ESPN's Mike Hall got his dream job. Now comes the hard part: keeping it
By Clarissa Cruz
Mike Hall's tiny cubicle is typical of a first-job-out-of-college space. University pennant? Check. Printed-out directions to last night's karaoke bar get-together? Ditto. Pile of unopened fan mail waiting to be read? Hold up ... fan mail? At this point, most of us just entering the real world are lucky if the receptionist knows our name. But as one of the newest -- and the youngest ever -- ESPN anchors (the result of winning Dream Job, ESPN's aspiring sportscasters-meets-American Idol reality show, last March), Hall is still learning to deal with overnight fame ... fewer than six months removed from cramming for finals at Missouri and nuking Healthy Choice meals for dinner.
"I haven't found my rhythm yet," he admits over coffee in the cafeteria of ESPN's Bristol, Conn., headquarters. "You go from a college life where you legitimately work for, what, a few hours a day? And the rest of the day you're surrounded by friends your age. I'm not a professional, I'm a 22-year-old idiot. But this is a business environment. You go out to dinner, you've got to order something nice. You've got to read French."
As if on cue, senior coordinating producer Barry Sacks interrupts, clapping Hall on the shoulder and cheerfully asking him if he has plans later that evening. Before Hall can respond, Sacks informs him that anchor Cindy Brunson has called in sick. Would it be a problem if Hall took a second two-hour anchor shift instead of just the one for which he was scheduled? Never mind that it takes Hall about six hours to prepare for a single ESPNews show, let alone a double. But he does what every eager, bright-eyed college grad does -- if he's smart -- when a new opportunity comes along. "Sure," he says quickly. "I've never done a double. What does that entail?"
"When you get off at 10, you get a break and you go back on the air at midnight," Sacks says. "You do a lot of writing, but hopefully some of the stuff you've written for eight will fall through."
"I'll figure it out," Hall says.
Sacks leaves, and Hall turns back with a frozen smile: "I have no idea what that means."
Yes, it's fair to say that Hall's first job is a little more high-pressure than most. The slim, fresh-faced Chicago native dived spiky-head-first into the crème de la crème of sportscasting jobs, with nary a single minute of professional airtime. It's pretty certain most of his fellow classmates don't have to worry about trying to maintain a sharp look on national TV with only three suits in the closet. ("You rotate them with a dark blue, a light blue, a yellow, a white and a stone shirt," he says, "and it looks like you've got 30 suits.") Or have to worry about interviewing their childhood sports idols on a daily basis. "I tell myself, Hold it in. Be cool," says Hall, whose dream interview is with softball star Jennie Finch. "Pretend I've been there before. But inside it's like, Omigod! I'm talking to Mike Eruzione! I just shook Rick Barry's hand! I'm gonna interview Peyton Manning!
"I am a dork."
On the negative side, most college grads aren't publicly humiliated right before their first day of work: On his ESPN Radio show in March, Dan Patrick said that it was as ridiculous for the Dream Job winner to become a SportsCenter anchor as it would be for the winner of the NFL's Punt, Pass & Kick competition to be offered a starting slot on a pro team. Ouch. "If I was in other people's shoes, I would have felt very upset because this isn't how it's traditionally been done," Hall says. "But Dan's been great. He came up to me and we went into a room, talked for 15 minutes, he gave me advice and was very honest with me." Hall now counts Patrick as one of his mentors, and his other colleagues have been similarly charmed.
"There was some quibbling about how somebody is going from A ball and then -- bang! -- you're in the majors," concedes smart-ass, specs-wearing anchor John Anderson. "But nobody ever resented Mike. And he's played it really smart -- he's nice to everybody, he asks questions and he doesn't pretend he invented the business yesterday."
Indeed, Hall is very much the man-about-ESPN's campus as he goes about his day. Arriving for work -- yes, he drives his Dream Job prize Mazda 3 there -- in jeans, a button-down striped shirt and blue-and-yellow Reeboks, he chats up the receptionist (who, in fact, does know his name) before heading to a story meeting with his producers, director and co-anchor for the 8 p.m. broadcast, Anthony Amey. The meeting includes discussions of the line judge who made questionable calls during the Serena Williams-Jennifer Capriati match at the U.S. Open, the Colts' backup quarterback situation and an upcoming Devil Rays-Yankees game. During one of the slower moments, Hall absently tucks his red pen into his shoe.
Then it's off to the newsroom, where he researches his stories and writes his copy. Half an hour before showtime, Hall dons one of his three suits, the Hugo Boss (a.k.a. "the good one") he purchased with Dream Job's $1,000 stipend, and heads over to the makeup room. As he gets primped and powdered, he dishes on his favorite cosmetic tip: "They remind me to lotion my face ... I mean, moisturize. Lotion is not a verb."
Showtime. Gone is the jokey, karaoke-singing college kid; in his place is a calm, engaging persona. A natural in front of the camera, Hall delivers news and highlights like a seasoned anchor. "His Dream Job experience really has prepared him better than a lot of people who come here from a local station," says Dream Job judge and longtime ESPN hiring honcho Al Jaffe. "He really knew what to expect."
Maybe so, but Hall is serious about making each day of his $95,000, yearlong contract with ESPN count -- his stint ends in April unless the network decides to keep him on. "I'd rather lie low at first, earn credibility," he says. "I still have a long way to go. I'm gonna get better today, and then I'm gonna get better next month, and then we'll see what happens in April."
Hall then slips back into jokester mode. "I have really nice legs," he says when asked about his on-screen appeal. "And I know how to use them. They are strong, they are powerful, and they are shaved. Baby's butt." We're sure Jennie Finch would appreciate that.
Issue date: October 7, 2004