Imagine working your first game as an ESPN sideline reporter. And your first assignment is to interview Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who chews up nervous sideline reporters and spits them out. A coach whose surly TV interviews give new meaning to the word “awkward.”
Cassidy Hubbarth passed her Pop test with flying colors. That’s one reason why the native Chicagoan and Northwestern graduate is thought of as a rising star inside and outside ESPN.
Hubbarth wasn’t even hired by the talent office. Instead, she joined ESPN as a part-time digital host. But she’s had a meteoric rise over the past seven years. Along with veteran Doris Burke, Hubbarth is now one of ESPN’s main NBA sideline reporters for the regular season and playoffs. She hosts ESPN’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game and NBA Draft Lottery coverage.
Meanwhile, she serves as a college football studio host on ESPN and ABC. TV viewers have seen her frequently appear on ESPN’s top talk shows, including “First Take,” “Get Up!,” “NBA Countdown” and “The Jump.” She was one of the few talents handpicked to appeal to millennial sports fans with the new “SportsCenter on Snapchat.”
She nearly broke the Internet after her regular season interview with LeBron James, in which he declared his game was at an “all-time high.” King James himself referenced the interview twice during the NBA Finals.
But Hubbarth has a decision to make in her ninth year with the Worldwide Leader. Her contract is up March. Will she re-sign with ESPN? Or jump to a competitor?
Sporting News talked to Hubbarth about her upcoming contract negotiations, the challenges of being an NBA sideline reporter and her friendship with the late, great Stuart Scott. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
SPORTING NEWS: What’s the challenge of being a sideline reporter? A lot of these coaches don’t want to talk. But you have to do your job — and fast.
CASSIDY HUBBARTH: The sidelines is the toughest — easiest job — in the business. You don’t have a lot of time, so you have to make it succinct. Sometimes it’s chaos after the game. Your biggest role is that post-game interview. You end up being part of the game. Because people want to hear from LeBron if he hits the game winner. You have to make sure you get the right emotion. (Burke) has helped a lot with that too. She’s one of the people I look up to as far as capturing those moments on the sidelines. Michele Tafoya (of NBC Sports) is one of the best. I also think Rece Davis is one of the best studio hosts. He epitomizes professionalism. Then again Ernie Johnson. His ease and his ability to bring the best out of people.
SN: How do you deal with a coach like Gregg Popovich, who hates in-game interviews? Are you almost terrified to ask them a question?
CH: It’s hard. It’s very difficult. (Sighs). No one really wants to be there, OK? We know coaches want to be in the huddle. We’re put in these positions as sideline reporters to ask these questions because we’re afforded that access. That’s part of our deal. We are not going to give that up for nothing. But over the years, there’s only so many questions you can ask. These coaches are emotional. And they don’t want to give up strategy. So that cuts out a whole big chunk of what questions you can ask. It’s really just reaction to what has happened. A prediction. Or a message. What you hope to do going forward. So that puts you in the position: How do I ask a good question? Granted, there’s situations where there’s a substitution change that piques interest. Or if there’s an injury. Or Anthony Davis is out — and how do you fill that void? Sure. But there’s never going to be this dynamic question because it’s in the middle of the game and they’re still trying to protect their intel.
When it comes to Pop, though, there have been a lot of people who have been vocal about this. I don’t necessarily mind the one-word answers. It’s more about the body language and the showing of the respect: We both have to do this so let’s be professional about it. I’ve had a lot of talks with Doris (Burke) about it. I don’t have a fear of being “Popped” because I’ve been “Popped” a couple of times now. My fear is making sure that, in that moment, I’m reacting appropriately, continuing the conversation and getting the best answer that I can. For the most part, these coaches are respectful and understand this is a part of the deal. I wish Pop didn’t act the way he does at times. But it’s out of my control. I know it’s not personal — because it’s not just me. So I guess talk to me the next time I have him. You know my first-ever NBA sideline interview was with Gregg Popovich. It was Christmas three years ago, I think. In Houston. Fortunately, I had a little shtick. Because if it were a regular season game, I don’t know what I would do. But I basically said for Christmas I’m not going to ask him a second question. I got a little bit of a smile. But he was losing — so I wasn’t going to get that much out of him. Rite of passage, I guess.
