40 Under 40: Sports Media Talents – The Big Lead
As with the 30 most powerful talents in sports media post, this list is inherently subjective. The criteria used to generate these rankings are as follows: To what extent there would be a bidding war for these writers, reporters, and/or personalities if they came available, whether they could plausibly make it on their own, the ability to report or ideate original content — with opinion or breaking news — or be the subject of stories that spread throughout the sports media ecosystem. Can they shape discussions? How much do their names resonate in headlines?
Also factored in are resonance/recognizability with viewers and readers, and the importance of one’s platform. It is not necessarily about who you or I like. Finally, you’ll notice that there are actually a little over 60 people included in this list. If you do the arithmetic carefully, that is more than 40. Admittedly, there are some pairings I took some liberty with because, quite frankly, I didn’t want this list to be boiled down to “Here are 40 people who were chosen for jobs with ESPN, Fox, or the NFL.”
Without further ado:
40. Robert Klemko, Jenny Vrentas, & Jonathan Jones; Sports Illustrated
Klemko and Vrentas are part of Peter King’s MMQB orbit. They crisscross the country throughout the extended football year and find stories you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Jones joined SI’s NFL coverage last year from the Charlotte Observer; he also covered the NCAA Tournament in March.
39. Ryan Satin, Pro Wrestling Sheet
It has been less than two years Satin since left his job as a producer at TMZ to launch ProWrestlingSheet.com. This past March, he said the site had 1.5 million pageviews. In an industry that, by design, has a lot of rumors and innuendo, Pro Wrestling Sheet breaks major news of both transactional and investigative natures.
38. Diana Moskovitz; Deadspin
While Moskovitz does not file as frequently as many who work for blogs, when she does write a story it is almost without exception impactful. She is fluent in FOIA, and was recently lent to Deadspin’s sister site Jezebel to write a series of essential dispatches from the Bill Cosby trial. Last week, she, along with two other Deadspin writers, broke the story that Floyd Mayweather, in addition to the most recently reported late taxes, has been having liens put on him dating back to at least 2004.
37. Jorge Sedano; ESPN
Sedano moved out to Los Angeles last year to launch a morning radio show with Keyshawn Johnson and LZ Granderson. Sedano also appears on the weekly ESPN2 program Nación ESPN, the NBA Lockdown podcast, and various other ESPN studio programming.
36. Field Yates; ESPN
For the past several years, Yates has been groomed at ESPN as an NFL insider. It would be premature to declare him the heir apparent to Adam Schefter, but down the road it is not out of the realm of possibility. Yates has also picked up the fantasy beat, writing rankings for ESPN.com and appearing on the popular Fantasy Focus podcast alongside Matthew Berry and Stephania Bell.
35. Taylor Rooks; SNY
Rooks, 25, joined SNY from the Big Ten Network last year, and works as an anchor and reporter.
🚨NEW PODCAST!🚨 Timeout w/ Taylor Rooks ep 13: RASHEED WALLACE joins and he was such a dope guest. When it comes to trash talking, what’s off limits? How do fans view the black athlete? Did his persona overshadow his performance? Is social media too influential for the modern athlete? What do the problems really look like in Flint? How would the Warriors stack up to his Pistons? Sheeeeed answers ALL of that!!! Link in bio ✊🏾
A post shared by Taylor Rooks (@taylorrooks) on Jun 5, 2017 at 12:01pm PDT
It would hardly be shocking if she has a national presence sooner than later. Her podcast guests have included Kevin Durant, Rasheed Wallace, and Snoop Dogg.
34. Jamie Erdahl (CBS) & Rosalyn Gold-Onwude (CSN Bay Area, Turner Sports, MSG)
Gold-Onwude, another presumable future national star, does reporting on Warriors games for the Bay Area CSN affiliate. She has been involved with TNT’s NBA coverage, as well as CBS/Turner’s NCAA Tournament early rounds and New York Liberty broadcasts for MSG. She was a member of three women’s basketball Final Four berths for Stanford. Erdahl partnered with the Greg Gumbel/Trent Green crew on CBS NFL games last season, and also covered the NCAA Tournament.
33. Allie LaForce (CBS), Kristen Ledlow (Turner Sports), & Laura Rutledge (ESPN)
These three sideline reporters all have big national assignments, but not quite title game-level spots. LaForce is on CBS’s top college football crew for SEC games, and the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tourney. Ledlow was the sideline reporter for the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on TNT this year. Rutledge will host SEC Nation on ESPN’s SEC Network this season.
