. I liked her approach to sports and saw a lot of myself in her. I always looked up to Jemele Hill for the same thing. I really tried to look at a lot of the women here that I was a huge fan of and ask questions. You’d be surprised at a place this big, with as much that’s going on, with as seasoned and famous as they people are, people are so incredibly helpful. I’d say Jemele was a huge help for me. She was a great sounding board when I first got here, helping me navigate not only this place but television in general. I’d say a lot of the other SportsCenter anchors were very open and great and kind.
For me, I am a big proponent of paying it forward and helping others as you climb. I would like to believe for some of the young people here, I have provided or at least tried to provide a sense of mentorship. I try to provide some of those same kinds of resources and help.
TS: That sort of leads into our next question. What do you try to do to make sure your approach and your style is unique compared to other broadcasters?
ED: My approach honestly is pretty simple. We are all unique because we are all different people. I do think sometimes it is taught to be broadcaster-y. One of the things that you learn in journalism school is that it isn’t about you. It’s supposed to be about the story, the facts. It’s not opinion-based. Well, the reason I got into sports is that it is, in fact, very loose. It is about what you think. It’s about your irrational fandom. The whole thing is a joke. It’s not often that sports are as serious as watching the NBC Nightly News and it shouldn’t be. The stakes aren’t as high. So for me, I take the same approach that I take for anything else in life: I am 100 percent myself. That can be good, that can be bad. That can mean sometimes you’re a liability. That can mean sometimes you’re good for a chuckle.
I decided a long time ago, I’m going to ride this thing for as long as I can. I pray I keep continuing to get jobs, but I’m going to do it on my own terms. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want help. That doesn’t mean that I think I’m perfect the way I am. What it means, and why I love ESPN, is that they want to make me the best version of me. They don’t want to make me the best version of a “SportsCenter anchor.” So for me, I’m just myself. I’m the same person you see on SportsCenter that you’d see at home, or at the bar. People see through people that aren’t being genuine, so I try to be really transparent, really honest and I show my sports fandom.
TS: As people who work in sports and love sports, we’ve always said there’s almost no logical explanation for being a sports fan. If aliens were to come down and you had to explain to them why people are such big fans of teams, it wouldn’t make any sense, but it is part of what makes life fun.
ED: You’re right, it’s insane. It’s absolutely irrational. But at its best, what I love about sports – I’m a huge Broncos fan and I can go to a game and me and the Raiders fans can scream at each other and at the end we can shake hands and buy each other a beer. I love that. You hate this team with every single bone in your body, but you sports “hate” them. None of these things mean anything in the grand scheme of things but they mean so much for everybody involved. It’s a great way to get away from everything else that’s happening right now.
TS: How has social media for you, or how have you seen it for any colleagues be both a blessing and a curse?
ED: Yeah, I have such a complicated relationship with social media. I really do – I think any time you give an opinion, any time you’re in a role where you give an opinion or you pick against someone’s team or you criticize someone else, it opens you up to the mob. I think Twitter at its best can be a fantastic source of information, of sharing stories, of outreach, of support and drawing people to causes. But unfortunately, Twitter at its worst is awful. It really does give you a picture into the depths of depravity and how people can hide behind keyboards and say anything they want without consequence. It can be very dangerous. You want to call me names, call me stupid, that’s fine. But you’ve got people that will come after your family, that will threaten to kill you, that will come after your job because God forbid you picked their team to lose a game. The mob mentality around social media can be really frustrating, and I get it a lot from colleagues that will say ‘don’t clap back at the haters.’ It can be hard. My mom didn’t raise a punk (laughs) and it’s hard to sit back sometimes and let someone freely undress you into the wind.
It’s interesting you bring up social media because over the last three weeks, I decided ‘Okay, because social media is important to what I do, I have to have it. But how can I make it work better for me?’ I have not looked at my mentions in three weeks. Not comments on IG, not mentions on Twitter. And I understand that means I have disconnected myself from some cool people and fans and a supportive community, but I haven’t been defensive in three weeks. I haven’t had to explain myself to a stranger in three weeks. I have not been angry or ready to blast someone. It’s been really freeing, I have to be honest with you.
