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UCLA

ESPN's Referee

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By Paul Feinberg '85

Published Feb 4, 2013 3:18 PM


Bruin Cari Champion provides a voice of reason in a guys' world.

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It's a sporting spectacle but not for the faint of heart.

In one corner sits Skip Bayless, the columnist-turned-commentator who never lacks for an opinion. In the other, it's the equally opinionated Stephen A. Smith, who manages to disagree with Bayless at every turn. The pair square off every weekday morning on ESPN's First Take, tossing out opinions from every angle, like a pair of boxers throwing haymakers in the middle of the ring.

As First Take's new host, Cari Champion '98 has a front row seat for the verbal carnage. Champion, who took over the hosting duties in October, says her role is "part referee, part moderator. My job is to make sure we further the debate. I try to add some levity to the conversation and every now and then I have to jump in as a referee."

First Take is ESPN's only live two-hour show, and Champion says she spends much of that time "directing traffic," which ranges from reporting the latest Tim Tebow rumor to interjecting some new stat to inform the debate of the day. She has producers monitoring the news and communicating with her during the show, but it's up to her to decide when to separate Bayless and Smith or turn to another guest on the show to weigh in.

"It's a chemistry thing. It's at my discretion as to when I might jump in and say 'let's go to traffic,'" Champion says. "Social media is also a huge aspect of what we do and I'm live tweeting during the show. My job is to really juggle a lot of different things at once."

Champion's media career began at UCLA, where she majored in English and minored in mass communications. She wrote a handful of articles for the Daily Bruin and says she always knew she wanted to be a journalist. She credits UCLA alumni, such as the Los Angeles Times' Matea Gold '96, who spoke in her classes as inspiration for "showing me what was achievable," along with faculty who were recognizable names in the business. In her junior year, she studied in Washington, D.C. and scored an internship at CNN. "That was when I knew, 'I'm going to do this.' It just felt natural," Champion says.

Before First Take, Champion was an anchor and reporter at the Tennis Channel; she also served as an entertainment reporter for The Insider, Hollywood 411 and the Starz network.

Now, though, she's First Take's voice of reason, 30 hours of sports programming a week. She likens her position to being the only woman hanging around in a local barbershop.

"Every day is completely different and it's never dull," Champion says, "Skip and Stephen A. are passionate, true and authentic. I try to be authentic as well, just take my time and pick my spots to jump into the mix."

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