32. Kevin Clark, Kevin O’Connor, & Tate Frazier; The Ringer
Clark joined The Ringer from the Wall Street Journal, and has a knack for finding NFL stories that are off the beaten path or ahead-of-the-curve explainers about league trends. O’Connor has emerged as a star on the site’s NBA coverage, and has interesting reporting/analysis on theoretical transactional player movement, which is the lifeblood of conversations about the sport. Frazier is Bill Simmons’s producer. He also co-hosts the site’s college basketball podcast with Mark Titus, and is Michael Lombardi’s partner on the GM Street pod.
31. Albert Breer (SI) & Jeff Darlington (ESPN)
The former NFL Network reporters have gone in different content directions. Breer often draws ire from progressives for his opinions. Nevertheless, he is a very big individual draw on Periscope, and his notes columns for MMQB regularly uncover nuggets from behind-the-scenes that can be both informative and comprised of juicy gossip. Darlington is moving up the ranks of ESPN’s on-site NFL reporters, and one could envision him eventually having the proverbial top spot that Sal Paolantonio has had for years.
30. Ariel Helwani; SB Nation
Helwani doesn’t have as big of a platform as he did when he was working on Fox’s UFC coverage, but he remains the most widely known MMA reporter. While it surely is not enjoyable for him in the moment during the various times — including last week — the UFC has banned his access, the long-term net effect of these instances will in my opinion prove positive for his career.
29. Kristine Leahy; FS1 and NBC
Leahy is a reporter on American Ninja Warrior, and the co-host of The Herd. Leahy knows the NBA especially well; last July, we discussed her path to FS1:
28. Renee Young; WWE
Young, who was reportedly on ESPN’s radar a couple years back, is a dynamic and skilled broadcaster who could host any program in sports. She handles the surreality of the WWE universe with immense grace, and has a very good sense of when to get the train back on tracks or opt to let the sometimes-unscripted Talking Smack segments veer into silliness and/or confrontational chaos. Unfortunately, this program was abruptly canceled this week, reportedly at the behest of Vince McMahon. Young was not pleased.
27. Maria Taylor & Cassidy Hubbarth; ESPN
Taylor will be taking Sam Ponder’s old spot on College GameDay and ESPN/ABC’s premier Saturday night college football telecast this upcoming season. Hubbarth, who has a variety of reporting roles on the network’s NBA coverage, has seen her profile rise at ESPN recently, including getting picked as one of the talents on ABC’s primetime Battle of the Network Stars.
26. Desus & Mero; Viceland
Desus & Mero, which is produced by PTI and Highly Questionable creator Erik Rydholm, is hysterical, incisive, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. While sports comprise just 15-30 percent of the program — which also riffs on politics, pop culture, and weird news — and it might take you a couple tries before you think you totally get what they’re doing, the pair has impeccable chemistry and you’ll find yourself wanting to spend more and more time with them.
Stephen A. Smith comes for Phil Jackson as news of a potential Kristaps Porzingis trade surfaces. pic.twitter.com/o0WXQ8zbEo
— DESUS & MERO (@desusandmero) June 23, 2017
25. Mina Kimes, Dominique Foxworth, Clinton Yates; ESPN
The three co-hosts of the weekend ESPN Radio program Morning Roast are atop ESPN’s proverbial bench now. Kimes now regularly appears on Around the Horn, has co-hosted Highly Questionable, and writes big NFL feature stories. If you watch ESPN, you will assuredly become well-acquainted with her. Foxworth, the former president of the NFLPA and a Harvard MBA, has also appeared on HQ. Yates joined ESPN’s Undefeated after spending nearly a decade at the Washington Post, and has recently been the go-to fill-in host on The Right Time With Bomani Jones.
24. Shams Charania; Yahoo Sports
The former Woj protege at The Vertical had a very prolific period in NBA free agency, including breaking the news that Blake Griffin would remain with the Los Angeles Clippers and that Paul Millsap was headed to Denver. In terms of breaking news, he is a major star on the rise. He just graduated college last month.
23. Joe Davis (Fox and SportsNet LA), Ryan Ruocco (ESPN), & Adam Amin (ESPN)
This is the next generation of play-by-play announcers. Davis, who is South of 30, joined Fox in 2014. Last season he called college football alongside Brady Quinn. Davis was tapped to be the replacement for Vin Scully on Dodgers play-by-play, which goes without saying is not an easy act to follow. Ruocco does NBA games with a variety of partners, including Doug Collins, Doris Burke, and Jeff Van Gundy. Amin called his first NBA playoff game on television this year, and recently signed a new multi-year deal to remain with ESPN.
