Cari Champion is contemplating a catchphrase. In a small corner office on ESPN’s 1.2 million square ft. Bristol, Connecticut campus, Cari has just finished recording a new episode of her “Be Honest” podcast. On Thursday (July 30), she officially became an anchor on the worldwide leader in sports’ staple program, SportsCenter. Today, she’s a bit worried about coming up with a one-liner for her debut.
“I need one,” she says. “It’ll come, right? Remember in This Is It when Michael Jackson was like, ‘I’ll just feel it’? I’ll just feel it. I don’t know what it will be, but it won’t be anything à la Stuart [Scott] because that is hallowed ground. He’s perfect.”
For nearly three years, Cari sat sandwiched in between talking heads Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on ESPN2’s “First Take.” She never seemed to break a sweat as the pundits argued hot topics at the debate desk daily. Her popularity peaked on the program, and while Skip and Stephen A.’s back-and-forth banter boosted viewership, Cari was the centerpiece.
Last month, producers tapped Cari for a full-time slot on SportsCenter, marking a milestone moment in her career.
“It’s the flagship, it’s the thing you do here,” she says. “It’s an honor for them to say, ‘You’ve been chosen and you can do it.’ Everyone isn’t afforded the opportunity. For ESPN investing in me, it’s a huge deal. It makes me humble, extremely grateful, and if you just step back and look at it, you’re like, ‘How did this little girl from Pasadena do this?’ ”
Days before her SC debut, EBONY.com caught up with Cari Champion at ESPN’s headquarters to talk about her new promotion, her affinity for Big Sean and more.
EBONY: On a recent “Be Honest” episode, “The Announcement”, you mention knowing as a little girl that you wanted to be on ESPN. How did you know at such a young age?
Cari Champion: I knew when I was 7 years old this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t vocalize it that way. I grew up in West L.A. and a group of us kids decided to clean up our neighborhood. We just grabbed brooms, and started cleaning because we thought it’d be a good project and we had no idea what we were doing. Summertime, nothing to do, we were not involved in activities, so we were just cleaning.
Somehow, a local news station got a hold of it and they came out and they filmed us. When you’re 7, you don’t get it. I got home and watched the news that night. We waited until the very end of the newscast. It was me and my mom and I sat in front of the TV, and I thought to myself, “That’s really cool that they had great news about Black kids doing something amazing,” so I was like, everything doesn’t have to be bad, it can be good.
So I at that moment was like, I want to tell stories. I want to be a part of something good. Whatever that feeling was I got from watching myself on television and watching the good that came, the good publicity as I know now, I wanted to do that.
I obviously had much more of an affinity towards sports. If you would’ve said, “This is how your career is going to work,” I would’ve been able to say, “No thanks.’” I literally had no idea it would come out this way. It was already written, it was destined. How I got the job, how I ended up on SportsCenter, it was just destined. And I know that I had a vision of creating a platform to show other little brown girls this is the way to be. You can work hard you can have your dreams and you can pursue it.
EBONY: You talked about reaching your ceiling at First Take and it was time to part your wings.
CC: SportsCenter is like the mothership; people want to be on SportsCenter. It’s the flagship, it’s the thing you do here. We put most of our resources into it. It’s an honor to be on it, it has created legends. I have big shoes to fill. People that have done it previous to me have gone on to do some bigger things, some huge things. It’s an honor for them to say you’ve been chosen and you can do it. Everyone isn’t afforded the opportunity. For ESPN, investing in me it’s a huge deal. It makes me humble, extremely grateful, and if you just step back and look at it, you’re like, how did this little girl from Pasadena do this? I’m excited about it and I’m watching it unfold.
EBONY: Do you remember how you felt the moment when you found out you got the job?
CC: I didn’t believe it. I was looking around and I was like, “seriously?” And they were like, “Yeah.” It’s almost like when you ask for something, you ask for something, you want it, you know that you can achieve it and be a part of it. It still hasn’t set in. It won’t set in that I am a SportsCenter anchor until I do my very first show. When my show is over, I’m going to sit back and watch it and be like, OK.
EBONY: What role did Big Sean play in your decision to leave First Take and join SportsCenter?
