25 Rising Stars ESPN Needs to Hire

The recent media-consumption revolution has hit ESPN hard. The network’s dwindling subscriber count has yielded mass layoffs, with the worldwide leader also losing its longtime president, John Skipper. Now more than ever, it is key for ESPN to recruit emerging talent. Here are 25 rising stars the network should hire.

ESPN logo.

Image via Getty/Icon Sportswire/Contributor

ESPN logo.

In 2016 and 2017, Fox Sports, MTV, Mashable, Mic, Vice, BuzzFeed, and more pivoted to video; the belief that consumers no longer valued written content drove the movement. Some of those outlets, having seen early returns on their investment, are already abandoning the strategy.

Changes to the media climate impacted the biggest parties in American sports. The NFL, for example, is facing a nuanced ratings dilemma, and ESPN has gone through three rounds of lay-offs in the last two years. As consumption habits shift toward online streaming, hundreds of ESPN employees—including well-known figures like John Clayton, Marc Stein, and Jane McManus—have lost their jobs.

Compounding the turmoil, John Skipper, the network’s president for five years, stepped down suddenly in December, citing a substance addiction. His permanent replacement has not yet been named.

Whoever takes the job will step into it knowing this is an imperative moment for the network. How ESPN handles the coming years could dictate whether it retains the dominant status it has owned in the sports media landscape for nearly 40 years.

There are plenty of competitors lurking. Bleacher Report, Fox Sports 1, and Barstool Sports are among the obvious threats, but don’t count out a challenge from world-beating tech juggernauts like Facebook and Amazon, which have flirted with acquiring the rights to live sporting events.

While confusion and a constantly growing list of buzzwords—cord-cutting, virtual reality, Alexa, over the top—saturate the industry, the most readily apparent solution for ESPN is to implement an old sports adage: get good players on the roster and they’ll figure it out.

How are Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant going to play together? It doesn’t really matter. They’re two of the best guys in the league. Get them on the same squad and you’re going to like the product on the court.

We’ve tackled some of the ESPN HR manager’s work and identified rising stars the media giant should target. ESPN prides itself as a one-stop shop, an aim that necessitates a diverse team: anchors, bloggers, analysts, sideline reporters, social media savants, feature writers, executives, and more. Accordingly, you’ll see a wide spectrum of skillsets on this list.

Here are 25 rising media stars ESPN needs to hire. 

Will Cleveland's big moves be enough to reach a fourth straight NBA Finals? @ChrisMannixYS and @ShamsCharania discuss the Cavs' new additions. pic.twitter.com/mGfew8oWlp

— Ball Don’t Lie (@Balldontlie) February 9, 2018

Breaking news is a sport itself these days, and Shams is one of the best players. You’ve seen his tweets and have probably heard his story by now. I wrote about it in July 2016. Back then, Shams was breaking NBA news in class. He’s out of college now, and the 23-year-old has only gotten better. He competes with ESPN maestro Adrian Wojnarowski—his mentor—for the league’s biggest scoops. ESPN would be wise to make a run at Shams whenever his contract expires, and you can bet this is at the top of the network’s priority list. Adding him to a core of Woj, Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst, and Zach Lowe would give ESPN a practical monopoly on NBA news-breaking—a valuable asset in this instant-information age.

Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini: There is nothing this cult-like, male-focused media brand can’t do https://t.co/kWHNSSv3yS

— Dave Portnoy (@stoolpresidente) January 25, 2018

Nardini beat out 74 men for the position of CEO at Barstool Sports in July 2016, and she’s since shown why. Barstool is on a meteoric rise behind Nardini and President Dave Portnoy. ESPN has certainly taken notice, as the network flirted with the idea of launching Barstool Van Talk, which it fearfully, abruptly, and bafflingly canceled after one episode. ESPN is constantly struggling to toe the line between edgy and entertaining—Nardini has learned how to navigate it adroitly at Barstool, and the dollars flooding into the company are proof that what she’s doing is working. It’s unlikely ESPN could lure Nardini, who seems to love it at Barstool; the network would need to bring out the Brinks trucks.