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Baby’s 1st Christmas tree.. not pictured— me picking out the perfect outfit (a red pea coat) for the occasion only to drive in circles looking for a tree, then not wanting to get out of the car b/c Eva was asleep and then when she finally woke up, getting out of the car to a blustery wind that had us literally point at a random ass tree, snap a pic before RUNNING to the car with an icicle baby and frostbite. Add this to the long list of things not going as planned with a baby!! Lol! #tistheseason
TS: I was just speaking with another female journalist about how it seems like a lot more women in media are being more open about being pregnant and working and then being new mothers and working. You were very open about that with your daughter. What was that like for you before and after she was born?
ED: It can be very hard. As a woman in general when you have a baby, whether it’s carrying a baby, adopting a baby, whenever you add a new person to the family, a lot of things change to you. There’s a lot of wondering. Is my perspective going to change? Am I going to be able to handle this? Am I going to want to come back to work? Am I going to not want to be with my kid and want to come back to work quicker than I imagined and does that make me a bad mom? There’s so much that goes through your head. I wanted to be transparent about my pregnancy, because a lot of women choose to hide it, and I totally understand and get it. I wanted to be a little more open with my personal experience, because with a lot of the rhetoric and narrative around ESPN, I wanted people to see that my personal experience was that I worked with a lot of fantastic people who were really supportive and really open with me.
It can be difficult to go through something with your body changing on national television. Not everyone knows you’re pregnant, and I used to get a lot of stuff about being fat and letting myself go. I guess I just wanted to make sure that people understood what women go through in general being pregnant but particularly when they’re in the public sphere. I would answer those people. I would kind of try to bring a little more light to what we go through. It just felt like, we go through a lot in general, particularly women in sports, but I just wanted to be open about my journey and be open about the fact that life does change.
I want women to know that it’s doable. It’s difficult–more difficult for some than others–but it’s totally doable to start a new life after you have a baby. It will never be the same, but it can be better. It’s just different, and you have to prioritize differently.
TS: For you, watching how things have developed over the last few years, do you feel the landscape is different or better for women or minorities or women minorities trying to get into sports journalism? How have things kind of changed?
ED: I would argue that it is better. It still obviously has a long way to go. And I think it’s not just about women in sports, but the roles that are defined by these women in sports. For a long time, you’ve been able to see women on sidelines. But I think that where we need to do more work – and we’re starting to see some change – is I want women to feel comfortable on a sideline, but also to feel comfortable debating Stephen A. on First Take. To feel comfortable speaking their truth despite the fact that some are inevitably going to say to them ‘How would you know? You never played football.’ I think we need more women in roles of opinion, of substance, not just the woman that stands there and plays tennis while the men get to argue. I think more clearly defined roles where we get to be in the positions of expertise, that’s where we need to head. We need to do more than just deliver other people’s lines. We need to be the people facilitating and driving this conversation as well. And I do see a lot of that happening at ESPN. I mentioned Michelle Beadle. She has the opportunity to do that. We have so many women here. The women on ESPNW, Sarah Spain. I do think that ESPN certainly leads the forefront on putting women in positions to speak their truth but that’s where we need to go. We need more of that.
TS: Ending on a fun note. You’re an Atlanta native and an Atlanta sports fan. Did you follow how the city embraced Atlanta United on its MLS title run? Not to rub it in, but Atlanta is a town that seems starving for a champion.
ED: (Laughs) That’s a good way to put it, starved. It was incredible. Of course, Atlanta fans got so much crap on Twitter for being bandwagon fans. But a lot of people jumped on the ’28-3, it sucks to be an Atlanta fan’ but it has been going on for so many years. In my lifetime alone, we traded Dominique Wilkins for Danny Manning, we went up 2-0 on the Yankees in the Bronx and then never won another World Series game again. We had 28-3, we had Tua, we had Jalen, we had Michael Vick going to prison. It’s like one thing after another for Atlanta and they needed to exorcise some demons. So yes, in the grand scheme of things in a city like Atlanta, is it bigger than beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl? Maybe not, but they just needed this. It’s like life support for sports fan from Atlanta. It’s like being a sadomasochist being an Atlanta sports fan. You know what’s coming and you just keep coming back for more pain and injury.
So, to at least say that one of our teams came through for us, one of our teams won, it really does mean a lot.