ESPN's Dianna Russini spoke with us about her dream career at ESPN, growing up playing sports, being a woman in the media and more.
Dianna Russini has worked for a number of outlets, including NBC Connecticut, NBC Washington D.C. and Comcast Sports in Seattle. Currently, she is a SportsCenter anchor at ESPN. A proud New Jerseyan, Russini spoke with us this week about a number of topics.
The Spun: People obviously know you as a sports anchor and reporter, but not many people know you have a pretty extensive athletic background yourself. How did you get into sports?
DR: Growing up, my older brother, I think he really wanted a brother. He didn’t have one, so he was going to do whatever it took to make me a boy. He was going to hit me and be aggressive with me in the backyard. To me, sports were just an extension of just what I was doing at home with my brother. He is really the reason why I think I was a good athlete, because my thought was if I could play against my brother who is four years older than me, I could play against girls my age.
The Spun: You went to Old Tappan High School in New Jersey and you obviously were very involved in playing sports. What was your high school athletic experience like?
DR: In high school, sports were everything. I was the biggest jock. You think of a jock in high school and my picture is right there. I played soccer, basketball, softball and I ran track my senior year. My class was an exceptional group, both on the classroom and on the field. To this day, I could probably name 20 people off the top of my head that are doing great things with their lives…The girls got along. We wanted to win, we were determined, we were focused. And we played every sport; this is before people specialized. We did everything together. Four girls from my class played D-1 soccer and we were like the core of the team. Our basketball team was really good. I came across coaches that changed my life forever. [My basketball coach] Brian Dunn was without a doubt one of the most impactful people on my life in terms of growing me as a person, as an athlete and as a student. He’s always been supportive of everything I’ve done from a distance. I think he knows that he helped build a lot of my core when I was young. He helped form that by being very disciplined with me.
The Spun: You were a Division I soccer player at George Mason. What was your experience like as a Division I athlete?
DR: I should have gone off and ran track after high school, because that was my best sport. But running was easy to me. My dad was like ‘Just run ‘til you puke.’ I never did throw up, but I would run until I would feel sick. Running was just a natural talent of mine, but I wanted to play soccer, even though I wasn’t good at it. I went to George Mason, I walked on, and nobody thought I was good. Thank God my teammates were great people and they helped me. They told me ‘You have to gain weight, you have to work on your skills, and you have to understand the game better because right now your level isn’t D-I. It’s barely D-III.’ So I took the offseason, worked my butt off, gained weight. I was in the weight room all the time. I refused to go back to Old Tappan and say ‘I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t play D-I. You guys were all right and I should have run track.’ So that fired me up and kept me motivated. I eventually became a starter and got a scholarship, and I was doing all this while interning and taking an incredible amount of credits because I was trying to graduate early because I knew I wanted to be a TV reporter.
The Spun: You led right into our next question. How did you get into the TV reporting business?
DR: The TV reporting thing started right after 9/11. I was a freshman at the time and had only been in college for a month. My father was in Tower One and it really took a toll on my family, the idea of what could have happened to us and watching so many other families go through the grief. It really affected who I was and what I wanted to be. I didn’t want to go home to New Jersey. My parents wanted me to come home and live in New Jersey and go to school there, but I didn’t want to because I knew I wanted to do this TV news thing, which I thought I could do in Washington, D.C. That’s the best place to be because you want to be around politics and at the capital. But I also started to pick up some sports reporter work. I did some sideline reporting. I worked for NorthJerseySports.com. I was doing stuff for them and I was really bad…I did that and I got an internship with Diane Sawyer at ABC News for my senior year and with Eyewitness News locally in New York City in the summers in college. I went out there covering stories, and you talk about not even having a question in your mind that you were born to do this. I figured it out, and I’m so fortunate I had those chances.
The Spun: So your start was on the news side, but you eventually transitioned over to sports. Can you talk a little bit about how that happened?
