Cassidy Hubbarth, the host of ESPN’s NBA Tonight and NBA Coast to Coast, did not take the most traditional path to becoming one of the network’s rising younger anchors.
Along the way, Hubbarth, 31, was a weekend traffic reporter for Traffic.com, a site that contributed information to Chicago’s local NBC affiliate.
“Even though I lived in Chicago, I’m horrible at directions. Horrible,” Hubbarth told Awful Announcing in a wide-ranging interview. “So my friends would make fun of me and my family would make fun of me that I’m the worst traffic reporter possible because I couldn’t tell people an alternate route.”
Hubbarth came into ESPN with more of a production, behind-the-scenes background as opposed to the more common on-air background that anchors usually possess. So you could say she took the alternate route that she had trouble describing to her weekend viewers in Chicago.
Things seem to be looking up for Hubbarth. The NBA hired her to be the in-house host for last week’s NBA Draft Lottery in New York, giving her the tough task of moving along a half-hour program where everyone in the room just wants to see the order for the June 23 draft.
“The tension was real,” she said. “It could have been, seriously, LeBron, Kobe, whoever up there. The point of that night was to find out the order.”
The fact Hubbarth was even on that midtown Manhattan stage shows how far she’s come. She grew up in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., during the 1990’s Michael Jordan era, which helped shape her love for basketball, especially her hometown Bulls.
“Any kind of successful team when you’re a kid, you get molded when you’re young,” she said. “So my heart, while it was growing physically, was growing with the Bulls.”
Hubbarth’s whole family watched Bulls games together and also rooted hard for the Bears and Cubs. She remembers watching the Bulls and her mother screaming “like a banshee” at the television “at every little play.”
But her interest in covering sports did not come from watching the Bulls, nor did it come specifically from basketball. It stemmed from sports reporting itself, most notably the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show.
When Hubbarth was in middle school, she would come home on Sunday after church and brunch and watch James Brown and the whole crew. But the person who really drew her in was Pam Oliver, who conducted pregame interviews and features.
“I just remember watching her and thinking ‘wow, that’s something that I would love to do,’” Hubbarth said. “Interact with players and cover them, tell interesting stories about these athletes that I so enjoy watching.”
Her mind was made up. She wanted to be a sports broadcaster. That interest took her through high school, where she signed up for the radio, television and film club and called the boys basketball and soccer games.
Things got a little more tricky when it came to college. In Hubbarth’s own words, she came from humble means, but her parents were always supportive and helped her attend the University of Illinois in Champaign after receiving a lot of financial aid. But after one year, she knew it wasn’t the right place for her and that she’d be better suited at home.
For those who may not know, Hubbarth’s hometown of Evanston is also the home of Northwestern University. And Northwestern’s Medill school of broadcasting and journalism is one of the best programs in the country. It’s also really expensive.
“My parents really had no business signing on to sending me to such an expensive school like Northwestern, but they figured it out. Somehow they figured it out,” Hubbarth said. “My mom knew I wanted to be in this business, and she found a way to allow me to go to one of the best schools in the country.”
Hubbarth graduated from Medill in 2007 and got two jobs right away from the program’s job fair. The first was her aforementioned foray into traffic reporting, which she did early in the mornings. The second was a 9-5 job for a company called InterSport, which worked with Sprint to create on-demand content, like short videos, for its users.
Hubbarth was a production assistant and ultimately grew into an on-air role. That’s how she put together a reel, and she was then introduced to her first agent. After the market crashed and InterSport let her go after Sprint discontinued its service, Hubbarth got a job as an associate producer at Comcast SportsNet Chicago, cutting highlights and writing pieces.
“Basically, that was my grad school,” she said.
Hubbarth then got what she considers her big break, allowing her to leave Traffic.com. Fox Sports South, based in Atlanta, hired her to be on air hosting a show called SEC Gridiron Live with Charles Davis, David Pollack and Randy Cross. Her weekly schedule sounded a lot like any other big time studio show host.
She’d fly down on Wednesday from Chicago to Atlanta, tape the show on a Thursday, travel to a different SEC school on Friday and Saturday, fly back to Chicago on Sunday and then work Monday and Tuesday at CSN Chicago.
In addition to her hosting duties at Fox Sports, Hubbarth also produced social media content for the show, which she helped win a Southeast Emmy for social media engagement. The skills she learned still carry over to what she does today at ESPN.
After freelancing a bit for the Big Ten Network, Hubbarth was about to accept a full-time offer from the company when ESPN called in 2010, asking if she wanted to audition. She was hired as an independent contractor to host halftime shows of various simulcasts along other digital pieces for ESPN3, which ultimately became the Watch ESPN app.
“I wasn’t hired through the talent department,” she said, and her background in production— or as what she called digital talent— rather than on camera may have held her back in her early days at the company.
“Within ESPN, there’s definitely a hierarchy,” Hubbarth said. “And I still think even though the evolution of people understanding how important digital is, especially for the future of our business, I think there were some people looking at me like I didn’t have the traditional experience to be considered a trustworthy anchor early on in my career here. So it really was a long journey to prove to the executives here that you could trust me to put me on air.”
It was a long two years before ESPN hired her full time in 2012. Hubbarth went all the way up the hosting ladder, working SportsCenter editions in the Pacific Rim and Europe before getting the attention of higher-ups at ESPNews.
“I actually probably got more experience hosting a plethora of shows than, I think, some of the other anchors here because of my experience of trying to get in where I could fit in,” she said. “How else can I get better? How else can I gain more trust from the people that are decision makers?”
Hubbarth has now gained enough trust to host NBA Tonight and Coast to Coast, where she puts her social media skills and her lifelong love of the NBA to work. She now appreciates how her production background helped aid her creativity, as it still does, she said, and enables her to be more hands-on in those aspects of her current shows.
“I think it’s just given me a certain skill-set I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Hubbarth said, though she understands why it held her back early in her career.
Part of that skill-set is her ability to use Twitter, where Hubbarth has over 65,000 followers, as a tool both on and off the air.
“When I’m watching games I’m making sure that I’m paying attention to the conversation going on on basketball Twitter to make sure we’re having the right conversations,” Hubbarth said, “that we have the right video, that we’re not missing anything that goes on.”
The NBA is the best-positioned league in American professional sports to benefit from the current social media landscape, which is so dominated by Vines, GIFs, short videos and those ubiquitous Crying Jordan memes. So Hubbarth does her part to stay on top of things and not have a corny or played out voice or perspective on all the latest news, issues and trending topics.
Whatever she’d doing in terms of social media, it seems to be working; not just for her regular viewers, but for Hubbarth’s famous Twitter followers like DeAndre Jordan and Damian Lillard.
“It’s cool when certain players follow me, because that makes me feel like wow, guys are actually watching and caring about what we’re saying and take time to watch the show,” Hubbarth said.
As for what’s next, Hubbarth would love to do more sideline reporting work in addition to her current hosting duties.
“I know there’s still a lot of room to grow,” she said. “Right now, I just want to keep building a foundation where people know they’re getting knowledgeable and entertaining coverage of the NBA.”
At a relatively young age, it seems like Hubbarth is ready and eager for an expanded role in ESPN’s NBA coverage across its many platforms.