Indiana Alumni Magazine — January/February 2010
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CLASS NOTES: BALANCING ACT
JOHN SCHWARB

Alumna reports for ESPN, her dream since eighth grade.

The career itself is not revolutionary anymore. Women broke into the men’s club of sports broadcasting years ago, and today they work everywhere from local anchor desks to Nflsidelines.

But talking sports for a living while enjoying a family life? That’s a much more elusive goal, especially at the top of the profession. You’re not supposed to have both. But Sage Steele, BS’95, realizes how good life is, being able to enjoy three young children at home while thriving in a weekday job as co-host of ESPN’s live daily SportsCenter editions.

“I was determined not to be 40 years old and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have a great career and have achieved everything there, but what about at home?’” says Steele, who is 37. “I met so many women in the business who seemed to have felt like they had to make a choice between career and family. I was just determined to never have to make that choice, and was fortunate to meet that person who agreed that one could do both.”

That person, Jonathan Bailey, BS’93, came into Steele’s life in 1993. Steele went to the Wells Library on the IU Bloomington campus to meet a classmate, whom she admits to have had a crush on. But when the classmate introduced her to his roommate — Bailey — a lifelong match emerged. They married in 1999.

Today, Bailey stays home with the three Steele children (Quinn, 7, Nicholas, 5, and Evan, 3), while Steele embarks on her third year at ESPN — the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” — the place she dreamed of working since eighth grade.

(Regarding her unique first name, it was her father’s idea, she says. He was not allowed in the delivery room when his daughter Was born, so he killed time in the hospital cafeteria. On a list of spices, he saw sage and thought it would be a cool name.)

The journey to ESPN began at, of all places, Bloomington’s Colorado Steakhouse. Steele waited lunch tables during the week, and a frequent guest was the late former IU Foundation President Bill Armstrong, BS’51. Steele, a quick conversationalist thanks to an upbringing as a nomadic Army brat — “If you wanted to survive moving every year, you kind of had to be the outgoing one,” she says — always engaged the equally chatty Armstrong. After a year of exchanges, Armstrong asked if he could help.

The results were a semester’s internship in the Athletics Department and, after graduation, a job at the CBS affiliate in South Bend, Ind. Armstrong knew the general manager. Steele knew little about broadcasting.

Her first live shot came at the South Bend Greek Festival when another reporter called in sick. She didn’t do sports there, yet was hired by television station WISH in Indianapolis in 1997 to cover weekday and weekend morning sports. Her very first assignment was the 1997 Final Four at the RCA Dome.

“I was not at all ready for that job, but what do I say? ‘No’? You dive in,” Steele says. “It was brutal, but it was a start.”

She was more prepared a year and a half later, moving to Tampa, Fla., and working for another local affiliate and then Fox Sports Net. In 2001, she took her first shot at ESPN, but a talent recruiter said she wasn’t ready. She vowed to get ready.

ESPN then came to her in 2004, after she impressed in the Baltimore/Washington, D. C., market as the lead anchor for the flagship SportsNite on Comcast SportsNet. But Steele was two weeks away from delivering her second child, not an ideal time to start fresh in Bristol, Conn., the home of ESPN. She turned them down.

“I was fearful of being blackballed, but it was a chance we were willing to take at that time, because we always promised that our family would be the priority,” Steele says.

Family and profession aligned perfectly in early 2007, and Steele made the move to arguably the top spot in the sports-broadcasting pantheon.

“Maybe it’s cliché, but I just feel so incredibly blessed to do both. I don’t know how well I’m doing both,” she says, laughing, “but I’m really trying. It’s completely chaotic, but it’s what I wanted.”
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