Katie Nolan on being a sports personality in the digital age

Image: twitter screenshot

Katie Nolan works for ESPN, but her Saturday work shift wasn’t a typical made-for-TV broadcast. For one, she was seated in an armchair, legs curled up underneath her, and was dressed in a flannel and jeans. 

“Don’t quote me on this, but look it up. You’re at a computer,” Nolan said to no one in particular as she discussed football, Atlanta remixes, and blocking people on Twitter with her colleague Clinton Yates for ESPN’s NFL Wildcard Live, airing exclusively on Twitter.

Nolan isn’t a typical sports analyst who shares breaking news and meticulously scrutinizes replays. She’s a Boston native who loves the New England Patriots and will send tweets like this on a Saturday night: 

Her dialogue is chipper, but not fake. She swears, uses the word “like” — like, too often — and goes on tangents. Her career has included chatting about topics like “female viagra” and a high school’s “fantasy slut league” for YouTube channel Guyism

“One of things about the internet that I love the most is it prioritizes authenticity,” Nolan told Mashable. “It feels very comfortable and a thing where you’re just chatting. The stakes are low, and you’re not doing anything except what’s authentic to you.”

Yeah, Nolan’s quite thankful for the internet. Seven years ago, she was creating YouTube videos out of her Allston apartment between bartending shifts. Since then, she’s won a Sports Emmy for her weekly series Garbage Time With Katie Nolan, where her source material ranged from comedy — like the time she struggled oh so mightily through a beer mile — and serious — like the time she dismantled the NFL in a piercing segment on its handling of Greg Hardy.

As of October, Nolan’s been working for ESPN to help the brand “expand across the digital space,” as Connor Schell, ESPN’s EVP for content, said in a statement at the time of hiring. 

To say Nolan’s contributions are helping would be an understatement. ESPN joined Snapchat Discover at its start in January 2015 and attracted about 2 million viewers per day over 34 months. After reworking the format in November 2017 to a new version of SportsCenter, with Nolan as one of the personalities, the daily viewership on Snapchat has doubled.

ESPN has long been criticized for staying stagnant in a rapidly changing digital world, and as Nolan helps the aging cable network grow in the 21st century, she’s been staying authentic. But her quick wit and frank commentary hasn’t been easy for ESPN to handle. 

Just a few days before that Twitter show, Nolan casually called President Trump a “f*cking stupid person” while appearing on Viceland’s talk show “Desus and Mero.” Those words directly oppose ESPN’s social media policy released in November. The guidelines advise against “overt partisanship or endorsement” of politicians and reads, “We should avoid personal attacks or inflammatory rhetoric.” Though, Nolan’s comments were not made directly on social media.

ESPN hasn’t punished her. “We have looked into the totality of Nolan’s comments, they were inappropriate, and we have addressed it with her,” an ESPN spokesperson said in a statement.

Nolan’s commentary inspired dozens of headlines and backlash from people, some of whom noted her ESPN colleague Jemele Hill was suspended in October after she tweeted “Donald Trump is a white supremacist” and later suggested angry Cowboy fans boycott advertisers.

During the Twitter show on Saturday, Nolan alluded to her incident when discussing the size of a player’s hands. 

“I don’t want to talk about small hands,” she quipped. 

Just another day on the internet, and Nolan’s fully aware of the highs and lows of being an online personality. When she’s not crafting 280-character jokes for Twitter, Nolan browses her feed, trending topics, and even reads her own mentions. 

“Now, to be clear, I’m not saying I read my mentions and take everything at face value. That’s the best way to go insane, but if I see enough people after a show saying, ‘You’re touching your hair too much,’ which ugh, oh my god, I do, it’s feedback that you get,” Nolan said. 

Between her gigs at Fox Sports and ESPN, Nolan described Twitter as “like all I had.” But rather than post more, she “scaled back because I found myself getting really frustrated. I was like, ‘I have opinions. I want to share them.’ And Twitter wasn’t giving me enough,” she said.

Since landing at ESPN, Nolan has appeared on camera in the traditional sense, making her ESPN debut by co-hosting Highly Questionable in October. But for now, her focus has been on Snapchat, Twitter, and a new podcast. 

For Nolan, being on SportsCenter for Snapchat has been rather surreal, given that she grew up watching it as much as she could. 

“My brother, when we were younger, actually had to go to the hospital because as we were getting ready for school my dad yelled that the highlights were on and my brother went running down the stairs and slid and hit his head on the wall,” Nolan said. 

“It’s so funny now when I got the job at ESPN my family was like, ‘Oh good, the company that sent your brother to the hospital,'” she continued.  

At that age, ESPN wasn’t necessarily her dream job. Nolan tended not to watch many sports talk shows “because they didn’t ever feel like they were for me. This isn’t just on ESPN but, in general, sports programming felt like it was made for men,” she said.

“I looked over at my boyfriend, and he didn’t understand it and I was like, ‘Oh my god. That woman just made a joke for me on TV.'”

But Michelle Beadle, co-host of ESPN’s SportsNation, opened Nolan’s eyes to the idea of being an on-air sports personality. All it took was one “very off-hand” joke about the Kardashians in late 2011. 

“I laughed at it, and I looked over at my boyfriend and he didn’t understand it and I was like, ‘Oh my god. That woman just made a joke for me on TV,'” Nolan said. 

It’s much of the same fodder Nolan is adding to ESPN’s new SportsCenter, which for years has felt stuck in the days of postgame highlight packages. Nolan’s new ventures are much different, though. She says shooting for Snapchat is “a completely different experience from anything I’ve ever done, which is kind of exciting at this point because I’ve done every platform you could possibly do.” 

“Being able to consume content that’s one swipe away in the same app where you’re sending your friends a funny picture of yourself with dog ears is something that we need to keep in mind,” Nolan said.

But how do you avoid the “Hello, fellow kids” problem while producing Snapchat shows? Nolan said, for her, it’s been a learning experience. At 30, turning 31 later this month, she’s a bit older than Snapchat’s core audience. Seventy-five percent of SportsCenter viewers on Snapchat are under 25. 

“If you don’t know, say you don’t know,” Nolan said.” I don’t know what [fidget spinners] are but people seem to like them.”

Next up for Nolan is a new podcast. She used to host a podcast for Garbage Time, famous for Bachelor opinions and sports ramblings chalk full of one-liners. This one, called Sports? with Katie Nolan, will be different but also quite the same. 

“It’s ‘Sports with a question mark’ and the point of ‘Sports with a question mark’ is ‘Is it sports?’ We can talk about whatever I feel like because podcasts are amazing,” she said. 

After all this talk of digital platforms and ESPN, I asked Nolan what the chances are that the New England Patriots will win this year’s Super Bowl, knowing we’re both fans. 

“Oh yeah, happening, and they’re winning it,” she said — confidently — before we hung up. 

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