Katie Nolan

The first time I visited Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, the same program that produced Mike Tirico, Bob Costas and Sean McDonough, among other legendary announcers, a tour guide told me, “You don’t get into journalism for the money. You do it for the power.” That’s part of the appeal, sure, but that was never Katie Nolan’s inspiration.

Fame and celebrity were quick to follow (not to mention a seven-figure salary), but Nolan’s unlikely rise to the height of her profession was rooted in passion, showing a fondness for the sillier side of sports, emerging as a prominent female voice in a predominately male field. It helped that she was damn good at it, equal parts hilarious and knowledgeable, offering a welcome reprieve from the stuffy, defiantly self-indulgent old guard that treats sports with the sanctity and reverence of stone tablets chiseled by ancient scholars.

Once seen as a rising star, Nolan’s career has stagnated, confined to a hellish purgatory on the fringes of an industry that abandoned her with the ruthless disregard of a cartoon villain, undermined by a ghoulish corporation that impeded her progress at every turn. “I can always bartend. I feel confident saying that it’s a skill I have and I can always go back to. But why not try to do this thing?” said Nolan, describing the leap of faith she took in 2013, moving to New York to begin her career in sports media. “And so I tried. And I did it. And I [loved] doing it. And then I did it at ESPN for a little, and I loved it a little less.”

After spending the past year in relative obscurity (which came on the heels of a brief stint in Apple’s MLB broadcast booth), Nolan resurfaced last week, giving a revealing interview on Dan Le Batard’s South Beach Sessions. The sprawling, 85-minute discussion left a somber impression, painting the portrait of a world-weary cynic hardened from her experiences in a cruel business, made bitter and broken by a cutthroat network that stifled her creativity.

“A lot of having your own show is navigating the people above you,” said Nolan, resentful of the tense atmosphere that clouded her tenure at ESPN, sparring with a revolving door of close-minded execs who felt more like adversaries than allies. “I was always willing to fight for the thing we needed without ever realizing that if everything you want from the network is a fight, then they’re not going to want you around much.”

More than anything, Nolan is guilty of being a perfectionist, seeking creative control over all aspects of her portfolio including her Emmy-nominated streaming series, Always Late with Katie Nolan. “I’m collaborative,” Nolan insists. “I don’t want to just record and give it to you and then have you make it into something.”

With the exception of her recent win on Celebrity Jeopardy! and the aforementioned Le Batard interview, Nolan, at 36, has largely disappeared from the public consciousness, contemplating her uncertain future in a toxic industry plagued by rampant misogyny and a dangerous aversion to anything that might resemble progress, rewarding conformists who do as their told. “I didn’t know who my boss was. I didn’t know what they wanted me to do,” lamented Nolan, who suspected her time at ESPN was coming to an end when her podcast cohost was laid off without advance warning. “Once sports shut down, I felt like I was going to be first cut.”

Nolan’s story is heartbreaking but all too real, a grim reminder of what’s waiting on the other side for so many bright-eyed up-and-comers graduating from Newhouse and other journalism factories (Medill, Annenburg, etc.), naïve 20-somethings launching headfirst into a career that might not welcome them with open arms.

Nolan, of course, is better off than most, sitting on a comfortable nest egg from her four years with ESPN and subsequent stints at Apple and NBC. “Very few people have the opportunity to not work for long, extended periods of time in their life and just live their life. So I’m very grateful that I’ve had that opportunity,” said Nolan, who recently became engaged to comedian Dan Soder of Billions fame. “I’ve been able to just kind of chill, which is nice and I don’t want to take that for granted. At the same time, it isn’t always easy to chill when your brain is constantly like, ‘What are you doing? Go do work. Go do something. Figure your life out.’”