DR: I got a job at News 12 in Hudson Valley/Westchester, and I broke a lot of stories there. I covered crime. The news director at WNBC lived near me in New Jersey and he heard about me. He brought me in for an interview and hired me. I was 24 years old and it was the opportunity of a lifetime. I worked there, and I’d say about six months in, I wasn’t happy. I didn’t like it. It felt morbid, it felt sad. I never felt like myself on the air. One day, one of the sports anchors said to me ‘You should do sports. You love it. You know it. Why don’t you do sports?’ So I switched. I moved to Seattle to be part of a new upstart out there at Comcast Sports Net. Everything just took off from there. I moved back to New Jersey and worked at NBC Connecticut. Then I moved to Washington, D.C. I just did these quick stops and when I tell you, all of it was just me trying to learn as much as I could in the shortest amount of time. It was like cramming for a final, because I knew I had to catch up to the rest of the world of women in sports. I made it my life, and I got really fortunate that the guy who runs SportsCenter, his parents live in Washington, D.C. I was their local sports anchor. He saw me, he liked me and he gave me an opportunity here.
The Spun: People may not realize how competitive being a sports reporter is. The competition isn’t just on the field; it’s in the press box, the locker room and elsewhere as people fight for scoops and different angles to tell stories. How much did your background as an athlete help you acclimate to that environment?
DR: My boss, Mike McQuade, has sat me down here at ESPN and said that he’s never met somebody more curious, nosy and competitive as me. All of that has to do with sports. I’ve said that most of the time it is my strength because I use so much of that competitiveness. I was an underdog in every single thing I’ve done. In every sport, in every job. No one has ever thought that I would be a star. I’ve lived with that. I’ve lived with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, in a good way, because it has motivated me. Sometimes it hurts me though, because I will go as far as it takes to be the best when it comes to anchoring and it overtakes my life a little too much. But when it comes to reporting, people do not understand, with all the different avenues of information and everyone being information-starved, it puts this indescribable pressure to be the first, to get it right and to create your own. That alone I love and I’m addicted to, but it’s also exhausting…I refused to back down to the old way of thinking that only the print reporters can break stories, only the men can break stories. Those days are over. I made my mind up about that when I went to Washington. Everybody told me the Washington Post rules all, that you’re just a TV person, you’re there to make the ‘Skins look good. My attitude was ‘No way. That’s not who I am.’ I’m going to go out there and cover it the best way I know.’ That’s what I did and I’ve never looked back.
The Spun: When you were in D.C. you got a chance to cover the whole Kirk Cousins/RGIII saga/mess/debacle. What was that like on the ground level, because not only are you dealing with the people covering the team and the players and fans in the area, but national people as well?
DR: I was in the cafeteria with Adam Schefter the other day, who is a great friend of mine. I said, ‘Adam, have you ever broken a story in the shower?’ He laughed, and said he hadn’t. I’ve done that before. I’ve been in the shower and my hands were outside the curtains and I’m texting or sending a message. Because in those moments, every minute counts. Taking a shower took away from 4-5 minutes of when I needed to be on my phone communicating with people to get information. That’s what I was doing during that RGIII/Kirk Cousins debacle. It was so intense and consumed so much of Washington, and it was also on a national scale. The press box was packed every single game and the team was terrible. There were so many interesting storylines about that controversy and the competition between these two guys. I think this is a great example though where being an athlete helps you flourish in these scenarios. To me, the more people there, the more attention it got, the more I enjoyed being part of it and wanted to be the first. I always thought I had a leg up, because I was there every single day. I had a relationship with every single player, every coach. It was helpful.
The Spun: For you, as a woman covering sports, building relationships with sources and getting info, do you have to worry about treading that line and making sure that people are keeping things strictly professional?
DR: This is the most common question I get and it’s a fair one. You cannot break stories or cover a team the way it needs to be covered without relationships. You have to have cell phone numbers of players, coaches, owners. You just have to. You need to get information, you need to check information and you need to have that contact for breaking news or anything that comes your way. As a female covering a male sport and you have a male’s phone number, there has to be a relationship built and spoken about immediately before anyone can think anything…I have never had an experience where a player has gone over the line with me or asked me to do something that I would be uncomfortable with or something that would cross the line, because I have set the tone from the start. I make sure that there is a very strong, fierce, bold line. I am a reporter. I’m not your friend. I’ll support your charities, I’ll support your causes, I’ll tweet if it is something the world should see. But I’m a journalist. I’m going to speak to you on the record, but the relationship is never going to go beyond that. And I’ve been able to build relationships with people with those rules intact…There’s no gray area with me, when it comes to my sources. I’m very proud of that. I’m probably a little bit more intense about it than most because I am a single female, in my early 30s. There are going to be people that want to believe that I do those things to get stories, that that’s the only way. But I love, I love that I know, players know, coaches know, that I get all of my information the right way. It does upset me though, when I see women crossing the line. I do think it makes my job that much harder every time that happens.
