BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- As we have learned during this 40/40 celebration, many success stories have emerged from the Southeastern Conference. While up to this point we have featured some of the stories themselves, today we turn our attention to those that cover the news in this league.
In this special "40/40" Q&A, we sat down with ESPN's Cara Capuano. Capuano has had a decorated career at the Worldwide Leader, and has played an integral role in telling the stories of the Southeastern Conference. In this wide-ranging sit down, we cover her history, while also touching on what makes the SEC a special league.
What made you choose a career in sports journalism? Was that your focus in college? What was it about sports reporting that appealed to you?
A career in sports journalism couldn't have been a further departure from my college training, which focused on a major in Biochemistry and Cell Biology with an emphasis on Teacher Education. I was on a PhD track at UCLA, with the goal of becoming a Biology professor at the community college level. Realistically, my passion for sports - and the burning desire to work in sports broadcasting - had already drawn me away from that path when I chose to attend graduate school at UCLA (in the sports-rich market of Los Angeles) over an elite, prestigious Cancer Biology program at Stanford (how elite? It accepts four PhD candidates per year.) My parents joke that was when they first knew I was heading in a different professional direction - because the scientist/future educator in me wouldn't have made that decision.
Sports reporting appealed to me because I was a gigantic sports fan and found myself not totally identifying with the female sportscasters I'd watch on TV. I enjoyed the former female athletes and coaches (and at that time, there weren't many), but I didn't share their experiences or expertise. Many other female sportscasters back then who didn't have that "past sports history" qualification rarely convinced me that they were really that into sports. It felt like the industry was in desperate need of female sportscasters who are like myself: the approachable, friendly "girl next door," who wants to sit down and watch a game and have an in-depth, intense and *gasp* intelligent chat about it... high-fiving along with the thrills of victory and wallowing in those heartbreaking moments of defeat. Over time, I've switched from being a fan of certain teams and players to being a fan of the great games and amazing performances, but my emotional attachment to the experience of sports is strong as ever. I genuinely love that I changed career paths and even in the face of sometimes daunting adversity, I've never regretted it.
When you first entered the business in the late 1990s, what was coverage of women's sports like? How much time was spent focusing on women's sports in local and other broadcasts you were a part of?
My first experience in the business in 1996 was as a production assistant and, eventually, fill-in producer with the sports department of a local station in Los Angeles, a market already teeming with the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Angels, Kings and Ducks - not to mention then-Pac-10 powers USC and UCLA.
When you consider local sportscasters were getting about 3 minutes per newscast to tell their stories, it didn't leave a lot of room for women's sports. That said, I am proud to say I was in attendance at the very first WNBA game - at the Great Western Forum, between the New York Liberty and L.A. Sparks. Penny Toler, now GM of the Sparks franchise, scored the first basket in WNBA history, and I interviewed her about it afterward (needless to say, I was off-camera and simply holding the microphone - but the soundbite made our newscast that night!)
In a market of that size, with so many major pro teams to cover, women's sports were not a priority. Our weekend sportscaster was a great storyteller and loved to find unique features. Some of those spotlighted women, like focusing on the WNBA debut and meeting the Sparks... or the latest from the Beach Volleyball Circuit or if one of the women's collegiate teams or athletes was having immense success (like when Tina Thompson and Pam McGee of USC were named the #1 and #2 overall picks in the WNBA draft in '97).
When I took my first on-air position in 1998 in Bozeman, MT, I was the entire sports department at our tiny FOX affiliate. You can bet I tried to work in plenty of stories about women's sports there (though, admittedly, the top priorities in that market were Montana State football and men's basketball and the Bozeman Ice Dogs, our Junior A hockey team.) Honest answer: working women's sports into local sports broadcasts continues to be a challenge, no matter the size of the audience. More fans in a market usually translates into more teams to focus on - which creates trying to balance of sharing coverage time, while also delivering the stories with the highest overall appeal.
You have served in many different roles during your sports career. What is your favorite? Do you enjoy play-by-play more, or behind the desk or out in the field on the sideline?
I hate to take what some may see as the scapegoat answer of, "I love it all!" but I genuinely do. What I mean by that is, I love to *do* it all. I relish diversity in the craft. I've held positions where I was primarily a studio host (as with ESPN from 2000-2004) and others where I did more reporting (like the four MLB seasons I spent covering the Mariners for FSN Northwest... sometimes I'd work with the home team on game day or in creating long-form feature stories; I'd often be assigned to reporting on whichever team was in the visiting clubhouse at Safeco Field. In the end, that was a whole lot of baseball for a professional with as diverse interests I have. I was always elated when they'd send me to cover the Seattle Storm when the M's were on a road trip!)
