The road to anchoring ESPN SportsCenter for Bergen County, New Jersey native Dianna Russini proved to be full of hurdles and challenges. As DoubleGSports.com spoke to Dianna for our annual Women in Sports Interview Series, she made it clear she paid her dues along the way.
“I wouldn’t change a thing and spent my 20’s poor and hungry,” said Russini. “”I never wanted to quit and always said to myself I can’t see myself doing anything else. Sometimes a flaw and made me as hard as I am and push myself to be relevant and make sure this is the job I stay in.”
“One of my favorite compliments I receive and comes across I do love it,” she explained. “A really difficult road, look at my resume and I skipped around. Not as easy as it looks on paper and there were times I asked my parents’ for money to pay rent and ask friends’ to borrow clothes. I didn’t have any designer blazers and dresses to wear.”
Originally from the Bronx, Russini’s parents’ moved the family to Norwood, New Jersey to give Dianna and her siblings a better life and education.
“A town they found through a friend and easily the best decision they ever made because Norwood is a family oriented community,” said Russini. “I had an incredible time growing up there and everybody knew each other and took care of each other when people were sick and deaths in the family and leaving food at the door. I feel very lucky and fortunate to have been raised and grow up in a small town between the Tappan Zee and George Washington Bridge. It gave me tools to be successful in soccer programs, basketball and school teams and a wonderful time for me.”
While attending Old Tappan High School, Russini kept a busy schedule playing four sports, girl’s soccer, basketball, softball and track. During her freshman year, Russini was also class president and played club soccer for the Allendale Americans in the spring on top of participating in softball.
“Old Tappan was as competitive as it gets in terms of academics and athletics. I played on a soccer team with four Division I scholarship athletes. That is incredible and not a lot of people can say they played on a team where they went on to be starters in college.”
After high school, Russini attended George Mason University where she kept a full workload of classes while playing on the soccer team. Her goal was to be a television reporter while still focusing on athletics. Networking paid off for Russini as a friend from Norwood knew an employee in marketing with the Washington Wizards and forwarded Russini’s e-mail to someone in talent.
“My first position with the Wizards was as in-house arena host, interviewing fans, talking to players during and after the game that went up on the jumbotron,” she said. “A news director noticed me and asked if I was interested in doing some sideline work for men’s and women’s basketball at George Mason which I covered as a student reporter.”
“My first time on television was a daunting task going live, most people do it on tape and then put it live,” explained Russini. “I will never forget the feeling and I actually did it very well. I was thrown into the fire, poised and made it work. I grew up the biggest athlete you could think in terms of being a woman and easy in terms of understanding sports language and emotion of sports. It came naturally, reporting on it and enjoyed storytelling of journalism side of it.”
Always inquisitive, Russini buzzed her parents’ with why, when and how questions. It came instinctively to her and she just had to figure it out. When September 11 happened, Russini knew there was no turning back and she pushed forward.
An internship opportunity with WABC propelled Russini to drive up to New York City in her beat-up car on a Friday. Competing against 500 other students from predominantly local universities, Russini was one of the few remaining students’ to interview in groups, but kept on surviving the cuts.
“I had to turn around and drive back to Virginia so I could attend soccer practice that Saturday morning,” Russini remembered. “Standing in front of campus, I called my dad screaming and crying that I got the internship. I knew what it meant to get that internship at the number one station.”
Russini returned to New Jersey to intern with North Jersey Sports and had the opportunity to interview her former coach from Old Tappan High School Brian Dunn.
“A good experience to interview my former coach, probably 20 at the time and fortunate to have played for him,” she explained. “He was so great, gave me good sound bites and quotes. A big fan of mine in terms of my career and wanted me to make it. Working locally was a great way to get experience in writing, interviews and in front of the camera.”
Russini compiled a reel tape of her assignments and landed a job with News 12 Westchester after graduating from George Mason. However, with the New York sports market being very competitive, Russini headed out West finding a job at Comcast Sports Seattle. “I worked in news and then switched into the sports field. Seattle was a good opportunity for me to move out, work there and my sports career took off from there.”
Russini moved back to the East Coast where she worked at NBC Connecticut which led to NBC Washington and eventually on to ESPN.
DoubleGSports: What sports journalists have you looked up to?
Dianna Russini: Robin Meade at CNN who I wanted to be more like and wanted to have her authenticity. Diane Sawyer, who I interned with and got to be around a lot and learned a great lesson to carry yourself with class and professionalism. At the local level, Jenna Wolfe at Channel 7 in New York City taught me how to handle the pressure and competitiveness.
DGS: What is your advice for aspiring female sports journalists?
DR: Important to be your biggest fan, you’re going to be told no, not good enough and bad at this. Some point in your journey you can’t give into this and allow it to affect your dream. If you work at it and are committed to it, you will get better and I have seen it with myself and other anchors/reporters. Read as much, intern and reach out to people on social media and ask questions. One of my biggest mistakes I made around successful journalists is not asking the right question. Picking the brains that have done it and figuring if you really want this.
DGS: How was your first day at ESPN and what is your daily schedule like?
DR: I was scared out of my mind because it was a difficult challenge and anchoring Sportscenter is a very difficult and you need the knowledge to handle the show, be a personality but yet a journalist. A balance of things when you have zero knowledge and understanding of the landscape at ESPN, it takes almost a year to feel like you can stand because you are drowning in so many difficult things that happen when you start in a new company.
Commitment is the key and I like that competitiveness. There are strict and difficult standards of who can do this job and I know I’m replaceable. I know there are a million women out there who could do this job and that keeps me sharp. I never rest and get comfortable here because I know it could change tomorrow. I started in news because it gave me a great foundation to understand how to be good at this and I’m still learning a lot but an athletic background helped me grow into this ESPN anchor that I am now
I’m up by 8:00 a.m. reading the newspaper and in the office by noon. I meet with a team of producers, directors and researchers. At 1:00 p.m. we discuss the day and start preparing, researching, writing, making phone calls and figuring out the best way I can put a show together and anchor from 7 to 9 p.m.
DGS: How do you handle the pressure of anchoring SportCenter solo?
DR: It’s a challenge with no one to lean on, just you. It is the biggest thing that happened to my career and it’s allowed me to make mistakes and figure how to get out of it. It has improved my anchoring ability by a lot and I love to pick out a lot of content and people I want to talk to. Letting me own those stories in the show and talk to analysts that stick out to me and have viewers care about something.
Russini doesn’t forget her New Jersey roots, visiting Bergen County as much as possible. “I’m a family girl and my parents’ don’t miss a show and they’ve been on this journey. My father was a plumber and mother in medical care and being my rock. They completely understand what I went through because they hear about it from me.”