Over the past 30 days, House of Highlights, run by 23-year-old Omar Raja, has done more video views on Instagram (662 million) than the official ESPN (206 million) and SportsCenter (316 million) accounts combined. https://t.co/dd494JFrgd pic.twitter.com/C1F8CKnz1N

— Recode (@Recode) February 23, 2018

Raja is proof that it’s possible to make your own lane in the sports industry. A practical unknown just two years ago, Raja is a hot commodity these days. He’s the man behind the House of Highlights Instagram account, which he created in Aug. 2014, as a sophomore in college. It’s his unique voice and curating sensibilities that have made it a viral hit. Raja brought the #RunningManChallenge to the mainstream and has garnered 8.2 million followers on the account. In Jan. 2016, Bleacher Report acquired Raja—and House of Highlights. As Fast Company detailed in February, the 23-year-old is B/R’s “secret weapon.” Perhaps more so than anyone else on this list, Raja is an embodiment of the general public’s changing sports consumption habits.

.@DesusandMero rename sports from the Winter #Olympics! #FallonFive pic.twitter.com/G7VivY4C6K

— The Tonight Show (@FallonTonight) February 20, 2018

The E in ESPN stands for entertainment, and the Worldwide Leader strives to blend culture with its sports coverage. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero provide the perfect duo for this type of hybrid commentary. They are, of course, a package deal. Their comedic, late-night Viceland show, which covers everything but has a heavy sports presence, airs four times a week and has developed a cult following. It’s produced by Erik Rydholm, who has produced many of ESPN’s best shows (like Pardon the Interruption and Around The Horn). ESPN has recently toyed with its two-person talk shows. Adding these two Bronx-bred former high school classmates to the mix would be a huge win. They’re Millennial favorites, and we all know that’s a valuable demographic.

Will Barton said after the game he learned the beef Troy Daniels had with him - the reason a scuffle broke out on the court - was due to Barton poking fun at the Suns on one of teammate Richard Jefferson’s podcasts.

— Chris Dempsey (@chrisadempsey) February 11, 2018

R.J. is still in the NBA, though he’s only appeared in 16 games this season in Denver. The 37-year-old was a vital piece in Cleveland the past two years, but his career is winding down. When it ends, media entities will come calling. Jefferson and Channing Frye’s “Road Trippin’” podcast on Uninterrupted is a must-listen. Many started taking it seriously when R.J. landed an interview with the elusive Tim Duncan, but it’s been great from the start. Jefferson has a goofy personality and stories for days. He recently said he isn’t sure the typical “former NBA player on The Jump” role is right for him. ESPN should figure out what role he wants, though, and make it happen. His podcast recently inspired a scuffle on the court.

Squad pic.twitter.com/aEOBzcwLou

— Chris Webber (@realchriswebber) February 19, 2018

Hoops fans will forever remember C-Webb for the timeout and for his decorated career with the Sacramento Kings. He made five All-Star teams with Sacramento. Since he started at Turner Sports in 2008, however, Webber has gradually become one of the NBA’s best color commentators. He’s a little bit on the outside looking in at Turner, where the Inside the NBA guys are the main attraction. We saw C-Webb’s abilities on display over All-Star Weekend. If Mark Jackson or Jeff Van Gundy makes a return to coaching—which appears likely—ABC/ESPN should target Webber for its primary NBA crew.

"Philly is a real thing to me. I think Philly has the best chance of LeBron extending this window to Year 16, 18, 19." — @getnickwright pic.twitter.com/Wy80YEcxuL

— First Things First (@FTFonFS1) February 20, 2018

Wright’s First Things First with Cris Carter is not the run-of-the-mill debate show with which we’ve all become familiar: two talking heads screaming at each other over their opinions. First Things First is actually enjoyable, reasonable sports talk, and Wright is a big reason for that. Granted, yes, sometimes his LeBron takes are a stretch, but the man knows how to build a convincing argument behind statistics. Wright started out in radio in Kansas City before moving on to co-host “In the Loop with Nick and Lopez” on Houston radio station KILT. His time in radio helped him refine a natural, conversational delivery. The Syracuse grad has differentiated himself in sports media because of his persuasive nature, his defend-LeBron-to-the-death mentality, and his willingness to confront prevalent social issues such as race in America.

Clippers taking on Golden State on TNT tonight!! Let’s do this. @NBAonTNT @ReggieMillerTNT @Kevinharlan @warriors @LAClippers 🏀💃🏼👍🏼 pic.twitter.com/I9U6YMO6Ha

— Allie LaForce (@ALaForce) February 23, 2018

Allie LaForce has been a consistent presence on the sidelines for CBS since 2014, when she was only 25. A former Miss Teen USA (2005), LaForce has made it a mission to prove she’s far more than a pretty face—and she’s succeeded. UPROXX recently called her the “next great sideline reporter,” and that’s not hyperbole. A former basketball player at Ohio University, LaForce also does sideline work for Turner Sports. The 29-year-old was a part of CBS’ historic first all-female sports show, We Need to Talk, with media icons like Lesley Visser and Andrea Kremer.