SN: Talk about a baptism of fire. Your first NBA coach sideline interview — and you draw Pop?
CH: I know. Believe you me. Oh, man. You know what? I felt pretty good. PJ Carlesimo was doing the game with me. Here’s the thing: He’s wonderful pregame with the media. He gives you everything. But it is not a secret. It’s a personal protest he has with the league — because he doesn’t want to do it. But, again, we’re not going to give up that access.
SN: How’d you like how your colleague Maria Taylor handled Nick Saban, when he acted like a jerk during a sideline interview?
CH: Oh, my gosh. Maria is such a pro. When I say I need to make sure I’m in the moment, and keep it moving … that’s what she did. She was composed and she was able to continue the conversation. I think he was wrong to take it out on her. I didn’t appreciate how he was speaking to her. But in that moment, for her to do anything than what she did? I don’t know. I guess she could have pushed him a little bit. But I don’t know if that really would have been beneficial for anyone. Even the viewer. So. I mean, she’s a pro. That’s a reason why you can see her star rising on a daily basis. …You know what? She got support afterward that basically dignified how she reacted in that situation. And she was able to ask a real good follow-up question that continued to talk about the game. There was a lot to that. Nick Saban was trying to make a point. Sometimes he needs to realize he’s not bigger than everybody.
SN: Are a lot of these coaches acting for the cameras? Is it a performance?
CH: Sometimes. Unfortunately, we can become pawns in those situations. It’s about making sure that you still stand on your own two feet — and don’t let someone diminish your size.
SN: I’m hearing that your contract is coming up in March? Do you want to stay with ESPN? Or would you entertain offers from other networks?
CH: I feel really competent in my ability to be a host. I feel like I am getting better at connections out in the field, specifically the NBA. … I feel like I have a lot of room to grow at ESPN. But this is my ninth year. As I told you before, I’ve done the climb. It’s been a journey. I feel like I’ve earned a lot of credibility as a commentator and a broadcaster. I love working for ESPN. I see the potential at ESPN is vast and almost limitless. But it’s a business. I learn a lot from the people that I cover. It’s not personal. Obviously, I’m going to have to keep that mindset as my contract deadline approaches. As much as I have been loyal to ESPN, I need to be as loyal to myself and my family. … The ability to continue to grow at ESPN is what makes it so attractive — and why I love working for them.
SN: You’ve called yourself a “house cat” who’s comfortable as a studio host. Do you see yourself hosting your own show? Or following the Doris Burke path and being out in the field?
CH: I feel very good sitting in the studio. It’s something I’ve done for the majority of my career. So given that sidelines are still pretty new to me, it’s a little unfair to compare the two roles and my comfort levels. But there were times when I was working on “NBA Tonight” and “NBA Coast to Coast” where I just felt like you couldn’t get me off my game, even if you tried. Because I felt so confident in the material. I felt so good about being who I wanted to be on air. And that’s myself. Whereas early on in my career, I was an “anchorwoman.” My mind was clouded with, “Oh, what’s happening next?” But toward the end of being on “Coast to Coast” and “Tonight,” my head was completely clear. I think for anybody on air, that really is the biggest sign that you’re doing something right. If you’re able to just think clearly and be in the moment and be present. I felt that way. So I wouldn’t necessarily say, “Hey, I want to host ‘(NBA) Countdown’ or I want my own daily NBA show.” That’s never really been how I operate. There isn’t a Dream Job for me right now. I think that right now I’m working in the Dream Job. Because I know I need to be on the sidelines. When I was doing “NBA Tonight,” and when I was doing “NBA Coast to Coast,” I was no different from my dad, sitting and watching games. I wasn’t talking to these players. I wasn’t talking to these coaches. I wasn’t developing relationships. I was just developing opinions about what I was watching on TV. That’s why I say doing sidelines, and being in and around the games and the players, is exactly what I need to be doing right now.
