This week we’re featuring ESPN Senior Publicist Gianina Thompson. She is ESPN’s point person for company statements about the NBA and MLB, but her favorite part of the job is pitching stories to promote ESPN’s on-air talent. Read on to find out why Gianina became interested in working in sports, what a typical day at ESPN looks like, and what stereotypes and misconceptions she had to battle against as a woman working in a male-dominated field.
Q: As someone who didn’t get into sports until later in life, I’m always curious how other people became interested in sports. What is your earliest sports memory and when did you know that you wanted to work in sports?
A: I was a military brat—minus the brat of course—but with my dad being a Brooklyn-native, it didn’t matter that we weren’t in New York because he would constantly have a NY sports team playing on TV— specifically the Knicks, Yankees, and of course the Giants! But I wouldn’t pinpoint those moments as the reason I wanted to work in sports.
It was in college where I really found my motivation to pursue a career in the sports industry, especially as a Division I college athlete rowing on the crew team where I witnessed and experienced things outside of just being a sports fan. My master’s thesis focused on how and why male college athletes aspire to play their sport professionally more than female college athletes. It seems like an obvious idea, but I explored the “why” and “how” by looking at the influence of several factors like fans, media, networks, sponsors and funding in college sports programs and leagues, ratings, viewership and more.
Q: You currently work as a Senior Publicist at ESPN, but previously you worked in other sports related positions, including Public Relations at the Washington Redskins, and as the lead writer at Bonfire Impact (a social impact news website started by a former NFL player). Even though things are starting to change, working in sports is still a predominantly male field. What was it like starting out as a woman? Were there particular challenges you faced?
A: There are definitely challenges as a woman in the sports industry and especially those who are first starting out. Ignorantly, some people have the misconception that women in sports, especially those first starting out, may be more interested in flirting with players or getting their pictures to post on social media. I didn’t want that perception labeled on me so I went the extra 150 miles for it not to. I didn’t want to do anything to distract from my work ethic or promise for future opportunities.
I wasn’t doing any reporting on camera, so I made sure that I didn’t wear a mask of makeup and that I was always dressed professionally with clothes that weren’t too tight or too loose. I wore minimal jewelry and kept to black, white, gray, red or blue colors for the most part. Whatever player I was assigned to for the day for media requests, I worked on without complaint or attitude. I wasn’t rushing to handle the top players because I wanted to show that I was there to learn no matter what task was assigned to me.
Additionally, hanging out with male players as an intern or in an entry-level position is ok for the guys, but not so much for girls because of sexist misconceptions. Instead of complaining about it, I understood the reality and didn’t want anything I did to be perceived in the wrong way--I didn’t want anything counting against me even if it was by mistake. I made my work ethic speak louder than any sexist distractions. I made sure my time was spent asking my bosses questions about the who-what-where-why-how instead of with the players. I know that sounds backwards, but when you’re first starting out in the sports industry your relationships with the executives and writers completely outweighs the ones with the players.
Q: As a Senior Publicist, part of your job is to write stories and press releases about the internal happenings at ESPN. I noticed that you have written a number of articles about women rising up the ranks at ESPN, which is very exciting. Is ESPN actively working on increasing the number of women working in sports?
A: Luckily, I work at a company that instinctively wants to see women enhance the company in leadership roles. ESPN’s programming executive Julie Sobieski was practically the quarterback in developing and negotiating the new NBA deal; Amina Hussein who is ESPN’s coordinating producer for our top NBA show “NBA Countdown” is an Emmy-award winner; and someone I go to for a lot of advice and is interested in my growth at ESPN is Katina Arnold, ESPN’s vice president of communications, who recently was recognized as this year’s top women in public relations by PR News.
And on the TV side, you can’t forget Olympic gold medalist Jessica Mendoza who made media and broadcast history as the first female ESPN MLB game analyst. Because of her, I was able to have a lead in the publicity campaign that led to me receiving my first national award – the Beacon Award-- for brand/reputation management.
I look up to all of these women not just because they are women but because they are hard workers and inspire me not to look at the challenges of being a woman but to see the opportunities of being a woman in the sports industry.
Q: Can you take us through a typical day at your job?