This topic is a perfect example of @espn needlessly politicizing a non-sports story in the middle of football season. This isn’t news at all. Just a chance for left wingers to attack Donald Trump. pic.twitter.com/PbViIANgPf

— Clay Travis (@ClayTravis) January 4, 2018

Travis is almost definitely too politically outspoken for ESPN’s liking—as we saw with Jemele Hill’s suspension, the network doesn’t like it when its personalities get too edgy on social media. There is no denying, however, that Travis knows how to get eyeballs, and eyeballs convert to revenue. Travis is the founder of Outkick the Coverage, which Fox Sports acquired in 2015. The 38-year-old Travis, whom Politico described as a “well-paid darling of the alt-right,” announced in September that he was considering running for Senator of Tennessee. Whether he could get elected into office remains to be seen—there are a lot of people who vehemently dislike Travis—but acquiring him would definitely create buzz around ESPN.

It’s not unheard of for current pro athletes to become active in the media, but it is rare for an athlete who’s still somewhat in his prime to do so. Redick, 33, has been one of the Philadelphia 76ers’ best offensive players this season and has averaged 12.2 PPG on 40.3 percent shooting from three. His podcast, which started with Yahoo’s The Vertical and Uninterrupted, is now on The Ringer. It’s a great listen for NBA fans; it provides a peek behind the curtain. He’s booked a bunch of fascinating guests from both sports (Aaron Rodgers, Steve Nash, Kyrie Irving) and entertainment (M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Sudeikis, James Corden).

11. Nate Burleson

View this video on YouTube


Burleson, 36, had a fine career as an NFL wide receiver (he caught 73 balls one year), but his broadcasting career could be even brighter. Burleson is another member of the Good Morning Football crew (that show makes the list twice with good reason), and in May 2017 he got called up to the big leagues: CBS added him to its NFL Today team. Two years before his playing career ended, Burleson attended a 2012 Broadcast Boot Camp the NFL put on. Then he started with NFL Network and Lions preseason coverage. His ascent his been rapid with good reason—Burleson is insightful, funny, and charismatic.

after the show it’s the after party and after the party it’s the court in the hotel lobby and pic.twitter.com/OLUJ9tzDtL

— Kristen Ledlow (@KristenLedlow) February 21, 2018

Ledlow is another former pageant winner. As a senior at Southeastern University, she was crowned Miss Capital City USA. NBATV hired her in 2015 to co-host NBA Inside Stuff with Grant Hill. She still hosts the show and also serves as a sideline reporter for the NBA on TNT, where her light-hearted personality and knowledge of the game set her apart. You might’ve spotted her rocking a suit during the All-Star Game. A four-sport athlete in high school, Ledlow went on to become an All-American volleyball player in college. She started her career in Tallahassee, Fla., where she worked in radio and honed her sideline craft at Florida State football games.

13. Graham Bensinger

View this video on YouTube


Before Shams Charania, there was Graham Bensinger. Bensinger was dubbed the “Doogie Howser of sports journalism” when he—as a 19-year-old Syracuse student—landed an exclusive, revealing one-hour interview with Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens. Bill Simmons said, “there’s a decent chance he could end up ruling the world someday.” Now 31, Bensinger is the host of the show he started on his own: In Depth With Graham Bensinger. He’s built the show from scratch and interviewed some of the biggest names in sports, including O.J. Simpson, Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, Jim Brown, Kobe Bryant, and Mike Tyson. Despite his independent status, Bensinger is one of the best one-on-one interviewers in sports media.

Doc left Boston because he didn't want to rebuild. Now the Clippers are rebuilding. Can't see Doc in LA for much longer. pic.twitter.com/ORSeE2POoO

— Kristine Leahy (@KristineLeahy) January 31, 2018

You may know Kristine as the FS1 anchor whom LaVar Ball told to “stay in your lane.” In the wake of that kerfuffle, Leahy received death threats. If that crazy situation is all you know about Leahy, start paying attention. She’s on the rise both in sports media and general entertainment. Leahy is co-host of The Herd With Colin Cowherd, where the two hosts’ chemistry is seamless, and also hosts American Ninja Warrior on NBC. The 31-year-old Boston University grad started out in Beantown—first with WEEI, then with the Celtics, then FOX Boston—before moving to L.A. in 2012. For a look into Leahy’s life, check out our feature from 2016.