That’s why I like exploring the digital side. We have no idea how media is going to change, even in the next five years. So to try to predict, and to pigeon-hole me … is just naive. It’s not paying attention to what’s happening in and around me. I think that’s what I want to do. I want to make sure I’m constantly on the pulse of the league and take advantage of that. So, hopefully, I can try to do that digitally while also being on the sidelines. Just for example, why Rachel Nichols is so good, is she’s always present for these moments. She makes it a point to go over to Lakers games after “The Jump” just to talk to players in the locker room. … No one works harder than her. She has earned every single bit of her credibility. Because she puts in the work, she puts in the time to talk to people. That’s the next goal for me. To make sure I continue to build out my relationships and continue to talk to people as people. So I can line up interviews, so I can present stories from a unique angle because of my insight with certain players. That’s my vision for the future.
SN: What was it like living through multiple layoffs at ESPN? Saying goodbye to good friends and mentors?
CH: It was tough. There’s no other description. It was hard. I’ve been at ESPN so long. I’ve seen so many different waves that ESPN has gone through. I’ve developed a lot of really close friendships. A couple of my biggest mentors … were part of the layoffs. It was hard. I just made sure I was there for my friends who were going through those situations. And also paying attention to morale at ESPN. To not try to contribute to bringing it down more. Again, this is a business, and decisions have to be made. For you to be naive about it can’t happen to you, or to gossip about whatever is happening to other people, that does not help anybody. So I think I learned a lot about just how the real world works. … Unfortunately, I’ve seen a few rounds of layoffs. Obviously, the more publicized ones are the talent. But the behind-the-scene ones hurt just as much. It’s just understanding and continuing to really be in tune that ESPN is the mothership, is the Worldwide Leader for a reason. But you can’t control everything. Specifically, how media is changing. You have to understand, you have to be paying attention. If you get too comfortable, then that’s when you can find yourself on the outside. That’s why I make it a point to make sure that I’m always paying attention and always thankful.
SN: You started as a part-time digital host. Now you’re working two of the biggest sports at ESPN: NBA and college football. How’d you do it?
CH: The quickest way to explain it is it was a climb. I was not hired by the talent office in 2010. I was actually hired by Damon Phillips and Eric Sorensen in our ESPN3 department. Before Watch ESPN, before the ESPN app, we had ESPN3. We were simulcasting college football, NBA and college basketball games on dot.com. I was actually hired as an independent contractor at the time to host the halftime shows for college football with Cristian Fauria. That was just a part-time job. But I knew that was going to be a foot in the door at ESPN, being able to do on-air stuff and cover college football, which was a big part of my early career before ESPN. I worked at Big Ten Network. I worked at Fox Sports South, covering SEC football. So I felt very good about my knowledge and grasp of college football. I started there, getting in the door and just trying to figure out who was who. Because I was literally in the basement. That’s what we called the Building 4 basement where our dot.com and digital presence was.
SN: Was it an actual basement? ESPN’s equivalent of the Williams Morris mailroom?
CH: Yes. It’s below ground. You still have windows you can see out. The hills. But it was literally the basement. … So from there I was just fortunate to have a couple of helpful mentors … who helped me navigate from there, to get me in front of the right people. I went from doing digital highlights to working on international “SportsCenter.” So I would host “SportsCenter Europe” and “SportsCenter Pacific Rim” with Michael Kim and a couple of other talents. That was my first go at doing a 30-minute highlights shows outside of ESPN3. So being able to put together a tape there, which I could then get in front of the talent office. … That turned into a full-time contract around 2012. From there it continued to to climb. I was able to get some run on “SportsCenter.” Then I also was pegged to fill in on a bunch of shows. I was given the opportunity to host “SportsNation” on ESPNU that ran up against “GameDay.” But it was by far one of the best experiences I’ve had. From there to this day I’ve filled in on basically every show, outside of “NFL Countdown” and “Outside the Lines.” Then six years ago, Bruce Bernstein, a former CP (coordinating producer) at ESPN who was there for 30 years, he picked me as the new host of “NBA Tonight.” That’s how I got introduced into the NBA world. I hosted “NBA Tonight” and “NBA Coast to Coast” for three years as well as “SportsCenter.” So now this is going to be my third year, full time on the sidelines.
