How I Bluffed ESPN and Became a SportsCenter Anchor
That’s me, sitting behind the iconic SportsCenter desk in the ESPN studios.
Three cameras, two sound-men, and a teleprompter operator are all staring at me. Then I hear a director in my ear start to count down, “5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …”
This has been my dream for 20 years. But I have a problem:
I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.
I have NEVER hosted a TV show before. How did I end up here?
My story will show you how to take action, advance your goals with a well placed bluff, overcome your fear of failure, and realize your dream.
Only two months earlier, I was in Los Angeles with no job and no direction. I was a print journalist earlier in my career, but I had taken a year off. I was now back and in need of work.
Out of the blue, my friend, Craig Hutchison, phoned to tell me that ESPN was looking for an Australian anchor for its local version of its sports TV show, SportsCenter. The program was produced at ESPN’s global headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.
Hutchison asked me,
“Are you interested?”
After all, this had been my dream for over 20 years.
Click play below to see a 1990 home video of me pretending I was a news anchor.
“…maybe we can meet in person in the next few months,”
This was not the concrete job interview I was hoping for.
Two weeks later, the producer was going to Las Vegas for a sports conference, and I realized that was my chance to make this happen.
I was inspired by two quotes from the New York Times best-selling book, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi.
“People do business with people they know and like” and “there is genius in being bold”
I contacted the producer and suggested we meet in Vegas for lunch. He agreed, and I booked a flight for $120. The very next morning I was on a plane to Vegas, took a taxi to the Hard Rock Café, and met the producer in person. We agreed that because I had absolutely zero television hosting experience, I should do a screen test.
“Maybe we’ll get you over to ESPN for a screen test in the next few months,”
We parted ways with a promise to speak again “in a few months” and I flew back to Los Angeles. For a week I kept thinking, “How can I make this happen NOW? How can I push this thing along without coming off as pushy and desperate?”
I needed to follow up with the ESPN producer quickly. Ferrazzi writes:
“Good follow up alone elevates you above 95 percent of your peers.”
(If you would like my personal notes on Ferrazzi’s book, Never Eat Alone, so you can cover the entire book in just 15 minutes – AND – get my personal notes on two other great books – enter your email below now and I’ll send them to you.)
Then it came to me…
It Pays To Bluff Sometimes
I told him I would be in New York City – close enough to Bristol, Connecticut, the following week “for business”. In truth, I had no valid reason to be in New York. I suggested that since I would already be in New York, maybe that would be an appropriate time for me to simply “pop on over” to ESPN in nearby Bristol for the screen test. The producer mulled it over before agreeing. Only then, did I book my trip to New York.
Two weeks later, I marched into the ESPN studio for my audition, sat behind the SportsCenter desk, looked at the script in the teleprompter, and … had a panic attack. “What the hell am I doing here?” I thought to myself. Fear gripped me. As the ESPN director counted down in my ear, I became a nervous wreck. When his voice said, “Go!”, I started to read the words on the screen. “Welcome to SportsCenter. I’m James Swanwick.” It was so bad the ESPN producer continues to mock me about it to this day. The following morning we viewed the train wreck that was my first screen test. He told me:
“Yeah, you look too nervous, you’re too wooden.. What’s with the overemphasis on the ‘I’m James Swanwick’?! … The beard HAS to go! … You look like Don Johnson from Miami Vice!”
We agreed to try again. I had one final shot. That afternoon, I returned to my hotel and reluctantly shaved off my beard. I felt like I was executing a friend.
I practiced my, “Welcome to SportsCenter. I’m James Swanwick” in front of the mirror dozens of times in a bid to gain some confidence.
Overcoming Fear Of failure
Later that night, I returned to ESPN for my second and final chance to impress. Once again, I had a panic attack. The self-doubt crashed over me, but this time I called on all my inner power. “Come on, James,” I told myself.
“This is it..Stop being scared! Just do it like you did in the home video from 20 years ago.”
The words on the teleprompter started to roll, the director said, “Go!”.
“Welcome to SportsCenter. I’m James Swanwick. Lots to get through tonight but let’s start with the NFL.”
This time I nailed it! The following morning, the producer and I watched my second screen test. He told me:
“Much, much better! You look much more comfortable, relaxed. OK, I’m going to put you on the air. Be ready in July.”
What?! Just like that? I’d done one terrible and one good screen test and I was hired? Amazing! I couldn’t believe it. I was ecstatic. I’d never hosted any TV show before and I was going to make my debut on ESPN. As if that wasn’t enough, the producer told me he had organized a limousine to drive me back to New York.
On Sunday night, July 25, 2010, I made my debut hosting SportsCenter. I spent the whole day thinking about it.
“What if I mess up? What if I say the wrong thing on air? What if I’m too nervous and I look like a quivering mess? What if ESPN fires me after my first show?”
When I started down to the studio 10 minutes before going live, it felt like I was walking to the gallows to be executed. I sat at the iconic SportsCenter desk, with the lights and the cameras and the directors and the producers, and knowing hundreds of thousands of people would be staring at me shortly. I wanted to get up and leave. But in that moment, I said to myself, “Keep moving forward!” I made a decision to just push through the fear. I heard the director say, “5-4-3-2-1…” …and I was on. Press play below to see the video clip of my SportsCenter debut I did it. I got through my first SportsCenter. Was it perfect? No. But the bottom line is I did it. I faced my fear and pushed through it. After the show that night, I walked out into the ESPN parking lot, relieved, proud, ecstatic, exhausted, overwhelmed. I’d just realized a 20-year-dream.
Realize Your Dream
Take a look at a video I shot from my iPhone in the ESPN parking lot late at night
I went on to host SportsCenter for the next two years, working alongside some amazingly talented ESPN producers, directors and co-anchors. ESPN really is a first-class organization. Along the way, I interviewed many professional athletes.
Some nights in the ESPN cafeteria, I would run into NBA legend, Magic Johnson.
And on one especially memorable show, I got to interview my childhood hero, Jon Bon Jovi, and convinced him to look into the camera and say,
“Hey, this is Jon Bon Jovi and THIS is SportsCenter!”
And I got to walk the red carpet at the ESPY awards in Los Angeles.
Incredible opportunities have come my way because of my time at ESPN, including writing two books on how to become a journalist; Insider Journalism Secrets and Become a Celebrity Journalist. I’ve been a guest speaker at events including Entrepreneurs Organization in Shanghai, China and master of ceremonies for events including the American Women’s Club in Bogota, Colombia. I coach thousands of people how to overcome their own fear of failure and achieve their life goals via JamesSwanwick.com.
Now it’s your turn to realize your goals and dreams. The formula for success is so simple:
- Take action. Any action is better than no action.
- Bluff a little (only if you have to)
- Overcome your fear of failure – just say to yourself, “Keep moving forward”
- Realize your dream
In short, I’m reaping the reward because I took action and pushed through the fear. Overcoming your fear of failure can reward you in ways you couldn’t even imagine. If you don’t go there, you’ll never know and, you’ll always feel mediocre. So…don’t be afraid to go for it.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” – Winston Churchill