Honestly, that's what so amazing about my current position with ESPN: it's a magnificent amalgamation of everything I've loved during my career. First and foremost, it's college athletics. I get to watch and discuss sports played at an impressively high level, by gifted young people who are balancing athletics with attaining their education. They're still finding out who they are - on the field and off - and to be witness to that discovery is often spellbinding.
My year starts roaming the sidelines of SEC football games, with a front row ticket to some of the most fierce and fantastic football in all the land. I then get to showcase the talents of remarkable female student-athletes via women's basketball - which becomes more competitive and thrilling by the season (I called Brittney Griner's first dunk of her junior campaign!) and softball - which, to me, is a sport that women absolutely rule.
The Women's College World Series, which concluded with Alabama's fourth national championship and the SEC's seventh THIS SCHOOL YEAR, was a stellar example of that prowess. In each season, I get to talk about incredible groups who are in competition, in the classroom and in their communities. At this point, I've seen and done a lot in sports broadcasting and I can say, without hesitation, I'm finally enjoying my "dream job."
Is there one SEC story, or SEC event, that sticks out the most in your time covering the league?
This may be the most unfair question I've ever been asked. The immediate rush of memories and possible answers has totally overwhelmed me. So many events and stories in the SEC have left indelible marks on me each year, and I'm only through my third year primarily covering the league! Where do I begin? As a result, what really sticks out is not a story or event, but the people.
Working with this league, I've been honored to cross paths with the best of the best. I'm hardly limiting that qualification to Hall of Fame coaches like Nick Saban or Pat Summitt or exceptional student-athletes like Tim Tebow, Glory Johnson and Charlotte Morgan. I'm including all the assistant coaches, each team's role players, the phenomenal men and women on the support staffs, especially those who serve as liaisons between teams/schools and the media.
I'm also thinking about the incomparable staff at the conference office and a giant web of talented, generous, friendly media peers I've met along the way. I've never been associated with a group of people who should be "competing" against each other that have a knack at making the experience feel so familial. The immense level of mutual respect that goes into being a part of the SEC is simply awe-inspiring. It trickles down to all of us and is what I'll always remember about this professional experience. By the time my first year was complete, I had formed relationships with an eclectic variety of people who truly touched and shaped my life.
Each year since, that list changes and grows and reinforces why this was always the right career choice for me. The connections are unbreakable and the sports are awesome. That's what I think of when I hear the "S-E-C! S-E-C!" chant ring out at an event.
When did coverage of women's sports really begin to take off at ESPN? Can you shed some light on what those days were like as programming began to evolve?
As a consumer of women's sports during that stage in my career, I can't really pinpoint when women's sports coverage began to take off at ESPN. I'm horrible with dates, but what I do remember are events. I believe nearly 18 million viewers tuned into ABC to see the Women's World Cup in 1999, when Team USA won on native soil (and I know you just pictured Brandi Chastain's reaction on scoring the final penalty kick!)
That level of interest (still the highest-viewed) sparked someone in programming to consider showing audiences more elite women's sports, that I can assure you! ESPN's commitment to showing every game of the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship was another major push toward prioritizing coverage of the biggest events in women's athletics. Continued support of the WNBA is another - did you catch the blowout coverage of the WNBA draft this year? Reporters in several cities, along with a host, two analysts and a reporter in the announcement room to gather immediate reaction from the top 10-15 prospects in attendance, all headquartered in Bristol, CT: that was really something to see!
ESPN's growing exposure of the NCAA Softball Championship is another feather in its cap... showing the finals of the Women's College World Series grew into showing every game from Oklahoma City... now, fans can also see every pitch from the Super Regional round AND there were three Regionals available as well this year- via ESPN/ESPN2, ESPNU and ESPN3. Add women's college soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and NCAA championships like those of gymnastics and track to the list and the availability of options is larger than it has ever been.
Most people associate your work with the SEC Network, or through covering SEC games/events. Is that a choice you made or did it just work out that you became more involved with the Southeastern Conference?
That is actually a choice that ESPN made, in conjunction with the Southeastern Conference. From my understanding, when the blockbuster fifteen-year deal between ESPN and the SEC was reached, the league was consulted on talent hires for a variety of its programming.