First time I ever worked the #NBAAllStar Game! ... 5 years ago I was asking around for tickets to get in... 🙏🏽 🏀⭐️💃🏽🎤✨🙏🏽 #NBAonTNT #StaplesCenter #LA pic.twitter.com/FKqBFSJty5

— Ros Gold-Onwude (@ROSGO21) February 21, 2018

This season Gold-Onwude, AKA “Ros,” made her major-network debut as an NBA sideline reporter for TNT. Previously she worked for NBC Sports Bay Area, where she covered the Warriors. Ros has also appeared on the Pac-12 Network, NBA TV, and MSG, for which she calls play-by-play for the WNBA’s New York Liberty. A four-year basketball player at Stanford, where she earned a Master’s in sociology, Gold-Onwude averaged 6.9 PPG as a senior in 2009-10 and scored 26 against Iowa in her senior year. She has also apparently won Drake’s affection and has developed a huge Instagram following.

Spent a weekend with Warren Sapp, the fired NFLN analyst turned CTE spokesman. Naturally, it started at a strip club https://t.co/szEZwAwXn7

— Tim Rohan (@TimRohan) January 30, 2018

As an intern at the New York Times (not a bad start, eh?) in 2012, Rohan found himself covering Johan Santana’s no-hitter—the first in Mets history. That was the country’s introduction to his work, but his most noteworthy work at The Times came on the heels of the Boston Marathon bombing. He wrote an incredible profile of Jeff Bauman, whose story was featured in the 2017 film Stronger. In 2016, Rohan was poached by one of the biggest names in sports journalism: Peter King. “What impresses me about him is his ability to step into a situation of unfamiliarity and turn around a good and smart story quickly,” King said at the time. This piece, a first-person narrative documenting his experience wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey to an NFL game, was among Rohan’s best MMQB work to date, but he’s done much more. ESPN could add Rohan to its fleet of tremendous long-form writers—Wright Thompson, Seth Wickersham, and Don Van Natta Jr., among others.

Is Donald Cerrone the best fighter to not win a major title in MMA? #TheMMABeat panel weighs in. Watch full show: https://t.co/VTqRxHjmRf pic.twitter.com/Od4QD5UviR

— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) February 22, 2018

Mixed martial arts continues to grow in popularity, and as it grows, its presence on ESPN will expand. ESPN should scoop Helwani, a 35-year-old reporter for MMAfighting.com from Quebec. He’s perhaps the most plugged-in UFC journalist in the game. His insider knowledge runs so deep that it got him in trouble in June 2016, as the UFC issued Helwani a “ban for life” for making public information that it hoped would be kept private. It rescinded the ban two days later. Helwani, who also co-hosts The MMA Beat, received MMA Journalist of the Year at the World MMA Awards six years in a row, from 2010-16. Honorable mention in the MMA category: up-and-coming UFC reporter Matt Parrino, another guy who’s great both in print and on camera.

It's here! @joelklatt's first mock draft of the season is in... and he has Baker Mayfield going to the Broncos at No. 5 👀 pic.twitter.com/i4AYNnYeIx

— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) February 21, 2018

Klatt has paired with Gus Johnson since 2015 to form FS1’s top college football team. The color guy is also a regular on FS1’s studio shows. In college, Klatt became Colorado’s first three-year starter at QB since Kordell Stewart. He also played two years of minor-league baseball. Klatt got his start in broadcasting as a high school football analyst in Denver and moved up to bigger opportunities in Colorado until FS1 hired him for its launch in 2013. Klatt occasionally covers golf and regularly appears on radio.

We had to include at least one up-and-coming play-by-play guy on this list. Davis, 30, was named Vin Scully’s replacement to call Dodgers action for Spectrum SportsNet LA, though he said he could never “replace the greatest anyone of all-time in anything.” The humble Beloit grad gets his most prominent exposure on FOX, where he calls NFL, MLB, college hoops, and college football action.