SN: Now you’re embedded into two sports vital to the future of ESPN: NBA and college football.
CH: I’m very fortunate. I haven’t lost my connection with college football, during all that running around, doing all these different shows, trying to find a lane. I always had something to do with college football. It just helps that the two seasons kind of work with each other puzzle-wise, because of how fast the college football season is. For the last two years, I’ve been doing my ABC studio wrap and then also starting, really now in October, going to preseason or doing sidelines during the week or on a Friday. Then turning over and getting in on Saturday mornings to do that long shift. I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of both. These are two of our biggest properties. That’s certainly not lost on me.
SN: You hosted “Get Up” and made frequent appearances on the old “Mike & Mike in the Morning.” Will we see you more of you on “Get Up” with fellow Northwestern alumni Mike Greenberg?
CH: I’m not sure yet. I’m about to embark on the NBA season. Fortunately, I’m going to be given a lot more games this year because of my growth over the last year or so. I tripled my amount of games last year from the year before. … That is going to be my No. 1 priority. Now that we have our 15-minute pregame (show) and 15-minute post-game (show), that’s a lot for what we do on-site. I also have aspirations to get more involved. To try to showcase personalities and feature-driven segments for “(NBA) Countdown” and “SportsCenter.” So right now, it’s not being talked about. But that door is always open. I’m based out of New York. I love working with that crew. I actually filled in for Greeny on “Get Up.” I worked with Greeny on “Mike & Mike” and then “Battle of the Network Stars.” We have a great relationship. Right now there’s no plans for me to fill in on “Get Up.” But that’s not set in stone.
SN: How do you like working on “SportsCenter on SnapChat?”
CH: It’s given me an opportunity to be creative and work with a lot of people who have such fun ideas. It’s how I consume (sports). I’m very much into sports social media. Obviously, NBA Twitter. Engaging on all the social platforms. Kind of looking at that as a different way to engage and consume sports. So “SportsCenter on Snapchat,” I feel like, really illuminates that. Basically that’s how young people view. They watch the games. They’re also on their second device, commenting, or posting images or videos that tell the secondary story to the game. So it’s been great.
I really did a lot of (Snapchat) during the playoffs. It felt great to have a platform, outside of doing sidelines. It’s incredibly valuable. … ‘SportsCenter on Snapchat’ specifically has allowed me to be a little more creative. Not necessarily be overly opinionated, but to really showcase a lighter side, really take advantage of the personalities in sports. I think I speak to it more because I engage socially.
SN: Will you continue your “Buckets” podcast with Rob Perez; aka “World Wide Wob?” That was great stuff.
CH: We have stopped filming “Buckets.” Rob right now is with the Action Network. That door is not necessarily closed — but no one’s walking through that door at any point in time right now. There’s a lot of talk. I’ve had discussions with our social team at ESPN … about being a part of our digital coverage there. They do a lot of those Twitter Live shows specifically for college football. … When I’m not traveling, I want to be trying to do as much digitally as possible. I just think there’s endless content to take advantage of. Since I don’t have a regular show like “The Jump” or “Countdown” there’s this vast world I can have a reach in on digital. We kind of did that with our Full-Court Press last year during the (NBA) Finals. We were on ESPN3. Then also ESPNews. We were simulcasting the games with stats. It was a different viewing experience. It was a good experiment and something that we’ll continue to do next year.
SN: What’s the seismic impact of King James joining the Lakers? Are you basically going to set up shop in LA?
