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Sage Steele Brings Heavy Mettle to ESPN’s A.M. ‘SportsCenter’

Sage Steele worked at ESPN’s “SportsCenter” for seven years. When she returns to the network’s franchise on Monday, she will be joining something entirely different.

SportsCenter AM” isn’t your dad’s “SportsCenter,” and it’s not supposed to be. ESPN launched the 7 a.m. program early last year after Super Bowl 50 – the earliest the show has aired in the Walt Disney network’s history. The hosts – Steele will team with Randy Scott and Jay Harris (pictured, above) –  are supposed to offer viewers the latest in breaking news and clips while connecting the dots with analysis and opinion. Those are all things Steele has in ample supply.

“That has always been my goal – make it conversational, not question and answer,” says Steele, holding forth over a glass of grapefruit juice recently at a Manhattan diner. ESPN has made no secret of the value it sees in her, going so far as to issue a statement of support in April after announcing she would no longer host “NBA Countdown.”  “I’m going to interrupt you. If you want to interrupt me, go for it. That’s how true conversations are.”

ESPN is adding Steele to its three-hour A.M. opener in hopes of augmenting a show that does more than just spit out the latest stats and highlights. Thanks to consumers’ growing access to information from streaming video and mobile devices, ESPN can’t just bark out last night’s scores, says Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of “SportsCenter” and news. “We all have to understand that people are starting their day consuming information at every point,” he says. “There are many people who don’t know why something happened. They may know the score, but they may not know the story behind the score. We think that’s an enriching way of mining all the video we produce throughout the course of the night.”

Steele says viewers want the highlights, but recognizes some of the biggest stories in sports these days aren’t about numbers and stats. There are stories involving race, money and crime that have fans talking. “You can’t worry about offending someone, because there will always be someone who gets offended, and, just like social media, I can’t control that,” she says. “But it’s going to be interesting and important to hear our voices on a couple of things.” She will debut on Monday along with new graphics, a revised set and new segments, including one that aims to tell viewers what coaches really mean by some of their more arcane utterances.

Part of the mandate of many new editions of “SportsCenter,” whether they be the late-night version hosted by Scott Van Pelt or the early-evening broadcast led by Michael Smith and Jemele Hill, is for the hosts to feel freer to offer their own take on the day’s events. But Steele says she can’t get too caught up in that. “None of us believes the show is about us. It’s not. It’s about the highlights and it’s about sports and it’s about the athletes. In conversation, it’s OK – producers have told us to express our opinion – but we have to be very careful about how we do it. My plan is it’s never going to be…” She banged her hand on the table.

Steele is no stranger to the instant outrage that can spark from a quick observation or random remark. Indeed, most of the attention the 44-year-old anchor has gotten in recent months has to do with either ESPN’s decision to move her to “SportsCenter” from “NBA” or some of her posts on social media. A quick Instagram note posted recently about protests at Los Angeles International Airport rubbed some the wrong way, as did a Twitter post chiding Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans about protesting last season during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“The more people have been vocal about me, the stronger I’ve gotten and the easier it’s gotten for me to not really pay attention and not really care,” she says. She won’t let social-media furor distract her from her job or family. “I don’t have enough hours in the week for those two things.”

Indeed, if you ask Steele about some of her favorite on-air moments, they involve her family. During her previous stint on “SportsCenter,” she had forgotten one year to ask for Mother’s Day off. Producers arranged for her three children to pay an on-air visit. She also remembers interviewing her father – the first African-American to play varsity football for West Point – for Veteran’s Day at Arlington National Cemetery, close to the site where her grandfather, a “buffalo solider” who served in one of the Army’s all-black units, is buried.

She’s interviewed Steph Curry and many more famous athletes, but “I don’t have a sexy anecdote about an interview with Michael Jordan,” Steele says. “It’s my kids and my dad.”

Steele will have some license to tell her take on things. “The way in which our anchors have decided to bring their full selves in terms of personality to the way they report stories and host the shows has been a real service to the fans,” says King, the executive.

For Steele, a self-described “night owl” who is trying to rework her lifestyle to accommodate her new job, it’s a power she’s taking on with great consideration. “No one should have a problem with some opinions being expressed – and getting back to the highlights.”

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