Imagine a boardroom filled with decision makers from both sides, a stack of resume DVDs and a TV, followed by an exhaustive round of evaluations and discussions. None of us (and I don't only mean "people in TV" - I mean anyone, in any business!) are ever truly privy to knowing what led to our hiring, but I will share one of my fondest memories.
The first time I met Commissioner Slive at SEC Football Media Days in 2009, he shook my hand, smiled and said, "I picked you." From what I'd heard from the rumors about those meetings, I had a pretty good idea what he meant. He then added a few lines of explanation to reinforce that I was right. The SEC "picking me" will forever be one of my proudest moments as a professional.
How much has your job changed during your time at ESPN? What is expected of you now that perhaps wasn't when you began your career in Bristol?
My first tenure with ESPN came with a far different list of responsibilities than I have in my current position. From 2000-2004, I was primarily a studio anchor, mostly working 2-3 hours shifts on ESPNews, sometimes showing up on SportsCenter, and then during the last two years of my contract, expanding my role to include a handful (eight to ten) of women's basketball play by play assignments.
Based in Bristol, CT, I rarely left the Northeast, unless it was for one of those few remote assignments. In my new role with ESPN, mostly in association with ESPNU and ESPN Regional Television, I spend a majority of my time during the "academic year" on the road, traveling every week to remote assignments. The balance of studio work to field work has totally flip-flopped.
Now, if I do get an assignment in studio, it's typically for a specialty show, like interviewing all 64 coaches in the field of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament or looking ahead to a new season or championship event for the SEC Network. The expectations when one works for ESPN never change: we work with the best and we always try our best. There is a level of commitment, integrity, intelligence, creativity and tenacity that is associated with colleagues at ESPN that I've never experienced anywhere else - and that is a big part of why I returned.
I've always been the kind of person who takes deep pride in her work, but being surrounded by a group who is doing the same tends to ratchet up my own expectations and, in turn, performance to another level. From what I've now told you about working for ESPN and working with the SEC, you can only imagine how much I love the challenge presented to me every day.
What advice would you give a student, who like yourself, decides that working in sports is what they want to do? How do you get your foot in the door?
I could write a whole page on this topic! (And, believe me, I have.) Working in the SEC, at a different college each week, brings me into contact with a lot of young people who ask me these same questions. I'll try to be brief and list some simple tips.
Long ago, my Dad set out his "3 P's" to success, in any endeavor: be patient, positive and persistent. As it applies to working in sports, I add a fourth P: passion. If you work in sports, you're working when other people are enjoying the sports (read: nights, weekends and holidays.) It's the most fun work I could ever imagine, but it is hard work and it comes with its share of sacrifices. Those are balanced by rewards many other people don't enjoy in their careers (too many to list - but if you're truly into it, you'll love each and every one.)
Perhaps most importantly, you owe it to yourself and your own development to take time on each rung on the career ladder. What happens if you try to carelessly run up a ladder? At some point, you'll miss a rung and fall. A potentially dangerous fall. Don't take that chance. Honor your first small market job, appreciate all the skills you're learning along the way, get the practice you need to be an expert on each step and work your way up.
To have success working in sports, you have to love it, you have to go after it, and you have to be your own best advocate. Every person you meet might introduce you to another person who can give you an opportunity, so making terrific first impressions is crucial.
This sounds simple but a reminder never hurts: treat others like you want to be treated.
At the end of the day, if you're very lucky, you'll prove that old adage true: if you love what you do for a living, it will never feel like work. Case in point: Super Regional Sunday in Columbia, Missouri. After calling a 12-inning epic between LSU and Mizzou, which went almost four hours, we dug deep to call the decisive game three only thirty minutes later.
Got to the Softball Complex at noon, left at 9:30 p.m., just to make a 2-hour drive to St. Louis, so that we could catch 7 a.m. flights. Bedraggled and mentally exhausted, I sang along to my favorite stations on satellite radio (a must on the road!) the entire length of the drive, in between chatting animatedly with my Dad (who watched it all) and my analyst about the wonderment in both games.
Among our highlights from the day: a career-high 17 strikeouts for LSU senior Brittany Mack, who was matched inning for inning by Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas... remarkable plays in the field from both teams... and the dynamite display of LSU's center fielder Simone Heyward - on defense and offense - that complimented another gem by NFCA first-team All-American Rachele Fico in game 3. If that sounds like too much work, you might want to try something else. For those of us who love it, those are the days we live for. I can't wait for the next one!