A: No day is like any other, trust me! But for the most part, in the mornings I go through news stories. I don’t only look at sports news, but I look at what’s trending on Twitter, my news alerts and online magazine subscriptions as well. All these sources help me develop unique and creative media pitches for our on-air personalities. I filter through media requests for NBA and MLB on-air analysts. I want to say yes to everyone but I have to be mindful that the on-air personalities have very full plates and they trust me to prioritize the right requests. I do a lot of pitching to media, which is my favorite part of my job. I personally enjoy merging sports with entertainment and lifestyle so I’ve found my niche in getting exclusives, features and quotes in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Allure, Essence, Complex, the Source, Men’s Journal along with more news-y publications like Forbes, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post.
I keep in constant communication with the NBA and MLB leagues on sports happenings ahead of releasing company statements, game schedules, ratings and viewership, and player appearances on shows. Talking, calling, emailing and texting on-air personalities about interviews or other miscellaneous things is typical as well. But it’s not always to talk sports. A lot of times it’s to be friendly and talk about TV series like Game of Thrones or Power, haha!
I also travel to major games and events like the NBA Finals, the World Series, NBA and MLB All-Star festivities, playoff games, local Boston and New York games and Little League games and their World Series. Hopefully, I’ll be able to work an ESPYS soon. It’s on my bucket list! At the events, I help facilitate media interviews with the on-air personalities and executives, collaborate with the leagues, and whatever else comes up—a lot of my work is reactive instead of proactive because of the nature of the industry.
So that’s a slice of what I do, but it varies day-to-day. No day in sports is like the last, but that’s why I love my job and the people I work with. It’s constantly evolving and meshing with several industries at once.
Q: Who is someone who has served as a mentor to you?
A: So many people have invested time in my career. I will always be grateful for some of my early relationships where mentors saw something in me before I even had sports industry experience.
People like Gabrielle Simpson, NBC’s communications director; Claudia Howard, former Fox Sports’ director of branding and now the Weather Channel’s marketing director, and Keri Potts, ESPN’s senior director of communications were a few of the women who took the time to not only listen to me but give me advice tailored to my goals. Claudia did the sweetest thing in sending me orchids on my first year anniversary at ESPN and that just warmed my heart.
I consider Tony Wyllie, SVP of the NFL Washington Redskins, not only my mentor but my friend. My favorite line from him is, “Always act like you’ve been there.” That saying has so many layers but essentially means not to let your emotions of excitement, nervousness or giddiness cloud your reaction to something unexpected happening.
I met Jason Jenkins, SVP of the Miami Dolphins, via a LinkedIn message asking if I could pick his brain about his communications journey. We set up a time to talk on the phone and he grilled me with questions to learn more about me. I was so surprised, but he wanted to find out if I was serious about figuring out my career or just trying to get a job in sports ‘just because.’ He is still one of the first people that I go to about a lot of things!
I know I’m missing so many more people but I couldn’t just answer with one name.
Q: Working at ESPN, I’m sure you have had the opportunity to meet a number of famous athletes and celebrities. Who were you most excited to meet?
A: During the 2015 NBA Finals, I met then-Heat player Dwyane Wade, now he plays for the Chicago Bulls. The Heat weren’t in the Finals but Wade was a guest analyst on our NBA pre-game and halftime shows. He wrote notes ahead of the game and prepared. I admired that he took it seriously and when fans were yelling to try to get his autograph he took the time to sign a few. I was secretly hoping that his wife Gabrielle Union would be there but I think she was filming “Being Mary Jane.” I’m slightly a bigger fan of Gabby’s than D-Wade’s, shhh!
Q: What has been your favorite storyline in sports so far this year?
A: Right now I am ready for the NBA season to start because I’m anxious to see how Kevin Durant meshes with the Golden State Warriors. It’s the dream team, but it will be interesting to see how fast or slow chemistry and ball trust develops with everyone. I’m most interested in seeing that between Draymond Green and KD.
Q: If you could have a dinner with any athlete living or dead who would it be and where would you take them?
A: Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel, hands down, but I’d definitely need more than a day! My favorite comfort food is bourbon-glazed salmon, mashed potatoes and broccoli, but I would let them take the lead on the menu.
We’d have dinner at my house because it would really be like story time for me. My emotions would be all over the place from tears of happiness to anger to excitement. His story is so inspiring because it was a time with so much hate. He evolved baseball and changed the role of African-American athletes in activism. Robinson used his celebrity platform to challenge racism and now we see athletes following in his footsteps in addressing racial profiling and gun violence.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self as you were just starting out?
A: Every “no” won’t make sense, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong or that you have to change your goals. Celebrate every accomplishment and don’t gloss over it because you are so focused on your next chapter. Enjoy those moments because they don’t come for free. You need those memories to help you get through challenges and serve as motivation.
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