CH: Huge. We already did, basically. We have “(NBA) Countdown” back in LA. “The Jump” is out in LA, as it’s always been. We have an incredible team of Dave McMenamin, Ohm Youngmisuk, Ramona Shelburne covering the Lakers. Look, you cannot deny (LeBron) moves the needle in every possible way in the NBA. So we’ll see what’s going to happen as far as how far they can go? I would say it would be strange to not have LeBron in the Finals. But that intrigue alone (is interesting).
I will tell you I am expecting to be taking a lot more West Coast trips this year. There’s only so many Celtics and 76ers games we can do. It’s going to be crazy. As much as following LeBron on the court is going to dictate a lot about what we do with our content on our various shows, as we’ve been seeing in just this short off-season, following LeBron off the court, as far as what he’s doing in and around LA, will be big too. It would not be smart for us to not be paying attention to all of that. … He is more than an athlete. Again, being able to dive in to the personalities and the outside interests of these players only helps fuel and pump up the storylines on the court.
ESPN NBA sideline reporter Cassidy Hubbarth interviews LeBron James. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)
SN: Why are NBA players allowed to speak on politics, but NFL players get hammered?
CH: It starts at the top. Adam Silver has time and time again mentioned we want our athletes to speak out, we want them to have a voice, we want them to use their platform. So when you have leadership not only supporting you in being your own person and owning your voice, but feeling like they’re really giving you this platform to help certain causes and certain social movements … it makes you less fearful to be able to really speak your truth. I just think that’s the No. 1 difference. You feel the support from the top. That goes for any job. When you feel your boss has your back, you’re going to act more fearless. You’re not going to act from a place where you’re worried about getting penalized. I think Adam Silver works closely with the athletes and the players association. I think there’s constant communication. It doesn’t feel like there’s a divide. Knowing Adam Silver and knowing (NBA Deputy Commissioner) Mark Tatum, they are incredible people and great leaders. So I think that just trickles down.
SN: Is the NBA too lopsided? Do we have a league where a couple of teams, including the Warriors, can win the title, but everybody else is an also-ran?
CH: No. You can just see the young talent emerging. Who would have guessed that Donovan Mitchell (of the Jazz) would have been the star he was last year? The Jazz are going to cause a lot of problems. If you want to say there’s a lot of imbalance, you look at the Celtics, and they have a real shot. Then you have the 76ers. If Ben Simmons can take another leap, and Markelle Fultz can play and shoot with confidence, and be a presence on that team — they’re building. Dont forget Giannis Antetokounmpo being the Next Next. Then you have Toronto, who people like to forget about because they’re in Canada. But I just named four teams that you really have to take seriously. Then if you look at the West, there’s the Warriors and then the Rockets and then you have a whole bunch of other teams that can cause some noise.
So to me, the league is in a really good place. For people to argue, “Oh, we already know the Warriors are going to win.” Well, you know what? There’s been dynasties time and time again. I just feel the league is in such a good place because there’s so many budding stars. There’s so much interest on all these different levels. I care about Deandre Ayton and what he’s going to do with Devin Booker (on the Suns). I care about this new draft class. Luka Doncic (of the Mavericks)? People were going crazy about his first preseason game. Sure it’s LeBron, but look at the Lakers preseason game against the Nuggets — on a Sunday night going up against the NFL. They got a 0.8 (TV rating). Granted, that’s LeBron. I just feel like the interest is not slowing down. The teams at the top are great. But also at the bottom; I feel that mostly when I’m at Summer League. That event, if you’ve never gone, that is all the proof you need that the league is alive and well. It is packed. Really, what are we dealing with? Rookies and second-year guys trying to make the team. It’s only grown. That’s why I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
SN: Could the NBA eventually surpass the NFL?