Today is @Eagles coach Doug Pederson's birthday! @JamieErdahl got the scoop on what his players would gift him... pic.twitter.com/haXA2a50Yw

— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) January 31, 2018

The 29-year-old Erdahl is one of the youngest sideline reporters on a major network. This past season she teamed up with Greg Gumbel and Trent Green on CBS’ NFL coverage. She joined the network in 2014. Erdahl also provides sideline reporting for CBS’ college basketball slate and contributes as a studio host for CBS Sports Network. Her career took off at NESN, where she was the Boston Bruins rink side reporter. A Minnesota native, Erdahl played two sports at St. Olaf College before transferring to American. She’s another entertaining Twitter follow.

🚨🚨GREAT coaches take GREAT players and put them in GREAT positions to be successful🚨🚨 McDaniels does it week in and week out... @BenVolin @NEPatsNation12 @Patriots_Wire @MikeReiss @PatriotsViews #PatriotsNation #gronk pic.twitter.com/DuAE5WavAk

— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) January 17, 2018

You probably know the former Lions quarterback as the guy who ran out of the back of the end zone in 2008. He’s aware of that. His Twitter bio reads: “Endzones should be 11 yards.” Orlovsky developed a unique perspective on the game during his 12-year career as an NFL backup. He’s shared that perspective recently with a series of insightful “inside the play” break-down videos that have made him a must-follow on social media. Orlovsky has not yet signed with a network, but he will soon. As we saw with the unanimous acclaim Tony Romo received this season at CBS, NFL viewers are itching for insight like that which Orlovsky can provide.

A Boston native and Bridgewater State grad, O’Connor honed his basketball-writing craft at SB Nation before Bill Simmons lured him to The Ringer. Simmons has highlighted and developed NBA writing talent before (the most obvious example being Zach Lowe at Grantland) and he’s doing it again. O’Connor is a mainstay on The Ringer NBA Show, and he makes frequent appearances on Simmons’ popular podcast. O’Connor is a gifted writer, he’s well-sourced, and he simply knows the game. An emerging force in NBA media, he also publishes an annual draft guide and makes occasional TV appearances.

"The last two years there was no more exciting player in college football."@PSchrags: Don't doubt @Lj_era8.

📺: @gmfb https://t.co/ZKfm53Xd2V

— NFL Network (@nflnetwork) February 16, 2018

The 35-year-old is a dual talent: he’s good on TV and in print. Schrager came up on Showtime’s weekly program Inside the NFL, where he won an Emmy in 2013. Nowadays he’s a part of NFL Network’s Good Morning Football crew. The Emory grad is also an NFL Insider and sideline reporter for FOX, where he teams up with Thom Brennaman and Chris Spielman. He has written two books, including the New York Times bestseller Out of the Blue with Victor Cruz (2012). Perhaps most impressively: he took it in stride when Martellus Bennett called him “Jonah Hill.”

Me looking at my credit card statement on Jan. 31: Well, at least February is a short month so it can't be as bad.

Me on Feb. 15: pic.twitter.com/CuV9p4g42B

— Jonathan Jones (@jjones9) February 15, 2018

Sports Illustrated excels at spotting and developing young talent. Jones, a UNC Tar Heel, started his career in Aug. 2012 at the Charlotte Observer, where he covered the Panthers. He stood out in the NFL beat writer cosmos. Rumors indicated ESPN and FOX had interest in hiring him, but he elected to join SI, where he had interned as a college student. Recently Jones has provided coverage of Tom Brady’s future, NFL players’ activism, concussions, and the sale of the Panthers. He’s also an entertaining follow on Twitter.

Jimmy Butler discussed the best and worst spades players in the NBA. Apparently @DeAndre is just awful 😂. And @DwyaneWade has never beaten him. Full link here: https://t.co/pIQkMiEyYr pic.twitter.com/q9cP1F1X5N

— Taylor Rooks (@TaylorRooks) January 3, 2018

The 25-year-old Rooks is currently a host for SportsNet New York and CBS Sports Network; she has risen to prominence in the country’s No. 1 media market. Rooks got her start as an Illinois student at Scout.com, where she earned respect for breaking multiple Big 10 stories. At only 19 years old, she interviewed Kobe and LeBron. The Big 10 Network scooped Rooks out of college. She was there for two years before joining SportsNet and CBS, where she has gotten the opportunity to serve as a sideline reporter. She also hosts the Timeout with Taylor Rooks podcast, which has featured guests like John Wall and Jimmy Butler.

Latest in Sports