Cassidy Hubbarth rides digital wave to stardom at ESPN

The Evanston Township High School and Northwestern graduate signed a multiyear contract extension to remain an NBA show host and reporter.

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On Friday in Cleveland, Cassidy Hubbarth will host her seventh NBA Celebrity All-Star Game.

On Friday in Cleveland, Cassidy Hubbarth will host her seventh NBA Celebrity All-Star Game.

Logan Riely/Getty Images

Cassidy Hubbarth has never been camera-shy. In at least one instance, she was camera-crazy.

Hubbarth played wing for the girls soccer team at Evanston Township High School. On the bus ride to the 2002 Class AA state championship game, Hubbarth moved to the front of the bus to deliver a message to coach Marx Succes.

“After we win,” Hubbarth said, “I’m gonna be right next to you because they’re gonna take your picture, and I’m gonna be in every one.”

True to her word, after the Wildkits beat Wheaton Warrenville South 2-0 to cap an unbeaten season, Hubbarth practically stuck to her coach.

“Cameras followed me around hoisting the state championship trophy, and Cassidy is in every picture,” said Succes, who turned several of the photos into placards that he posted on his office wall. “She’s got the personality.”

That personality led Hubbarth to ESPN, where she has covered the NBA since 2013. On Friday in Cleveland, she’ll host her seventh NBA Celebrity All-Star Game, and ESPN will announce that she signed a multiyear contract extension to remain a host and reporter.

“I’m living my dream: I’m covering the NBA,” she said. “That’s what I always wanted to do.”

But she’s still connected to Evanston. Hubbarth, 37, gave the commencement speech at ETHS for the Class of 2021, though the pandemic forced her to address the students digitally. That didn’t stop her from putting on a show.

“Go to YouTube and listen to her graduation speech,” said Succes, who now coaches boys soccer and helps coordinate graduation speakers. “It is one of the best that we’ve ever had. She used her talent. She put a lot of effort into it, and she reached those students right where they are.”

***

Sundays were special for Hubbarth growing up. The family routine was church, breakfast, then plopping on the couch for “Fox NFL Sunday.” It was a Bears household, so the network with the NFC package was the channel of choice. Every week, Hubbarth intently watched Pam Oliver interview players on the pregame show, and one day a light bulb went on.

“I knew I wanted to be in sports broadcasting since I was in middle school,” said Hubbarth, who attended Haven in Evanston. “Even though the Bulls were my first and true love when it came to sports, I really did enjoy sitting and watching Bears games with my family. The whole viewing process of football Sunday is what drew me to the sports-media side. Not just the games, the pageantry of Sunday.”

Hubbarth found work at a job fair through Northwestern’s Medill journalism school. After graduating in 2007, she was a traffic reporter for NBC 5 and a production assistant for Intersport, a sports production company in Chicago that at the time created content for Sprint Exclusive Entertainment. The former telecommunications company provided video for its flip phones, and Hubbarth gave sports reports.

Mobile media platforms were in their infancy. The job put Hubbarth on a path through the digital sports scene, and she followed it at each of her stops. After the stock market crashed in 2008 and Sprint dropped its content plans, Hubbarth joined Comcast SportsNet Chicago (now NBC Sports Chicago) as an associate producer.

“CSN was like my grad school. It taught me what a newsroom is like,” Hubbarth said. “How to write proper videos, how to put togethera good package, cut highlights. I did that for a year, and then they let me do some digital work. I covered the Cubs Convention and did some TikTok-type videos. I was asking funny, quirky questions with fast cuts and things that I felt would play well on digital media.”

Though she began exploring more on-camera work, Hubbarth hadn’t decided if she wanted to pursue it because she enjoyed producing. But Kevin Anderson, then a CSN producer and now the director of studio content at NBCSCH, nudged her to do more on the air.

“I knew she was gonna be a star,” Anderson said. “She just had this certain thing. [Former CSN anchor and reporter] Sarah Kustok was the same way. Sarah and Cassidy have that same quality that’s hard to pinpoint. But I knew with both of them that they were going to be stars. They have this hunger and this drive to constantly work and get better.”

That drive had Hubbarth working a second job at Fox Sports South, where she appeared on “SEC Gridiron Live.” After working Monday through Wednesday at CSN, she’d fly to Atlanta on Wednesday night, host the show Thursday, visit an SEC school Friday and Saturday and fly home Sunday to do it all over again. On the SEC show, social-media interaction was integral.

“I came out of school at such a great time where media was changing,” Hubbarth said. “The advantage I had was understanding social media because I was in it as it was developing. I was able to apply that to traditional media companies wanting to implement that in their coverage. At Fox Sports South, they wanted me as a social-media reporter, and at the time they didn’t even know what that meant.”

***

In August 2010, Hubbarth had verbally agreed to be a host for Big Ten Network when ESPN invited her to audition for their new digital network, ESPN3. Thinking she couldn’t pass up the chance, she tried out. A week later, she moved to Bristol, Connecticut. For viewers watching college football and NBA games on their computers, Hubbarth would appear on the halftime show.

Though she appreciated the springboard that the digital world gave her, Hubbarth was looking for opportunities in the linear world, as well. But it took time.

“I was under the basement,” she said. “I had to crawl up from underneath the basement to try to get myself some run on linear.”

The network gave her a chance on “SportsCenter America,” which aired in Europe, and “SportsCenter Australia.” Later, she appeared on “Highlight Express” on ESPNews. Finally, she appeared on “SportsCenter” – the one that airs in America.

It all paid off when ESPN tabbed Hubbarth to host its NBA studio shows. She began working from the sidelines on Christmas Day in 2015. The first coach she interviewed was the recalcitrant Gregg Popovich. Still, it went far better than her only previous sideline work, for Big Ten Network, when she joined Penn State’s huddle.

“The coach looked at me like, ‘Get out of this. What are you doing?’ ’’ she said. “So to say I was green making the transition on the biggest stage covering my favorite sport, I think it’s an understatement. I didn’t have any experience.”

But she did have a lot of support, particularly from renowned “SportsCenter” anchor Stuart Scott, who died from cancer in 2015.

“When I first started at ESPN, he reached out to me because he said, ‘You got something,’ ” Hubbarth said. “The reason I called him my biggest mentor is I’d watch how devoted he was to his craft. No matter how much he was going through, how much he was hurting. And so I always think about that.”

Continuing her digital motif, Hubbarth hosts “Hoop Streams,” ESPN’s online pregame show. Like her first job appearing on Sprint phones, Hubbarth can be seen anywhere.

“You could argue that’s how people consume things now; they’re on their phones,” she said. “This is part of my identity. Being a host of this show, which has found a lot of success, to be a part of this expanding live-streaming collection of shows that ESPN has, it’s not lost on me how important it is.”

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