22. Tom Haberstroh, Amin Elhassan, and Brian Windhorst; ESPN
Haberstroh, Elhassan, and Windhorst were formerly part of the TrueHoop podcast troop, and since the layoffs this past April now contribute to The Basketball Analogy pod. Haberstroh has been on a tear with deep stories of late, including dives into player rest and the Tinderization of today’s NBA. Elhassan, a former member of the Suns’ front office, appears up and down ESPN’s NBA studio coverage. Windhorst, who has tremendous news and gossip content on all platforms, was on television approximately 37 hours a day during NBA free agency.
21. Sarah Spain; ESPN
Spain appears regularly on Around the Horn and co-hosts a nightly ESPN Radio show with Israel Gutierrez. She also writes for ESPNW and hosts the weekly That’s What She Said podcast.
20. Nick Wright; FS1
First Things First, the FS1 morning show which Wright will be co-hosting with Cris Carter, launches in September. There will be a lot of pressure on this program to draw viewership amongst heavy competition in sports and perhaps more significantly politics and general lifestyle programs, and to function as a lead-in to bring higher ratings to Undisputed. It’s hard to gauge exactly what metrics would be considered a success — if it averages 65,000 viewers a day this Fall, what would you think?
19. Jessica Mendoza; ESPN
To put it kindly, there are mixed reviews on social media about Mendoza’s broadcasting. Nevertheless, she is a trailblazer as a female national baseball commentator, and has handled the vitriol thrown her way on a weekly basis with a ton of professionalism.
18. Kate Fagan; ESPN
Fagan, whose book What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen will be released on August 1st, is both a reporter and opinionist on television. She appears regularly on Around the Horn, and is on the shortlist of people who could conceivably replace Bob Ley hosting Outside the Lines when that time comes (which hopefully will not be soon).
17. Darren Rovell; ESPN
Rovell has some foibles, and we’ve covered them on numerous occasions. But, it’s undeniable that in his niche his reporting has constant relevance. He’s been, unsurprisingly, all over the Lonzo Ball shoe saga during Summer League. His biggest story in recent memory was breaking, against the promotion’s will, that the UFC was nearing a sale to WME-IMG.
16. Zach Lowe & Bill Barnwell; ESPN
Aside from Jalen & Jacoby, Lowe and Barnwell are the lone holdovers from Grantland who remain with ESPN. Both of them have big corners in the sports they cover. Lowe was reportedly offered a deal by Bleacher Report worth $1 million a year, but opted to stay at ESPN last summer. Virtually everything Barnwell writes gets cited up and down the network’s platforms.
15. Joel Klatt (Fox) & Greg McElroy (ESPN)
Both are former quarterbacks who are on the rise in media. Klatt is a color commentator on college football games for Fox, and appears frequently on FS1’s studio programming. As with last season, he will be paired with Gus Johnson on the network’s top announce team. McElroy, who played for Nick Saban at Alabama and had brief stops with the Jets and Bengals, was paired with Dave Pasch on ESPN/ABC telecasts last year.
14. Sam Ponder; ESPN
It is going to be very interesting, both from a content and viewership perspective, to see how Sunday NFL Countdown rates with Ponder in the hosting role after Chris Berman’s retirement (and Monday with Suzy Kolber in for Berman). How will she mesh with Charles Woodson, Randy Moss, and Matt Hasselbeck?
13. Ian Rapoport (NFL Media), Mike Garafolo (NFL Media), & Peter Schrager (Fox and NFL Media)
Rapoport is a clear second to Adam Schefter in terms of breaking transactional NFL news. Garafolo and Schrager are both analysts on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football. Garafolo is rumored in media circles to be on tap to appear on NFL Network’s Sunday morning pregame show, while Schrager is very highly thought of by decision-makers at Fox, where he is a general league reporter and also covers sidelines on NFL telecasts.
12. Jesse Palmer; ESPN/ABC
Palmer is moving from college football games to the studio this season; he reportedly had talks with Fox to be an NFL broadcaster before opting to remain with ESPN. Palmer still has a high Q rating from when he was The Bachelor, and he appears on ABC’s Good Morning America. Don’t be surprised if there is a further announcement in the coming weeks about an additional project he will be embarking on outside of sports.
11. Katie Nolan; Fox (for now)
The next year will be fascinating to observe for Katie Nolan. She has been on the FS1 bench essentially since the Super Bowl, and is widely believed to be heading to ESPN either when her deal expires at the end of the year, or sooner if Fox were to let her out early. If that winds up happening, you can bet that both she and the network will seek to prove Fox made a big mistake in how they utilized her (she had her own weekly show for awhile; it had big social engagement but did not, in absence of a live sports lead-in, draw a noteworthy television audience). After what would surely be an initial blitz where she is on all sorts of shows, will she sustain momentum?
