Sept. 21, 2012
By Lauren Chval
The summers of student-athletes are typically filled with preparation for their upcoming seasons. Whether in team camps or individual workouts, members of the Notre Dame squads use those three months away from campus to improve. This past summer, two such athletes also bettered themselves during their time away from the gym and the field, but didn’t stray from the familiar world of big-time athletics. Seniors Skylar Diggins and Emily Conner entered the world of sports media through ESPN’s internship program.
The girls, despite both working for ESPN, were not even in the same state for their internships, let alone the same office. Conner, a senior on the women’s lacrosse team, did her 10-week stint in New York, N.Y., at the Marketing and Sales headquarters, while Diggins, the reigning BIG EAST women’s basketball player of the year, spent a month working at the production studios in Bristol, Conn.
The athletes are both business majors, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they have identical interests. While Diggins can imagine a future in front of the camera, Conner is much more interested in what goes on behind the scenes.
Diggins, who has led her Irish to consecutive NCAA national championship games, spent her time working under espnW deputy editor Heather Burns. The All-American was in Bristol for only five weeks before her return to Notre Dame for summer classes.
Burns says Diggins’ lack of previous experience didn’t keep her from making a great impression. She edited copy and photos, conducted interviews, shadowed SportsCenter once a week and accompanied Burns to several production meetings.
“She’s sort of a natural,” Burns describes. “We had her write up questions before she did any of her interviews, and they were good questions. She knows the questions that irritate her as an athlete, so she doesn’t ask those questions. She has the experience that puts people at ease and makes them want to tell you their story.
“Plus,” she adds with a laugh, “Skylar has more knowledge of basketball in her little finger than I have in my whole body.”
Burns recalls Diggins initially being surprised at how much goes into a broadcast. Indeed, both Diggins and Conner cited the sheer number of people who work to put a show on the air as the most unexpected aspect of their experiences.
“Whenever I tell people I worked at ESPN, they’re like, `Oh, do you want to go into broadcast? Do you want to be on TV?’ I guess I always knew it wasn’t just about being on TV–that was never my goal or my plan–but I think people forget how much goes on behind the scenes to put on that show,” Conner elaborates. “There are hundreds of people in media rooms coming up with facts, figures and research.”
While Diggins was using her experience with the media to conduct quality interviews (she even got to sit down with Ice Cube, something that Burns says was the highlight of her internship), Conner explains her work as more of “numbers-crunching kind of stuff.”
One project consisted of looking at revenue brought in by Monday Night Football over the last few years.
“That was really interesting because it’s not necessarily based on who’s winning or losing but on fan bases,” she explains. Conner is all business jargon and numbers as she talks about the experience–clearly in her element as a marketing major–but she also can’t help but betray that she, too, is a sports fan.
In this manner, both athletes speak of ESPN as “a dream job.”
“I feel like ESPN is the goal if you’re a sports junkie,” offers Diggins, who just brought home her fifth gold medal for USA basketball in August. “I’ve never been shy, I’ve always loved the camera–I can definitely see myself being in front of the camera whether it’s sports, entertainment or news.”
Diggins had a background with ESPN prior to the internship, having blogged during her NCAA tournament experience the past two seasons and attended the espnW summit in Arizona last October. In fact, it was through the summit that she inquired about the internship program.
Conner’s connection came through a contact of her brother, Andrew, who jumped at the chance to make his sister’s dream a reality.
“I always knew she wanted to work in sports in some capacity or another, so ESPN seemed like a logical place for her to start,” Andrew states. “Call it the liberal arts of sports. You get a little bit of everything.”
Conner claims, like Diggins, that she has always been into sports and spent her childhood watching football with her dad and brothers on Saturday and Sunday. She doesn’t recall ever telling her brother that working for ESPN would be a dream job, claiming “he just knew.” Andrew takes his description of Emily’s love of athletics a step further, recalling when her knowledge of sports surpassed his own.
“Emily–having grown up a fan of the Indianapolis Colts–would get into arguments with Patriots fans about who would win that year,” he reminisces fondly. “Rather than giving some clichÃƒÆ’Â© argument about how Peyton Manning is amazing, she would break down position by position where the Colts were stronger–or weaker–relative to the Patriots. It got to the point where I’d just shrug my shoulders and say, `What she said’ because the conversation was over my head.”
She may be able to run circles around her brother, but Conner jokes at never having been more overwhelmed in her life when she traveled out to Bristol for the Intern Symposium. At the dinner, she found herself at the end of the table with Howie Schwab, former host of the ESPN Classic program Stump the Schwab.
“I know sports, but I might as well have been a five-year-old kid sitting there,” Conner confesses. “I would mention a game and he would be like, `Oh yeah, I was there,’ and it was just like I had nothing.”
Both Conner and Diggins found ways to incorporate their experience with athletics into success in the workplace. Burns describes Diggins as fitting in well with a “very high sports IQ,” and Conner speaks to the fact as well.
“A lot of people that work there are athletes, too. It’s a common interest shared between people, and I think that also gives you an understanding of sports.”
That understanding is crucial in this business. Diggins cites the most exciting moment of her action-packed internship as getting to write copy that actually aired on SportsCenter. The years Diggins has spent watching the program helped her pen the script.
“I got to write for Jay Harris,” she explains like she still can’t believe it. “I was like, `Mom, turn it on! It’s 6:37 and 6:45, that’s what time I’m in the rundown. My script is in the rundown!'”
The girls each talk of working for ESPN in some capacity down the road. As seniors, they will be graduating with Notre Dame degrees come May, and that leaves their futures very open indeed.
“The cool part of being at Notre Dame is that you have so many opportunities that I’m trying not to limit myself or pigeon-hole myself,” Conner says. “I’m really open to anything at this point.”
Diggins, too, is all about exploring her options. The experience was, after all, her first real job, but it was certainly everything she hoped it would be.
“The environment there is definitely one that I could see myself working in and striving in. I definitely would not burn that bridge, and I look forward to having the opportunity to go back and being able to explore my employment opportunities in the future.”
That future will come sooner rather than later, as Burns says she expects Diggins to continue her tradition of blogging during her season this year, but after that, anything could be on the horizon for these two athletes. They certainly have a resume boost after this busy summer.
Conner and Diggins each point toward her experience as an athlete and member of the Notre Dame community as enhancing her time with ESPN. As different as the young women are in their journeys and future interests, they both found themselves taking the same first step into real-life work experience from Notre Dame into the same corner of the world of sports media.