Lake Forest native Sarah Spain's determination (and passion for sports!) has made her one of Chicago medias rising stars.
Photograph by Jon Cancelino
A self-proclaimed big dreamer, Sarah Spain isn’t completely shocked that her voice can be heard daily on ESPN 1000 and that she can be seen weekly on WGN. The Lake Forest native’s cheeky wit, undying love of sports, and relentless determination to succeed have taken her from coast to coast and landed her just where she wanted to be—back at home reporting on the city she loves.
This spring was full of new opportunities for this up-and-coming broadcaster. Sarah is currently a contributor to WGN’s new half-hour local food, lifestyle, and entertainment show, Chicago’s Best, which premiered at 10 p.m. on April 16. “It’s geared toward everyday Chicago people,” Sarah explains. “We highlight the places in Chicago neighborhoods that all Chicagoans may not know about because they don’t live there.” Sarah got the job without even applying; the general manager of CLTV had followed her career and sent her information over to the producer. Ted Brunson, who worked on networks like TLC and Fox Sports Net in the past, and Brittney Payton, Walter Payton’s daughter and a recent communications graduate from DePaul, join Sarah on the program. “We all get to cover a variety of topics on the show and see a lot of Chicago that we didn’t know about before,” Sarah says.
She also recently secured a job as an anchor and reporter on ESPN 1000’s SportsCenter from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the week. She’ll break in with live sports updates throughout the afternoon as well as create videos for www.espnchicago.com. “There really aren’t any female voices on ESPN 1000, so I will be the only one, and I’m going to make sure my voice is heard,” she says.
Sarah’s love for sports began at Lake Forest High School, where she ran track and played basketball and field hockey. She continued to run track at Cornell University in New York. “It’s funny because people always think that my dad was a huge sports fan who dragged me to games. But neither of my parents is big into sports,” she says with a laugh. “Growing up, sports was a very big part of our lives because [my sister and I] were good at them.” Now that she’s in the locker room interviewing players on a regular basis, Sarah believes her time playing sports really helps her empathize with them. “While I didn’t play at a professional level, I understand the sacrifices and the time a sport can consume.”
With all her focus on sports in high school and college, she realized once she graduated from Cornell with an English degree that she wanted to pursue acting. After moving home briefly, Sarah packed up for L.A. to see if it was a feasible option. While out there for six years, she took classes in acting, improvisational comedy, and journalism while bulking up her résumé. It was a class in television sports reporting at UCLA Extension that ultimately put her on her current track. One of the class’s guest speakers was the Senior VP at Fox Sports Net. “After his presentation, I said, ‘I’m taking you out to lunch and you’re going to give me a job at Fox Sports. I don’t care if it’s entry level; I want to get my foot in the door,’” she remembers. He gave her a job as a production assistant and she was soon bumped up to producing. In the meantime, Sarah also wrote for the Chicago Tribune RedEye from the West Coast.
She really got her big break from a PR stunt she did to get Bears Super Bowl tickets in 2006. She and her friends planned to go together, but after Sarah bought her plane ticket to Miami, they all backed out. She quickly discovered all the tickets online were far out of her price range and got an idea to pull a publicity stunt for some free tickets. “Without really knowing what I was doing, my boss joked, ‘Why don’t you go on eBay?” she explains. After putting herself on the site as a date to the game, she sent out a bunch of messages to radio stations for publicity. The next day she woke up to nearly 500 e-mail responses and concerned messages from friends who had heard about it on the news saying, “Spain, what are you doing?”
The weeks following, she did about 80 interviews with major news outlets and ended up with four free game tickets, airfare, and a hotel stay. While it was unintentional, the whole thing turned into a huge career move for Sarah. “I was very aware the entire time that I was presenting myself to people with whom I would like to eventually work, whether it was ESPN or WGN,” she remembers. “So I was always sure to carry myself in a manner that I thought was ‘me’ and reaffirm that I was truly a sports fan who had thought of something creative as opposed to someone looking for 15 minutes of fame.”
When, after more than three years at Fox Sports in L.A., she decided to move back to Chicago, Sarah already possessed a Rolodex of local contacts from her Super Bowl stunt. “I thought I’d much rather be working in sports covering the teams that I always loved in the city that’s absolutely crazy about sports. Sports are sort of secondary to entertainment in L.A.,” she explains about her decision. Sarah continued working with the Tribune Company and got a job with Mouthpiece Sports doing reporting, producing, and marketing.
As she transitions into her new job at ESPN, she is certainly conscious of the challenges ahead of her as a female sports reporter. “It’s very difficult for people to accept attractive women in the sports world,” she explains. “I do my best to try and make it clear that I know what I’m talking about and I’m not trying to look like a supermodel when I’m covering sports.” And while she points out that being a woman may have both helped and hindered her progress in the past, it’s definitely her moxie that has gotten her this far. “While my path has meandered, I think I have always moved toward my aspirations,” Sarah says.