Welcome to The Big Lead’s 40 Sports Media Talents Under 40 list. As was the case in 2017, the criteria is as follows: To what extent there would be a bidding war for these writers, reporters, and/or personalities if they came available, whether they could plausibly make it on their own, the ability to report or ideate original content — with opinion or breaking news — or be the subject of stories that spread throughout the sports media ecosystem. Can they shape discussions? How much do their names resonate in headlines?
You will notice there are more than 40 talents on this list, as was the case in the past. We have paired those that have made the list for similar reasons to avoid many talents getting left off for those that would otherwise be the third or fourth talent to make the list for one particular reason.
Here they are:
#40 Kristine Leahy and Joy Taylor (FS1)
The two hosts have now impressed in two roles with FS1. Kristine Leahy has moved on from The Herd and now hosts her own interview show. On Fair Game, Leahy has been able to open up and bring on some of the biggest names in and out of the sports world. Joy Taylor has been a natural replacement for her and continues to stand out in a challenging role alongside Colin Cowherd as she did before next to Skip Bayless.
#39 Sarah Spain (ESPN)
The Emmy-award winning Sarah Spain is doing all sorts of assignments for ESPN. Most notably, she is one of the few female national sports radio hosts in the country. The rest includes appearances on the Dan Le Batard Show, Around the Horn, SportsCenter, OTL, E:60 and hosting her podcast That’s What She Said.
#38 Ariel Helwani (ESPN) and Mike Coppinger (The Athletic)
Ariel Helwani and Mike Coppinger cannot be ignored if you consume combat sports today. Helwani has long been the UFC’s most prolific reporter and has elevated his stature since joining ESPN. Coppinger, out of nowhere, has become boxing’s leading news-breaker. Coppinger has landed at The Athletic as a result of his breakout year.
#37 Jason Benetti (ESPN and the Chicago White Sox)
Jason Benetti, 35, is now the voice of the White Sox, and still full of an incredible amount of upside. Benetti will be a candidate for many high-profile jobs in the near future, whether that is in baseball, college football, college basketball, or a sport he has yet to pick up.
#36 Chris Mannix (DAZN, SI, FS1)
Few talents are as deep into two sports as Chris Mannix is with boxing and the NBA. Since leaving Yahoo, Mannix has found himself representing the way the business is heading: receiving checks from multiple networks. Right now, Mannix is writing and hosting two podcasts at SI, is the featured boxing reporter and analyst for DAZN, and appears on FS1’s studio shows as an NBA analyst.
#35 Rob Perez (Action Network) and Omar Raja (Bleacher Report)
Rob Perez and Omar Raja – better known as the creator of House of Highlights – have changed the way the NBA is consumed on social media with their highlights on Twitter and Instagram, respectively. Perez also excels in front of the microphone and camera, coming across as much as a fan as he does an analyst. Raja’s House of Highlights posts are widely popular and has an Instagram following of nearly 14 million. That is more than ESPN’s account. In a time where each network is looking for social strategy, Raja will no doubt have suitors later this year when his contract is up.
#34 Chris Simms (NBC Sports) and Adam Lefkoe (Bleacher Report)
Chris Simms and Adam Lefkoe have broken up as podcast co-hosts but are both receiving big NFL pushes and will be key components of their respective company’s future. Simms hosts a podcast for NBC, appears on Football Night America, and is a frequent co-host on Mike Florio’s ProFootballTalk Live. Lefkoe didn’t spend time in the NFL like Simms did, but is in line to become Bleacher Report’s top NFL talent. He will have a featured role on their new “gridiron” vertical this season as the host of an NFL interview show. Bleacher Report looks at Lefkoe, who also hosts a podcast for them, as a future star in the business.
#33 Colleen Wolfe (NFL Network)
If anyone is in line to one day replace Rich Eisen as the face of the NFL Network, it’s Colleen Wolfe. She hosts the weekend edition of Good Morning Football and now has a prominent role hosting Thursday Night Football. She’s a talented host and makes those on set with her better.