CH: I think Adam Silver has a lot of vision. He see decisions like allowing free marketing such as NBA Twitter. That’s what it is. By loosening the reins on the digital rights a little bit, to allow people to host videos, just gets people more engaged and more connected to the players. This is something I’ve been pitching. Something I would like to take advantage of more at ESPN. Even covering Summer League, the interest is so great. … Yes, you can say the obvious that (NBA players) don’t wear helmets and there’s less of them. But the degree of how intimate you get with the personalities of these players. You understand their facial expressions. You understand their fashion.
On social media, they’re just easier to identify than NFL players. So over time that just creates a more dedicated fan. There’s an ability to relate to these players more than, say, the NFL. There’s just way more of them — and they’re less identifiable on social. I will say I think the NFL this year has been very exciting. The story lines have been good. I’ve noticed on social they’re doing a really good job of allowing video to be posted. It’s good. It’s still not on NBA Twitter level. But that’s hard for the NFL. Especially since really it’s one big day. Whereas the NBA is every night, there’s something fun. … As far as catching up? I don’t know. Right now, as biased as I may be, I still know the NFL is king. I think it’s in the (NFL’s) best interest to really embrace social media. To make their players more personable and put their players first. That’s what’s off-putting about the NFL. It doesn’t feel like the players are made a priority or put first. Whereas the NBA is a star-driven league.
SN: You were mentored by the late, great Stuart Scott. Talk about Stu.
CH: All the stories about what a great friend Stu is are absolutely true. I met Stu maybe in my second year at ESPN. I just met him in the hallways. He said he saw me on a highlight express and thought I had potential. He offered me any kind of support or advice in trying to figure out this place. In connecting with him, our relationship quickly went from an icon helping me learn the ropes to really just a true friendship. He would check in on me all the time, ask how me and my family were. We connected. Obviously, he was battling cancer. I told him my dad went through cancer. He was having a hard time with his daughters, being able to talk to them about it. I told him a story about how when my dad was first diagnosed, I kind of ignored it. I just didn’t want to believe it. Because my dad, to me, was Superman. I just didn’t know how to digest that information. I couldn’t check on him. Didn’t want to. It was my first year away at college that he got diagnosed. I would call him and ask about him. His weight fluctuated. Any kind of change in his appearance just kind of scared me. One year he cut off his beard. I cried, I think he said. I think I was in middle school. …
I remember I told (Scott) that story early on in our relationship. That’s how we connected. He said it just gave him support there because it was hard for him. As you know, his daughters were his life. Being able to hear that perspective really kind of connected us. From that point forward, we were just good friends. We would go out to dinner with him and his girlfriend. We would just check on each other. I’ll tell you, I wish I was a better friend to him. … He was such a beautiful person with such a vibrant spirit. I just appreciated our friendship and the honesty from the beginning. I felt like I could have talked to him forever. Sure, there were times I wish I would have asked him more advice about on-air stuff. But I actually just watched him. There were times where he was in so much pain before the show. Then soon as the red light came on, he would put together a performance like his poetry slam — and give every single bit of him. Then the light would turn off and he was just completely out of every bit of energy he laid out there. It was that type of dedication. He loved it. He was passionate about it. Still, to this day, he motivates me to make sure I give my all in every performance that I do. Then also also how I treat people.
SN: Who are your role models?
CH: Stuart Scott is still the No. 1 person I try to emulate. Then there’s people I learn from. The greatest gift I’ve been given since joining the NBA beat is working closely with Doris Burke. She’s a legend for a reason. She’s nicer than even people describe her to be. She’s probably, outside of Ernie Johnson, the most universally liked and beloved person in sports media. There’s a reason: She treats people with respect. I will talk story lines with her, talk about strategy with her. I worked with her a lot during the regular season, and developed a friendship with her. Not just as colleagues. To be able to talk to her, someone who has really, really earned every single bit. Anybody who thinks she’s just coming on to the scene has no idea how much work she put into doing WNBA, women’s college basketball, men’s college basketball, the NBA, sometimes all at the same time. I can’t really even think of a man who’s done that, to keep track of all the different players. She just loves it and wants to constantly get better. Being able to see someone of her caliber just motivates me.
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