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Linda Cohn Looks Back on 30 Years at ESPN

The iconic SportsCenter host was one of the first women to make her mark in sports broadcasting. Now, Cohn looks back on her 30-year career in a wide-ranging conversation with Boardroom.

In 1992, Linda Cohn was a sports reporter in Seattle. The native New Yorker left behind the hustle of the Big Apple and quickly came to appreciate the slowed-down West Coast lifestyle. But then, she received a call that she couldn’t refuse.

On July 11, Cohn celebrated her 30th anniversary with ESPN. Through that time, she’s hosted more episodes of SportsCenter than any other anchor. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Cohn has also offered insights and analysis across a number of different major sports for the Worldwide Leader, including the WNBA, LPGA, and her first love: ice hockey.

The media icon sat down with Boardroom to discuss how she got into the business, motherhood, and how being a fan first has been and always will be her greatest motivator. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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BERNADETTE DOYKOS: How did you celebrate such a huge career milestone? 

LINDA COHN: I live in LA. You would think I had some amazing glamorous party, [with] all my friends and family over having a toast of champagne. No, that only happens when you’re watching Netflix. That’s not me. 

People are so busy in their lives. My brother and my daughter, who’s 31 years old, they both came at me from different angles, but they said in so many words, “This is a big deal!”

It took them to knock me on the head and say, “Uh, stop what you’re doing and recognize how far you’ve come. When you can count on one hand how many women were in sports and that visible as I was over those 30 years. Hosting more [episodes of] SportsCenter than anybody, male or female.” So if I’m guilty of something, I’m guilty of not stopping and smelling the roses.

This was a good thing about social media. There are a lot of bad things about it, but when the word got out that it was 30 years, people shared stories about me, and it was all positive. How did I celebrate? Well, that to me was really [the] best way to celebrate: in my own thoughts, reading about these stories, reading about these people. [Along the way] I wasn’t thinking about making an impact at the time because I was just going along doing my job and having fun and trying to entertain — and inform at the same time. 

BD: How has social media changed the way that you approach your job now? 

LC: It changed everything. I realize the significance of posting stuff. I joined Twitter the first year, 2009. The reason why I felt it was important — and still I do — is that I always wanted a way to connect to fans. I always wanted a way to connect to viewers. And before we had social media, there was no way for us to do so. Those points of connection, it’s what keeps us going and adds a layer of humanity.

BD: You mentioned that your daughter is 31, so doing some fast math, that means that you were a new mom as you took on this role at ESPN. How has motherhood influenced your career?

LC: When I was hired by ESPN, my daughter was 15 months old. I was working for a CBS TV affiliate in Seattle. I had to move to Seattle to get my big TV break. We went to Seattle, and that’s where ESPN spotted me.

I’ve had this conversation with multiple women who want to settle down, keep their career, have children, wanna have it all. And they go, “Linda, you’ve had it all.” I go, “Not without some sacrifice.” The move to Seattle was huge for me because it slowed me down. I stopped and said, “Hey, there’s never a good time to have kids.”

BD: And during your career the discussion about parenting and being a mom has changed so much. How do you see that?

LC: It’s so much easier now! I’m not making fun of how easy it is. I’m like, ‘Thank God’. You know? You don’t have the guilt trip of working and being pregnant. It was crazy back then, and we’re talking mid-nineties. I mean, it’s not ancient. My second child, Dan, he’s 26. I was already at ESPN [when he was born.] The funny part with this story is that I was doing a SportsCenter broadcast at 6 p.m. on a Saturday, [and] it was 36 hours before my water broke.

BD: You call yourself a “hockey girl.” How did you fall in love with the sport?

LC: I have to thank my dad. [My parents] were instrumental, impactful and supportive of every decision I made. I was a tomboy, basically. I had thick glasses at the time — really thick glasses. At the age of 14, my mom found a place that I could get contact lenses. 

And I always love hockey because of my dad. We’d watch the Rangers together, mostly crying and weeping over the outcome. I was like, Wow, this sport, it’s amazing. I wanna play this. And after I got the contacts, my mom found a place on Long Island, 45 minutes from where we lived, that accepted girls to play ice hockey with boys. There was only a total of three girls in this league. And I was one of ’em. But you could only play with boys that were significantly younger than you. I learned to skate with 40 pounds of goalie equipment. I was so entranced. …

That was the greatest preparation for the job. I ended up blocking out the noise back when I was playing hockey with these little kids — kids that I should be babysitting for. I would hear moms, behind-the-back, saying, “Is that a girl?” Maybe it is ironic that it really prepared me to block out the — I don’t want to say haters. The people who don’t get it.

BD: What was it like to be able to usher the NHL back onto ESPN this year? 

LC: Yeah, that was great. I mean, I’ve been at ESPN so long. I remember when when hockey and NHL were [on ESPN] the first time. But this is a whole different ball game. I mean, my goodness, we don’t have enough time in this interview to go over how much has changed in the sport in those 17 years.

ESPN gave me opportunity to be between the benches for about 10 games during the regular season. For this hockey girl, to be right in between the benches, that was really cool. Plus, with the games on ESPN and TNT, more eyes than ever were watching hockey.

BD: Talk to me about your experiences covering other sports, such as the WNBA and LPGA.

LC: I wanted to do different things other than host SportsCenter. First, they put me on golf, on the LPGA, doing play-by-play. They just really threw me out there. I had to learn the hard way. And people who are purists were like, What is she saying?‘ It was a really harsh reality check. I did that for a couple of years, but it got better each time. I wanted to be great.

So then, I decided I was going to get into the WNBA. I remember I called up Mike Breen, an old friend of mine. I go, “Please, any tips you can give me!” And he did, he gave me great tips. That’s what I always tell people when I do speaking engagements or whatever. Do anything that can get you outta your comfort zone. It makes you grow, and [it] makes you better.

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BD: Looking back on the past 30 years, what are one or two of your favorite memories?

LC: I’ve had so many. I can’t even think. I’ll give you a two-pronged answer, though. First, the nights I’m able to walk off the SportsCenter set and I’m still laughing. I’m still smiling. Those nights when we have to wait for a late Dodgers game to end. Those nights where we’re sitting there, but you still have to pinch yourself, and you’re like, Wow.

The other times that make a great broadcast is when breaking news happens during the show. Like a huge blockbuster trade. A few years ago, when Kawhi Leonard went to the Clippers, I’m doing a late L.A. SportsCenter with Stan Verrett. It was, like, 11:15 local time. And Kawhi Leonard makes up his mind that he’s going to the Clippers, and he’s bringing Paul George with him. We happen to be still on the air. We didn’t get off the set for another two hours because then we had to bring in all the NBA people. Adrian Wojnarowski, Michael Wilbon, Stephen A. Smith, bring ’em all on and then just wing it. That keeps it fun and interesting.

BD: Any last reflections on the last 30 years?

LC: I think the reason for my longevity [is] I’ve always wanted to be connected to the sports fan. I’ve always been a fan first. I wasn’t out to win Emmys or anything like that. I just wanted connect to people, to send the message to them as I’m doing SportsCenter that this isn’t an act. I’m just like you. I love my teams. I love sports. 

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