#32 Taylor Rooks (Bleacher Report)
Taylor Rooks now hosts her own show on Bleacher Report where she interviews some of the most unique names in sports and pop culture. She has a big impact on social media and continues to make waves at big events, such as this past Super Bowl when she captured Robert Kraft and Cardi B dancing together onstage. Rooks is a fun and entertaining personality that is well on her way to stardom.
#31 Chiney Ogwumike (ESPN)
While also playing in the WNBA, Chiney Ogwumike, who is only 27 years old, has become one of ESPN’s best NBA analysts. She is energetic, informative, and offers a different perspective on the various platforms she appears on. Ogwumike has also shown she can mesh and have success with any person she is asked to work with. At some point in her career, a chair on NBA Countdown will be fitting.
#30 Kayce Smith (Barstool Sports)
Kayce Smith landed where she was tailor-made to land: Barstool Sports. Smith’s radio show with Kevin Clancy and Jared Carrabis on SiriusXM and the pregame college football show that she hosts are highlights of Barstool’s programming. She will be featured all over the company’s growing college football coverage this season, which has a chance to find major success amongst college fan bases.
#29 Katie Nolan (ESPN)
Since moving over to ESPN from Fox, Katie Nolan hasn’t been seen much on the television side outside of Highly Questionable. She instead hosts a show on ESPN+ and a podcast. While there is much less glamor in that, from a content perspective, it’s a better, more loose fit.
#28 Renee Young (WWE and FS1 soon)
Renee Young is slated to host FS1’s upcoming WWE show. She is also used in a color commentary-type role during live WWE events, where she became the first female in history to do so. Young projects to be a big part of the WWE’s lucrative move over to Fox.
#27 Marcus Spears and Tim Tebow (ESPN and SEC Network)
Tim Tebow and Marcus Spears have helped make SEC Nation one of the best pregame shows in the business. Tebow is a big name who makes you stop and listen. Spears is one of ESPN’s best football analysts at both the college and pro level. His days on Get Up have turned him into one of the breakout stars of the year.
#26 Allie LaForce (Turner Sports), Kristen Ledlow (Turner Sports), Cassidy Hubbarth (ESPN)
Herein lies the future of NBA sideline reporting and each is currently on the rise. Ledlow is coming off yet another impressive conference finals assignment. LaForce is one of the sport’s top sideline reporters and works on Turner’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament, on top of being an NBATV studio host. Hubbarth has shown her versatility at ESPN in a multitude of roles and is involved in ESPN’s increased NBA digital presence with HoopStreams.
#25 Shams Charania (Stadium and The Athletic)
Still under 30 years old, Shams Charania is already a prominent NBA news-breaker. While mostly known for his scoops on Twitter, Charania now does segments for Stadium and writing for The Athletic.
#24 Nick Wright (FS1)
Nick Wright, 34, already fronts a national television show on FS1 with Cris Carter. Known for his fandom of LeBron James, Wright has emerged as a voice that matters in the broader conversation. After impressing during several fill-ins for Chris Russo last summer, Wright landed a daily radio show on Mad Dog’s namesake station.
#23 Sam Ponder (ESPN)
Sam Ponder was much better last year on Sunday NFL Countdown after a disappointing first season replacing Chris Berman. It will be fascinating to see what the future of the show holds. Ponder still faces pressure in a role that remains one of the best at ESPN.
#22 Albert Breer (SI)
The more NFL player movement there is, the brighter the future lies for Albert Breer. Breer is one of the most connected NFL writers in the industry. When he floats that something could happen, it often does. Breer has kept the Monday Morning Quarterback column a must-read since Peter King’s departure.
#21 Field Yates (ESPN)
Field Yates co-hosts the popular Fantasy Focus Football podcast and ESPN’s Sunday morning fantasy pregame show. He has created a unique voice on Twitter that differs from the other NFL insiders. Instead of being just another one to tell you what happens, Yates tells you what it means. His NFL Live appearances do wonders for the show’s energy. Each network with the NFL could find a spot and improve by adding Yates in some role.