CC: I love Big Sean. The decision was already made. Have you listened to Dark Sky Paradise? “All Your Fault” is one of my favorites, but the entire album is about how hard he had to grind. Even when he made it, he still has to work to improve himself, but it keeps him hungry, it keeps him ready to do more. I can relate to all of it. All of us can.
Like, you probably have some dream in your mind, “this is where I want to be.” But you have to work hard and you have to maintain it once you get there. So everything he said, just like his father said, he speaks from his heart, you feel his passion. You feel how much he cares about the craft. You feel how he wants to be legendary. He still works at his craft. All of that I can relate to.
It’s just the hunger, because you feel you have a message. You don’t know why you have a message, you don’t know why you were chosen, and you don’t know what it is. The point of the matter is, I can relate to it and I feel it. I honestly feel like what we do as journalists, hairstylists, producers, rappers, anybody, it’s an art. I appreciate his art and what he’s saying. I’m like, I get it, I understand.
EBONY: How have other SportsCenter female anchors, such as Linda Cohn, Robin Roberts, Hannah Storm and Sage Steele, influenced you?
CC: I remember when I first came here to ESPN. I was intimidated. I would see them in the halls, and I’d be like, “hi, how are you?” They were all friendly, but there wasn’t a relationship until I purposely forged one. I purposely went after Linda, and Hannah and Jemele [Hill]. I tried to create relationships. I wanted to talk to them. I wanted to get their advice, get their insight. I wanted to know how they were able to make it look so easy, but I know it’s not. But they made it look so effortless. I wanted to know how they went about it and they were all very interesting and then, ultimately, friendships formed. I consider Linda a really good friend of mine. She’s a solid woman, and she’s so smart and still very tough. She has that New York swagger about her and still a heart as big of the world.
EBONY: Why did you consider your position at First Take the “toughest job in the building”?
CC: It’s one of those things where you have to find your way. You have to make your way. It’s about coming into national prominence and adjusting and figuring out how to be yourself, but still deliver the information in a way people understand. They are much more familiar with your counterparts, so you have to make your own way in a place that’s already established. It’s almost like being a rookie. You go to training camp, and you see Tom Brady. It’s just establishing yourself in a place that is already established. I mean, this is the worldwide leader. You have to be able to adjust to your circumstances. For anybody change is hard and tough. You have to be able to say “this is who I am” and figure out your own lane. I’m grateful I was able to do that.
EBONY: Talk about your passion project, the “Be Honest” podcast.
CC: I love this podcast because I get to talk to people that are just like me and you and everyday folks. You think they’re not available or as simple as we are; same simple life lessons. It’s just another way to look at sports and entertainment. I think all podcasts nowadays, they can be x’s and o’s and sometimes people are looking to hear other things. For instance, if you want to broaden your audience, I think women are the way to go. I also think you should get minorities who want to give different pov’s. I always try to make it conversational and a life lesson. I really try to talk to people who will be honest about their life and what they’re going through, because you don’t know who it could help.
EBONY: I definitely notice the inspirational undertones in a lot of the episodes.
CC: Yeah, of course, I have to. SportsCenter sometimes is like x’s and o’s. I want to share other things. We’re not going to have Big Sean on SportsCenter. We could, but it won’t be about tell me about your latest music. It’s another way for the sports fan to digest sports and enjoy sports commentary in a very different way. We have a lot of podcasts that are trending that way. You don’t have to be conventional, which is the beauty of working here at ESPN. If we are the best restaurant in town, we should be able to serve everything for everybody, and that’s what we offer. If we are the best in sports, we should be able to service all of our fans, not just some of our fans, because everyone has different tastes.
EBONY: Have you come up with a catchphrase for SportsCenter yet?
CC: No, not yet. I need one. It’ll come right? Remember in This Is It when Michael Jackson was like, “I’ll just feel it”? I’ll just feel it. I don’t know what it will be, but it won’t be anything à la Stuart [Scott] because that is hallowed ground, he’s perfect. It’ll be something that is just unique to me. Now you put more pressure on me! As you said that, little butterflies right now. I was like, “Aw shoot, I haven’t thought about that.” I need to come up with something. I’m going to go home and think about one. I need a catchphrase.