The Spun: What has it been like for you to wear multiple hats at ESPN? You’re anchoring SportsCenter and that’s the main thing, but you’re also reporting on the NFL still, you’re out there breaking stories with Schefter. How do you handle that balance?
DR: Well, I can’t let it go. That’s the problem. My title in anchor, but I am a field reporter to the core. It has so many benefits as an anchor. I use that skill set, the ability to follow-up on questions and understand where people are coming from. I appreciate the field reporters probably more than anybody because I know what they’re doing out there and the elements of what they’re up against. I do think it has helped me become a better anchor on SportsCenter, but I can’t let go [of reporting]. Thank God ESPN is so understanding and they let me be myself. Adam [Schefter] is phenomenal at what he does, and let’s face it, he probably doesn’t need me tipping him off about things. He probably already knows it. But he’s always grateful and appreciative. He includes me. That has given me an opportunity that I never thought I’d have. Slowly but surely, I think they are going to let me go out in the field a little bit. I like being a messenger, and being an anchor is pretty much the highest level you can get at SportsCenter. To be a SportsCenter anchor is what most have dreamt about, including me. I get to do it, which is so cool. But I can’t ever let go of what got me here, which is reporting.
The Spun: So many people who get involved with sports media, whether is writing or on-camera or whatever, their end goal is to work at ESPN. What was it like for you when you were hired there and you now when you realize you have reached the point you wanted to get to?
DR: For the first six months here, I think I said to myself ‘Oh my God, I’m on SportsCenter’ before every time I was on television. That affects your performance. You don’t look comfortable. You don’t look like you belong. I remember recently when I finally felt like I belong and I should be one of the few SportsCenter anchors as women that we have. The feeling of achieving something you’ve dreamt about, you don’t ever really reflect on it. You don’t think about it. But what you do is, when you see other people do it, you almost over-embrace it because you don’t realize subconsciously that they are experiencing something you are. For example, when [fellow Old Tappan alum] Rob Segedin was called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers. That was such an emotional moment for me. And as much as it had to do with Robby because I've known him since I was a baby, I actually think it had a lot to do with myself, because my thought was ‘Here are two people who used to play together in the backyard and hang out and worked their tails off for the last decade, and we made it.’ It doesn’t make you want to stop, but it makes you want to appreciate that moment.
The Spun: We can tell you work in TV; you segue really well. Our next question was about Rob Segedin. What was that like for you, to cover someone from your hometown and high school that you knew and get a chance to interview him?
DR: His sister Jane was my best friend in high school, so I was at the Segedin house every single day. I remember talking to Robby in the backyard playing baseball all the time. Those kids had bats and balls in their hands more than they had food or anything else. To see and watch somebody go from that to that, to go from running around an Old Tappan backyard by his pool with his shirt off to become this star and a professional athlete and to know the journey and understand the challenges, that moment on SportsCenter was the best moment I had on ESPN, without a doubt. It was a reminder to keep working, and if you stay focused on things, the doors will open up. It was such a great time for everyone to see that you’ve got to keep believing. You can’t give up on yourself. That, for me, was such a cool night…I think there is a lot of pride when it comes to watching Rob Segedin do well, because so many people see it is hard to live out your dreams, and you almost feel a part of it.
The Spun: Getting into some fun ESPN –related stuff. The environment in Bristol is always portrayed as funny or collegial in those commercials. What is it really like?
DR: It’s competitive. It has moments of fun. The anchors that you see that look like they are having fun, they are. I will say that. There is just a very cool vibe. Most people have worked really hard to get here, and there is an understanding and a respect that we have for each other. Because you don’t get here if you worked in one market. You don’t get here because somebody saw you walking down the street and thought you were a good-looking guy and put you on SportsCenter. These people have worked awful shifts, they’ve worked in horrible markets on local levels. Some people started their own blogs at home. Everyone has come a certain way, and there is a unity because of that. That being said, it is competitive. They are all my friends, but everybody is trying to do the next thing to stay relevant and be an important asset to the company. That’s why I think information rules all. Yes, I’m an anchor but if I can continue to break news and pitch good story ideas, you become a valuable asset because everyone wants their info.