Nolan could have played it safe, opting for a more traditional 9-5 in her native Boston. Instead, she thrust herself into one of the most competitive industries around, one that requires decidedly thick skin. Some would say any career worth pursuing SHOULD be hard. Viewed through that lens, Nolan’s struggles represent a valuable learning opportunity, arming her with needed resilience as she preps for her inevitable comeback. But, as societal perceptions change about mental health, Nolan’s vulnerability is admirable, giving voice to the frustration and self-doubt so many in sports media feel, working grueling jobs at oppressive salaries in hopes that someday, their sacrifices will be rewarded, giving meaning to an otherwise bleak existence.

“I would always want to fix everything before it went on air. And they were like, ‘You got to let an idea fail.’ That’s my Hell,” said Nolan. “Performing somebody else’s something, knowing that I don’t like it but don’t have time to fix it, knowing other people aren’t going to like it and that it’s going to be perceived as a failure of mine? Why would I do that? It sounds miserable. But it is the way that things get done. You just have to go make a thing that isn’t your favorite thing every time. Not everything can be your best piece of content you’ve ever made in your life. And you just have to accept that.”

It speaks to our corporate culture that someone as talented as Nolan could have her confidence shattered so thoroughly, made to feel small by close-minded bean-counters blinded by their own tunnel vision. Suffering shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a career in media. That school of thought would be easier to justify if the companies in question were truly meritocracies. Instead, boardrooms, by and large, are determined by survival instincts and office politics, rewarding yes men who keep their heads down and don’t rock the boat. Nolan, you could argue, is a victim of her own ambition, craving a structure and purpose that ESPN never provided her.

“They’re not going to pay me all that money and not give me stuff to do,” Nolan reasoned, wrongly assuming ESPN had a blueprint in place. “Even the press release when they announced I was going to work there, the quote I gave was making fun of how vague it was that they would not really tell me what I was going to do. It should have been a red flag.”

It’s an indictment of ESPN’s leadership that the higher-ups in Bristol never found a role that suited Nolan, leaving her creatively unfulfilled. Call it sour grapes if you want, but Nolan unquestionably deserved better and so did viewers, wasting her versatility and charm on low-budget fare like Highly Questionable (which, for a campy time-filler, was plenty entertaining) and SportsCenter updates on Snapchat. Still, this problem is hardly unique to ESPN, with most of the industry succumbing to lazy groupthink, trying to ward off outside threats from streaming and social media through downsizing and other temporary maneuvers. What’s resulted is a dearth of fresh ideas, leaving little room for Nolan and others to spread their wings in a shrinking content space.

ESPN has squandered other talents (Bomani Jones’ name immediately comes to mind), but Nolan represents one of the network’s bigger missed opportunities, both as a leading female voice and a gifted satirist with impeccable timing. Similar to Le Batard, Nolan, when given the right platform, can monologue with the best of them, deftly balancing humor with poignant commentary on everything from Ray Rice’s domestic violence scandal to Madison Bumgarner’s Bud Light consumption during the Giants’ World Series run.

Nolan’s raw remarks clearly come from a place of hurt, damaged by her experiences at ESPN and especially Apple, where the online abuse was so vicious she stopped speaking during one of her broadcasts, effectively bullied into silence. It’s an aching reminder of what public figures, particularly women, deal with on a daily basis, absorbing our collective angst as token punching bags for the Twitter mob.

As someone who has experienced his own peaks and valleys as a writer seeking approval and recognition from an audience that is much quicker to insult than praise, my own definition of success is fluid, striving to enjoy the process and not worry about “making it.” It’s not a philosophy I arrived at overnight, nor am I immune to the whispers of fear and uncertainty that ring my doorbell as unannounced guests, party crashers looting my brain for any morsel of doubt.

Maybe there’s a happy medium to be had, setting healthy boundaries between work and everything that happens outside the office. Self-discovery is an important process and one that Nolan is just beginning. Her trauma is real, a painful consequence, not only of her own impossibly high standards, but of a flawed industry that rarely accounts for others’ feelings, throwing money at problems without truly fixing them. Surely better days are ahead for Nolan. As for sports media? Time will tell.

[South Beach Sessions]

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.