10. Ramona Shelburne; ESPN
Shelburne told me recently that in her late twenties, unsure if there was a path forward, she strongly considered leaving sports journalism. Shortly thereafter she became a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News, and has since had a meteoric rise at ESPN. She appears up and down their studio programming, breaks big news (including the Paul George trade to OKC), and has written some deeply reported features on Ronda Rousey, Jeanie Buss, and the Ball family.
9. Michael Smith; ESPN
SC6, with Smith and Jemele Hill, has not had the strongest start from a content or viewership perspective. It’s still early, but the show does not have a cohesive identity — a model that is half traditional SportsCenter and half His & Hers does not flow together very well. That being said, the two are on long-term deals and are presumably going to be given every opportunity to overcome the hiccups that have befallen the program thus far.
8. Clay Travis; Fox Sports Radio and Outkick the Coverage
Not too many people have a lukewarm opinion about Clay. He has a fervent following, and people who abhor him. Owning his own web platform in Outkick — and derivative Facebook/Periscope shows — enabled him to have the power to reportedly tell former FS1 boss Jamie Horowitz “thanks but no thanks” to an offer for his own daily television show under the condition he would refrain from discussing politics.
7. Steve Smith (NFL Network) & Nate Burleson (NFL Network & CBS)
The former wide receivers are both going to have big studio roles this season. Burleson, whose work on NFL Network’s Good Morning Football has been noticed by many, will join CBS’s pregame show. Smith, meanwhile, is expected to bring strong opinions to NFL Network on Sunday mornings. Don’t be surprised if another role materializes for Smith during the week, either.
6. Tim Tebow; SEC Network
With Sandy Alderson’s proclamation that he didn’t “foresee” Tim Tebow getting called up to the major leagues this season, ESPN executives must have breathed a sigh of relief. If he were out in September, they would have a big gap to fill on SEC Network.
5. Erin Andrews; Fox & ABC
Andrews likely has the highest Q rating of anyone on this list who is not a former pro athlete. She is the sideline reporter on the top NFL team, and reaches outside of sports with her role on Dancing With the Stars.
4. Tony Romo; CBS
Romo is going to be under the microscope this season. Not only is he going straight from the Cowboys to the top CBS announce team, he will be on two games a week during the part of the season where CBS has Thursday Night Football. If he flails, it could be a long way down.
3. Charissa Thompson; Fox & EXTRA
Charissa hosts the NFL pre-pregame show on Fox, which saw big ratings gains last year, and co-hosts the syndicated Hollywood program Extra with Mario Lopez. She is a dynamic broadcaster, and there are persistent murmurs that in the next year or two she will see a big bump in terms of what sports platform she is on.
2. Bomani Jones & Pablo Torre; ESPN
This duo’s show is going to launch early in 2018, and will be produced by Erik Rydholm. On Tony Kornheiser’s podcast recently, Pablo said that the show will be less serious than some may expect, with a major goal being to make the viewers laugh. Pablo has spent the last several years at ESPN writing for the magazine, appearing on Around the Horn, and filling in on various shows, including PTI. Bomani has been co-host of Highly Questionable, and hosts a daily ESPN Radio show. He reportedly turned down a big offer from Fox to remain with ESPN.
1. Big Cat/PFT Commenter; Barstool Sports
Five years ago, Big Cat had recently shut down his personal blog to focus on his real estate gig. PFT Commenter was not yet a Twitter account, let alone a burgeoning voice at Kissing Suzy Kolber and SB Nation. Now, their Pardon My Take podcast is often ranked No. 1 in the sports category on iTunes, and the world is their oyster. They’ll literally soil themselves for the show:
They have massive social reach and their legion of fans approaches them in public, referencing their bits. There are going to be innumerable opportunities for expansion of their franchise, and it will be interesting to see how their core audience responds as their ascension continues from being buzz-worthy outsiders into the mainstream establishment.
Just missed: Molly Qerim (ESPN), Joy Taylor (FS1), Jay Cutler (Fox), Matt Jones (Kentucky Sports Radio), Kevin Draper (New York Times), Nick Friedell (ESPN), Ben Cohen (Wall Street Journal), Rob Perez (Cycle), Chris Mannix (Yahoo & NBC Sports Radio), Jay Williams (ESPN), Brady Quinn (Fox).
Disclosure: The Big Lead editor-in-chief Jason McIntyre is an on-air personality at FS1.