For most of the 2010s, Cari Champion rose through the ranks at ESPN, working on some of the network’s biggest shows. In January 2020, the then-SportsCenter anchor announced that she was leaving ESPN. At time time, she did not reveal much about why she left, though her next project has already started, pairing her with a fellow ESPN and SportsCenter personality, Jemele Hill. Champion is a very popular figure in the sports and pop culture world, with over 400,000 followers on Instagram and 265k on Twitter.
The 42-year old Champion graduated from UCLA in 1998, with a degree in English and minor in mass communications. A Pasadena native, she grew up a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan, something that most who followed her work at ESPN will remember.
During her college career, Champion moved to the East Coast, studying in Washington, D.C. and interning at CNN. That experience helped inspire her to pursue her career in journalism. “That was when I knew, ‘I’m going to do this.’ It just felt natural,” Champion told UCLA Magazine in 2013.
Champion began her career working for a small station in West Virginia, before heading back to California for a job with Orange County Newschannel. In 2002, she joined WPTV-TV, an NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla. as a reporter. There, she began covering tennis, and specifically, Venus and Serena Williams, which helped her dive into the sports world.
Cari Champion’s Journalism and Television Career:
Champion continued to work her way through the ranks of local news throughout the 2000s, before landing a role at the Tennis Channel in 2009. She worked as both a courtside reporter, and the host of the channel’s Court Report segments. She would also report on entertainment for the network Starz, as well as on Entertainment Tonight spin-off The Insider and TV Guide Network show Hollywood 411. In 2012, she left Tennis Channel for a huge opportunity with ESPN.
Champion took over as host of the mega-popular debate show First Take, moderating two of the network’s most polarizing personalities in Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless.
“I have been an avid watcher of the show. I love the barbershop debates that make First Take feel different than other programs,” Champion told ESPN Media Zone when she signed on to host the show. “I am excited to join the show and will try to speak when Skip takes a breath and Stephen sips his water.”
According to The Big Lead, she beat out Jemele Hill, Heidi Watney, and others for the role.
In 2014, Champion appeared on other ESPN programming, profiling Cam Newton for E:60. According to The Washington Post, she admitted that she looked to move on from First Take, and began to petition ESPN for an anchor role on the network’s flagship show SportsCenter. “I’ve reached my ceiling. The growth for me has stopped in the middle seat. … Now it’s time to stretch my wings,” she reportedly said on a June 2015 edition of her “Be Honest” podcast. She landed that chance in July of that year, a role she had until January 2020, with a brief stint as the host of SportsNation before its 2018 cancellation, after which she returned to SportsCenter.
On top of her show with Jemele Hill, Champion hosts NBC’s The Titans Games, an athletic competition show created by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as well as Turner Sports’ series The Arena with Charles Barkley and Draymond Green.
Why She Left ESPN:
After consulting with mentors, family and friends, I have come to the decision that it’s time to leave ESPN. Over the past 7 years, I’ve grown from hosting First Take to having my own show on SportsCenter, and experiencing so much more in between.
— Cari Champion (@CariChampion) January 9, 2020
A few weeks after her departure, Champion sent some cryptic tweets that seemed aimed at her former place of employment:
Hey y’all! I haven’t reached out in a minute. Just wanted to say I’m working and hustling and loving life. It feels good to work with those who value diversity and inclusion!
— Cari Champion (@CariChampion) February 20, 2020
It’s so important to listen to and SEE those who don’t look like you! If you’re somewhere and you know you’re not valued but YOU know your WORTH… take that leap on faith! Bet on YOU … ALWAYS!
— Cari Champion (@CariChampion) February 20, 2020
Ahead of the launch of their new project on Vice on TV, Champion and Jemele Hill did a lengthy interview with Hot 97‘s Ebro in the Morning. Their departures from the Worldwide Leader came up, and Champion said that she misses some of her colleagues, like former SportsCenter co-anchor David Lloyd, but that leaving ESPN was vital for her to reclaim her voice and move forward in her career.
From the interview:
“This morning I got a text… David Lloyd, my co-anchor said ‘I wish you the best. I’m so proud of you. Good luck for you and Jemele today.’ Now that I miss. I miss him because he was a solid human. There was a handful of people who helped me find my way there. He was one of the few. I miss that because it wasn’t bad times, it was an incredible platform. We wouldn’t be in certain positions if we didn’t have that platform, wouldn’t be in a position to make certain money if we didn’t have that platform. I miss that.
“I don’t miss the ability to not be able to tell stories. Stories that matter to me. I don’t miss the ability not to be able to speak out. I think I left in the end of January and the whole world went to s–t by March… We had so much unrest happening. I felt like if I had been at ESPN, I wouldn’t be able to vocally speak about how I really feel. Meaning I wouldn’t have been able to talk about Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd or whack-ass Amy Cooper without feeling like there could be some repercussion on the other end…
“I notice now (ESPN isn’t) sticking to sports, but for me that’s that corporate social justice. It’s not genuine. It’s just what’s happening right now… I’ve been a journalist my whole life, the beauty of the newsroom is diversity. Everyone from all walks of life are supposed to come together and give their perspective, agree or disagree. It felt very uniform, it felt very heavy handed. Like after (John) Skipper left, our former boss, the focus wasn’t really on telling great stories anymore. This is just my opinion. And you can only make so much money before you get tired of saying ‘I need to really do what my mission is.’…
“So my advice to people now is you can’t be attached to a person, place, or a thing, because you lose your power and you also lose focus on your purpose. My mission is to always make sure that women of color, and women in general are respected, they have a voice and have a place. And I wasn’t able to do that—I have a foundation called Brown Girls Dream—I couldn’t continue to talk to these young girls and mentor them and tell them to chase their dreams while I was chasing money.”
Champion said that Jemele was one of the people who helped convince her to take a risk and “jump” from ESPN, without something already set up, saying that she’d have plenty of options once she became a free agent. She said that the decision to leave is “the best thing she’s ever done” for herself.
Launching Cari & Jemele (Won’t) Stick to Sports On Vice With Jemele Hill:
In June 2020, Vice TV announced the launch of a new talk show with Cari Champion and Jemele Hill, then called “Disruptors with Jemele Hill and Cari Champion.” The name was eventually changed to the more apropos Cari & Jemele (won’t) Stick to Sports.
The show, which airs at 11:30 p.m. ET on Thursday nights, on Vice TV, allows the two former ESPN personalities discuss a range of topics, including but not limited to sports, as the title suggests. Among the prominent guests to appear on the show, which airs its 11th episode next week, is Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, who joined them for the pilot episode from the NBA’s bubble in Orlando back in August.
Among the other high-profile guests that have already appeared on the young program: Charles Barkley, Doc Rivers, Ice Cube, Stacey Abrams, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Charlamagne tha God, and Chelsea Handler.
Cari Champion’s Personal Life: Her Family, Is She Married?
Champion grew up in Pasadena, Calif. the second of four children. She was raised by Dylan and Mariah Champion, and has one older sister and two younger brothers, and attended nearby UCLA.
She is not believed to be married, and is not in a public relationship at this time.