Leila Rahimi had a modest goal for the first Tuesday in August 2020. She planned to go to CVS because there was a sale on home cleaning supplies. It was an ordinary Tuesday, like so many before.
Until it wasn’t.
Rahimi had just ended a call with her mother in Texas when text messages began popping up on her phone. Lots of them. News had broken that Rahimi was part of wide-ranging layoffs at NBCUniversal, the parent company of her employer, NBC Sports Chicago.
That trip to CVS never happened.
“It was incredibly unexpected,” said Rahimi, who had worked at NBCSCH since 2015. “The first thing you’re trying to do is figure out how you’re gonna make ends meet. The hardest part was that I couldn’t see my family. I remember calling my mom, and she said, ‘I wish I could hug you right now,’ and that’s all I wanted.”
The tentacles of COVID-19 touched Rahimi at each turn. The pandemic forced the cutbacks and kept her from family. But it couldn’t stop the groundswell of support she received.
“It was awful to get laid off, but the memory is paired with the feeling of appreciation for how many people reached out,” Rahimi said. “To have the feeling of people saying they appreciated your work or friends and colleagues saying they heard the news, that meant more to me than anything.”
That work and those relationships helped Rahimi recover faster than even she thought was possible. In January 2021, The Score made her the full-time midday co-host with Dan Bernstein. And just last week, Rahimi returned to local-affiliate TV as a part-time sports anchor at NBC 5. That’s a unique two-way game in the male-dominated sports-broadcast industry.
“I’m just really grateful,” Rahimi said.
Here’s how it happened.
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Though she began in Chicago as a TV anchor, Rahimi’s career started in radio. Growing up in the Dallas area, she began calling into the Cowboys postgame shows at 14. Rahimi eventually scripted her calls and recorded them, thinking they might come in handy for college.
As a high school senior and college freshman, Rahimi interned at KLIF-AM, then a Mavericks affiliate. At 19, the North Texas alum began working at The Ticket (KTCK-AM/FM), where she gave updates until she was 23. She began in TV at Fox Sports Southwest, where she interned as a junior before being hired and working her way from production assistant to associate producer to sideline reporter.
Rahimi was inspired by metroplex sports media types such as Dale Hansen, who recently signed off after more than 40 years at the anchor desk, and Randy Galloway, who was an institution in the printed and spoken word.
“I thought that’s how you do it,” Rahimi said. “You master all of the skills that you can, and that’s how you end up succeeding in sports media.”
She not only did all she could, she seemingly did it everywhere. Rahimi worked in Austin, San Diego, Houston and Philadelphia before coming to Chicago. Rahimi estimated she has moved 20 times, and though the experiences have made her the talent she is, they’ve taken a toll personally.
“I was married from 25 to 30,” she said. “It’s hard on personal relationships, of course. As a single woman, I can safely say that part of the reason that I haven’t had a long-term relationship of significance since my marriage is because I’ve moved so often. The schedule is hard on relationships, working nights and weekends. I’ve had a couple relationships in Chicago that lasted around a year, year and a half.”
But professionally, Rahimi has exceeded her own expectations. She fulfilled a goal by working at MLB Network, and she was part of NBC’s coverage of the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018. Rahimi never thought she’d be on that stage.
She’s now on multiple stages in Chicago, and barring another unforeseen event, she figures to be in the spotlight for a long time.
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Growing up in Texas didn’t stop Rahimi from loving the Bulls. She was handed down copies of Sports Illustrated and saved all of the issues with Michael Jordan on the cover, lugging them around the country with each move. So becoming the Bulls sideline reporter before the 2019-20 season was a special assignment. But it ended up costing her.
“It’s never been a question of her talent and fit,” said Kevin Cross, president and general manager for NBC 5, Telemundo Chicago and NBC Sports Chicago. “NBC had challenges when it came to COVID as to using talent the same way that we used it in the past. At that moment, Leila was a sideline reporter for us mostly with the Bulls. That role ceased to exist, and we didn’t know when it was coming back.”
Days after being let go, Rahimi heard from Mitch Rosen, operations director and brand manager at The Score. Rahimi had appeared on the station before, and Rosen asked if she was interested in returning.
After filling in on the morning show, Rahimi began joining Bernstein on Wednesdays. She agreed to it before then-afternoon co-host Dan McNeil was fired mid-September for an insensitive tweet about former ESPN reporter Maria Taylor. Rahimi then filled in with afternoon co-host Danny Parkins, as well.
On Jan. 4, Rahimi joined Bernstein full-time, and while she says she’s learning on the job, the ratings say she’s a quick study. In Nielsen’s summer ratings book, The Score ranked third in the market in total listening from 9 a.m. to noon, during “Bernstein and Rahimi,” among men 25-54. The show’s 5.9 share was the highest at the station.
“Leila connects with the audience, is so knowledgeable and understands how to have fun in this format,” Rosen said. “The fit with Dan has been very good. Her history in Chicago being one of the most visible and respected sports personalities on TV made the transition to a daily radio show more adaptable.”
TV had called her back for shows on Marquee Sports Network and Stadium, and about a month ago, Cross called her back, too. But this time, he wasn’t only in charge of NBC Sports Chicago. In June, he was put in charge of all three NBC properties in Chicago.
“I just thought that Leila was talented enough that we should find a place to put her,” said Cross, who hired Rahimi at NBCSCH. “We had a need, but it wasn’t really so much about the need. It was about the opportunity to go after a talented individual, and we wanted to find a way to make it happen.”
NBC 5 ended up having a bigger need when lead sports anchor Siafa Lewis left to return home and work in Philadelphia. Cross already had been talking to Rahimi, who returned to the air Nov. 7 on “Sports Sunday” with co-anchor Jeff Blanzy. She generally will appear Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Wherever she appears, Rahimi has proved to be adept at the job.
“I think the medium or the platform is less important than the talent,” Cross said. “Leila’s authenticity helps her relate with the audience, she’s always prepared and she’s got a personality. That definitely translates to TV and radio.”