#20 Jay Williams (ESPN)
Jay Williams is viewed as one of ESPN’s top basketball analysts and is a strong candidate to be added to NBA Countdown this upcoming season. Willimas created several talking points during the NBA Finals on Get Up. He is deeply embedded in Kevin Durant’s camp, which will only become more valuable over the next two NBA seasons
#19 Molly Qerim (ESPN)
Responsible for the ever-tough job of sitting in the middle of debates that feature Stephen A. Smith, Molly Qerim has excelled in her role as the host of First Take since taking over for Cari Champion. Qerim has stood out the most in the limited times she isn’t asking the questions, but answering them as a unique and informed voice.
#18 Chris Haynes (Yahoo!)
Since moving over to Yahoo, Chris Haynes has emerged as one of the top NBA reporters. He doesn’t just create news on Twitter, either. Haynes has created national discussion from articles, appearances on FS1, and his podcast, where he gets NBA players to sit back and talk like they do on the court. He is one of the few losses ESPN feels.
#17 Dianna Russini (ESPN)
Dianna Russini brings much more than just reporting as she has become one of ESPN’s most versatile talents. Few in the business can say they break news, host shows, analyze, and appear on Around the Horn andGet Up like Russini can. Her impressive last 12 months bodes well for her case for the next marquee NFL opening at ESPN.
#16 Jeff Passan (ESPN)
Jeff Passan has dominated the baseball beat since coming over to ESPN as their newest MLB insider. He has been good on television and is a must-follow for baseball fans. While he doesn’t have the legacy of Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowskiyet, it’s not hard to see him having that type of impact on the MLB for years to come.
#15 Ian Rapoport (NFL Network), Mike Garafolo (NFL Network), Peter Schrager (NFL Network and Fox Sports)
Ian Rapoport is a top-two news-breaker in the NFL and thus is unavoidable to anyone who consumes the nation’s No. 1 sport. His podcast co-host, Mike Garafolo, received interest from CBS to become their national insider and has stood out this year for notably being first to break the bombshell that was Odell Beckham Jr.getting traded to the Browns. Garafolo has found a home on the Sunday morning edition of Good Morning Football. Peter Schrager is featured on the critically-acclaimed weekday version of the show and now is the insider on Fox’s pre-pregame with Colin Cowherd and Charissa Thompson.
#14 Mina Kimes and Domonique Foxworth (ESPN)
Former radio co-hosts Mina Kimes and Domonique Foxworth are both fastly rising as NFL voices at ESPN. Kimes hosts one of the better NFL podcasts and does some of the sport’s best features. Also, this preseason, she will provide color commentary with the Los Angeles Rams. Foxworth has broken out this year as a solo talent from his time on Get Up and First Take. Foxworth can break down the game like a former player and discuss in-depth topics like a journalist. When ESPN updates their programming next, both will be strong candidates to be involved.
#13 Jessica Mendoza (ESPN)
There is a long list of accolades Jessica Mendoza was first to accomplish. That includes being the first female ESPN baseball game analyst in history. Mendoza has been a trendsetter for years and is now standing out in a booth with Alex Rodriguez. As one of ESPN’s faces of baseball, Mendoza has become one of the sports most recognizable voices.
#12 Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre (ESPN)
Bomani Jones and Pablo Torre have a show built around their personalities in the afternoon block on ESPN. The show now leads into the three other Erik Rydholmshows: Highly Questionable, Around the Horn and PTI. Jones also hosts a podcast for ESPN.
#11 Dan Orlovsky (ESPN)
Dan Orlovsky was one of ESPN’s best NFL voices the moment he took the job. Since then, he’s only gotten better. The network looks at him as a star and has big plans for him going forward. Right now, Orlovsky is seen all across the network and only more should be expected.
#10 Pat McAfee (ESPN and WWE)
The funny, innovative, and versatile former punter is going to have a big impact at ESPN. