Storm Watch

Sportscasting is a man’s world. At least it was before Hannah Storm hit the scene. The legendary female sportscaster shattered the proverbial glass ceiling and ventured where none had gone before her.



Hannah on set at the ESPN Studios in Bristol, CT

photograph courtesy of ESPN Images

In the renovated gardener’s cottage that serves as her home office, Hannah Storm tosses around a film pitch about a Colombian soccer player with her business partner Carmen Belmont. Suddenly the conversation switches to Christmas. There are, after all, only ten shopping days left. And then, just as quickly, the talk switches back to the soccer player, who Storm considers “one of the best strikers in the world.”

As they come to a consensus—Carmen will follow up with the soccer player, an assistant will follow up on the gifts—Storm strides into the outer room, where she meets with visitors and flashes one of her brilliant smiles. Though she says she’s exhausted after a grueling eight-day workweek that included a quick trip to Indianapolis to interview Colts quarterback Andrew Luck for her ESPN show, SportsCenter, she appears anything but. Already today—ostensibly her day off—she spent the morning shooting a sizzle reel for her company Brainstormin’ Productions. Later, she’ll return calls and review tapes in preparation for tomorrow’s live, three-hour show at ESPN headquarters in Bristol. As she settles down into one of two chic mid-century chairs, the assistant sneaks up the stairs with a bunch of shopping bags. “She’s hiding Christmas presents,” Storm says, without missing a beat. Behind her the phones ring; outside a man waits for instructions about a small carpentry project.

Storm, who changed her name from Storen years ago, remains unflappable, taking each question, each interruption in stride. Relaxed and affable, she exudes an aura of confidence, coupled with an easy approachability. It’s a winning formula; one that has served her well in her nearly thirty-year broadcast career. Along the way she endured years of gender bias and discrimination, while doggedly pursuing her dream. She rose to the top of her field, becoming one of an elite group of sportscasters—those who cover such marquee events as Wimbledon, the Super Bowl and even the Olympics—at a time when women were considered window dressing in the world of network sports. Today, she not only coanchors ESPN’s flagship show, she runs her own production company and oversees a foundation, all while raising a family of three teenage girls. Looking back, she says she didn’t set out to be a trailblazer. “I wanted to be a sportscaster,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “The more people said I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted to do it.”

Her Game Face  

Indeed, as a child growing up, Storm lived a peripatetic, sports-filled life. Her father, a career Marine, helped nationalize Toys for Tots in 1961. He left the armed services in 1963 to take a job in ticket sales for the Chicago Zephyrs (now the Washington Wizards). He worked his way up to the front office, and went on to become a successful sports executive and even, briefly, the commissioner for the American Basketball Association. Her mother had played college basketball. “We moved all the time to accommodate the mercurial nature of what my father did,” she recalls. “Basketball is what I mostly remember. We’d go to all the games, and my mom would be yelling at the refs for making lousy calls.”

Storm ran track and field in high school and even lettered in cheerleading but did not pursue athletics in college. “I was a pretty good high jumper, but where are you going to go with that?” she says. As a little girl she loved being in the spotlight. But she had been born with a port-wine stain—a vascular birthmark—under her left eye and though she was never ashamed of it, she says, it did make her self-conscious. In her sophomore year she decided to try out for a role in the school play. And then something remarkable happened. “I discovered stage makeup. My world shifted a little. I realized this thing on my face wasn’t going to get in my way. I really could do anything I wanted to do.”

At Notre Dame, her father’s alma mater, Storm majored in political science. She briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing an acting career when she graduated, but she chose TV broadcasting instead. Since sports were in her blood, a sportscasting job was the natural next step. “I’m a big believer in doing something you’re passionate about,” she says. She credits her dad with instilling in her the optimistic belief that she could do anything she set her mind to. She worked part-time at the college radio station and did internships during summer vacations. When she graduated in 1983, her brother presented her with a framed triptych of herself as a young girl with a brass plaque that reads, “Hannah L. Storen, Ready for the World.”

Ironically, it was the world that wasn’t quite ready for Hannah L. Storen. “I couldn’t get a job,” she says, and even now, all these years later, there is a note of astonishment in her voice. “The executives all said the same thing, and mind you, they had no trepidation about saying it, ‘We can’t hire a woman. It’s too big a risk. Why don’t you go write features?’”

Instead of giving up, she decided to focus her attention on radio. She spent hours reading the trades, following up on the want ads, writing letters and sending out résumés and audition tapes. “Don’t forget, that was in the days of snail mail,” she says. “It was time-consuming and expensive!” Her determination paid off, and she landed a job working the midnight shift at a heavy metal rock station in Corpus Christi. “It was awesome,” she says. “I love music. I’d dance around the studio.” It was there that she changed her name to Storm (C101’s Storm by the Sea was the station’s late-night catchphrase).

As much as she liked the job, Storm had no intention of abandoning her dream. She continued to knock on doors. The rejections continued to pile up. One day, following yet another lead, she appeared unannounced in the lobby of a Houston station, where she handed her résumé to a surprised program director. He called her two days later and offered her a job as the drive-time sports announcer and weekend DJ. She also covered the Astros and Rockets for Home Sports Entertainment, her first on-air gig. “It was the time of big hair, big shoulders and big nails,” she says. Even then, no agent would touch her.

She persevered, and in 1988 she got a break when a start-up TV station in Charlotte took a look at her demo and decided it would be fun to hire “a girl.” “It was a gimmick,” she says. “But I didn’t let that bother me.” Her beat? Nascar and basketball. “I had the basketball part covered. But I had no clue about Nascar.” Fortunately, she says, that was in the sport’s early days before it had become a household name, and the drivers were hungry for media coverage. “They had a vested interest in teaching me how to cover their sport properly,” she says. “I knew nothing. I started with the wheels.”

That was the year the Charlotte Hornets played their inaugural season in the NBA. Storm remembers covering one of the first games, when Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls came to town. “Michael was from North Carolina, and there was a lot of excitement around that game,” she says. The Hornets prevailed, beating the Bulls 103 to 101 at the buzzer. For Storm, it was an important moment for another reason: “I never cared much for the going into the locker room part of the job,” she says. “I just remember how Michael treated me with such respect. He handled being covered by a woman with so much class. He really set the tone for the other players in the NBA.”

During those early years, Storm said, the station often got complaints about her, particularly the way she dressed. “I’ve always had to deal with a certain level of misogynistic behavior,” she says. “People who felt threatened and didn’t want me to succeed. They’d say things like, ‘Did your daddy get you the job? Do you really like sports?’ Once they got a glimpse of how hard I worked and how much I knew, they backed off.”

It was about a year later, in 1989, that Storm’s mother called from her home in Houston to relay a perplexing message. “She said, ‘Someone from Sea and Sand wants to speak to you.’ I thought, ‘Cool, it must be a beach-sports station.’”

It was, of course, the then-fledgling cable network CNN. The powers that be were looking to replace Dan Patrick, who had gone to ESPN. They wanted to know whether she would be interested in coming in for an interview. And, oh by the way, would she mind taking a quiz? (What’s the difference between the National and American leagues? How many teams are in the Pac 10?). Storm aced the test, not surprisingly, and she became the first female host of CNN Sports Tonight. It was there that she met her future husband, Dan Hicks, now with NBC Sports. “He didn’t have to take the test,” she says with a pointed expression. “None of the men they hired at CNN Sports had to take the test. But I just understood it was more of a generational thing. The athletes themselves were young and more comfortable with a woman.”

Storm moved to the anchor desk at NBC Sports in 1992, where she covered the Olympics, the World Series, Wimbledon and Notre Dame football. In 2002, CBS News tapped her to become the cohost of its Early Show. While there she got to interview everyone from John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Dolly Parton, Ben Affleck and “every great chef on the planet.” She points to a photograph in which she and Hicks are flanked by George and Laura Bush. “One year I had an opportunity to do the play-by-play at the girl’s softball game at the White House,” she says. “The President took my daughters and me into the Oval Office and we just hung out.” She smiles at the memory. “I tried very hard to be chill. I said to my girls, ‘Do you realize where we are? We are in the Oval Office just hanging out.’ I feel like Forrest Gump because I got to do all these crazy things.”

Into Overtime

In 2008, when Storm left her job at CBS, the first thing she did, the first thing, she says, is arrange to buy back the rights to her name. “Newscasters are restricted from endorsing a charity,” she explains. “CBS owned all the rights to my name per my contract, and they were kind enough to let me buy them back for $1 when I left.” The second thing she did was set up the Hannah Storm Foundation, which raises awareness and provides treatment for children with debilitating and disfiguring birthmarks. The foundation also underwrites a journalism internship at Notre Dame and provides a scholarship fund for the Diocese of Bridgeport. At the same time, she launched her film company, Brainstormin’ Productions. “I really wanted to build something of my own,” she says.
“I never wanted my fate in someone else’s hands.”

So when ESPN asked her to return to TV to cohost SportsCenter, she jumped at the chance—with one caveat: She had to be allowed to continue her foundation and production work on her own time.

The anchor job is demanding, and requires prep nearly 24–7. Throughout the day and evening, she alternates among TV, radio and social media to stay on top of everything that’s going on in the sports world. She wakes up between 4 and 4:30 a.m. and “hits the ground running with a very big cup of coffee.” She commutes an hour and fifteen minutes by car to Bristol. She writes all her own scripts for interviews and highlights, but has to be prepared for breaking news. She’s on from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. five days a week. “It’s not an easy show to do,” she says. “In the beginning I was very comfortable with the sports realm, but traffic- and format-wise it was a lot to wrap my head around. Now, at this point, I’m very comfortable with the format.” She drew on her newscasting experience at the Early Show, where she learned to be a deft interviewer and think on her feet. “I had to prepare for any variety of subjects,” she says. “It dovetailed nicely with my return to sports.”

For the mother of three, the job is gratifying for a number of reasons. “It’s amazing that I get to anchor a sports show at this stage of my career,” she says. “It’s neat for me to have so many women say they’re there [at ESPN] because of me. I’m a big advocate of women in my field. I think sports is a lot richer for it.”     In addition to her daily anchor duties, she hosts ESPN’s Sports Saturday on ABC, the Sunday morning edition of SportsCenter during the NFL season and her popular Face-to-Face series, which she conceived last year. The series incorporates a long-form interview format that is rare in network sports. “It evolved from my passion about giving athletes a chance to tell their story in their own words face-to-face,” says Storm. “They are complex, a fact that often gets lost in a Twitter-feed world.”

She still routinely cohosts such big-ticket events as the NBA Finals, the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the Super Bowl and the annual Tournament of Roses Parade for ABC. Somehow, she still manages to find time for her passions: her foundation and her production company.  

Growing up, she says, her mom always made sure they were doing some kind of community service. The family volunteered at the holidays, attended an inner-city parish and worked in soup kitchens. “Even though we moved around a lot I was always very cognizant of the world outside my own little world,” Storm notes. “I always wanted to have some kind of positive impact. It’s part of my DNA.”

Though she rarely goes out in public without makeup or sunglasses (“It invites too many questions. People always want to know why I have a black eye”), she is not shy about telling her story when it will help alleviate the stigmatism of vascular birthmarks.

She discovered the power of her celebrity when she was working at CBS. The executives wanted the anchors to build a deeper connection with their audience, and they asked them to reveal something personal about themselves. It was then that Storm first appeared on national TV without her makeup. The response was overwhelmingly positive. She went on to interview doctors and showcase the latest surgical procedures. “There is so much that can be done now,” she says. “But for most people the cost is prohibitive.”

To date the Hannah Storm Foundation has raised more than $350,000 for twenty-one surgeries on kids from four different countries. “It’s slow and steady. The vast majority of celebrity foundations go under in five years. It’s a process,” she continues with a smile, “We’re in it for the long haul.”

As for Brainstormin’ Productions, it takes up whatever free time she has on any given day. Once she’s off the air at noon, she’s on the phone, writing e-mails or in the studio editing. She and her business partner Carmen are always on the hunt for the next great thing. Not surprisingly, she set the bar high. The company’s 2010 documentary Unmatched, about the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova aired to great critical acclaim on ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. The film earned Storm a Gracie Award in 2011. Now, the projects she’s most excited about are the Journeys & Victories series for espnW, which profiles female athletes who have overcome great challenges—both personal and professional—to achieve their goals; and a documentary about the WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes for ESPN’s Nine for IX series, in celebration of Title IX’s fortieth anniversary.
 

“I’m fascinated by the process of storytelling,” she says. “What’s inspirational, what’s going to touch people? I love putting the pieces together. All that behind-the-scenes creating is just as interesting to me as what goes on in front of the camera.”

She pauses to take a sip of water and stares at the bookshelves, which doubles as a display case for her many awards and cherished memorabilia. There are five Gracies, several signed game balls—including a Texas A&M football and a red, white and blue basketball, the iconic ABA ball designed by her father. There’s a framed pair of Phoenix Suns tickets with her picture on them interviewing Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson, and a photo of Storm and her husband with the Bushes in the White House.

“Whether it’s a profile of [Nascar driver] Jimmie Johnson or [Green Bay Packer] Aaron Rodgers, or a feature-length film about Martina and Chris, I think, ‘Wow, this is an interesting person,’” she says. “I find it fascinating to find out what makes them tick.”

Editor’s note: As this issue was going to press Hannah suffered serious burns to her hands, face and neck when her gas grill exploded. We are thrilled to report that she is recovering well and in true Storm form, returned to television just weeks after the accident.

 

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