The Spun: Have you built any close relationships with any colleagues since you’ve started there?
DR: The friendships I’ve built, especially with women like Cassidy Hubbarth, who is a very good friend of mine, Sara Walsh, Jen Lada. These are the three that I think are the three best women at SportsCenter too, which is kind of cool because I like to say that my three best friends at ESPN are the three best women there. That just happened organically, because I admired something in their work that made me become friends with them. It sounds a little weird but we actually discussed it. In this business, you need a lot of support. Every show gets criticized. Every show gets reviewed. I’m getting coached up every day. It gets exhausting and I want it and I’m the first one in my boss’ office asking what I did wrong, you need that out. You need people around you to tell you ‘You can do it. Don’t give in. Don’t be afraid.’ Because there isn’t a day that I don’t even remind my own parents that there are hundreds of women that would kill to be me. There’s only a few women who get to anchor SportsCenter at night, and I know it could be taken away from in a minute. That’s why you never stop.
The Spun: How do you try to maintain a balance between that constant need to be working and improving while also trying to decompress a bit and not burn out so you can stay sane?
DR: I’m working on it, full disclosure. I am working on that balance. It took me a year to adjust to the level and the amount of content. I came from covering four teams. I now cover every single team in the world of sports. I anchored solo last night [Monday] and from 7-7:12 I led with baseball, then Tiger Woods, then some NFL news and hockey. By 7:10, 7:12, that’s four different things from different areas. It’s incredible how much you have to cover and have to know. The thing that people don’t understand is the work on SportsCenter is not done on the air. Everything I do is off the air. I’m off today [Tuesday]. I will spend probably most of my day not just reading articles, because you get put in these situations on SportsCenter constantly where you need to discuss things. Dwyane Wade going to Chicago broke on my watch. I had to spend the next hour and a half talking about the history of Dwyane Wade in Miami, what it means to the city, what happened, what fell through, what his time in Chicago is going to mean, what the dynamics could be with the Bulls. I don’t cover these guys. I don’t know anything about them. I know enough, but these things just pop up and you need to be ready to go. But the balance is hard, and I do lean on a lot of the women who try to help me. Like today, I’ll go to the track. I run with Cassidy Hubbarth and Sara Walsh. I’ll go to the movies. But then I’ll come home and watch the games tonight. It doesn’t stop. I look forward to slowing down at some point, but look at Hannah Storm? She doesn’t quit. She’s always doing something. Rachel Nichols is another one, Jemele Hill. They’re always working on stuff, because you can’t stop.
The Spun: Speaking of work ethic, whose work ethic has impressed you the most since you’ve been at ESPN?
DR: That’s such a good question. Who knocks me off my feet, like wow? Oh, Zubin Mehenti. He anchors SportsCenter at 7 normally and I fill in for him. He does not stop. He’s constantly working and trying to get better. He loves to be the encyclopedia at ESPN and he is. He’s very, very knowledgeable. Also, Ramona Shelburne. She is my fierce warrior who I strive to be. Her reporting style is showing her face and showing behind-the-scenes and the access she has and the story-telling capabilities. When I have Ramona on my show, I don’t want anybody talking on the air, I don’t want anyone looking at me, I just want to talk to Ramona. She is somebody whose work ethic is like no other.
The Spun: Lastly, your family has played a big role in your development. How much does it mean to have their support and to have had it over the years?
DR: I could not do this without the support of my family and from people that I don’t even know. The pressure that I put on myself and the pressure to perform at this level can wear you down. When I have to anchor SportsCenter by myself on ESPN, ESPN2, whatever it is, and when I get text messages from my dad and I look down during commercial break—he texted me last night and said ‘You’re no longer trying to be a professional anchor. You are a professional. Great job.’ Just little messages like that. I have a tough crowd at home. When I go home, nobody acts like I’m the big TV person. If anything, it is the opposite. But like the other night, my sister and her friend were out having dinner and I was on the TV where they were and they sent me screenshots. I can’t tell you how much I love that stuff. Not from a vanity standpoint, but just feeling like the people I care about are a part of me and my success. I have so many stories. Nobody knows the times I’ve been fired, and I’ve cried in my kitchen to my sister and my mom. Or I’ve had friends who I’ve called after a bad show screaming like a maniac. They don’t even understand television or are in the industry but they just listen. That stuff has become the foundation of what I’m doing.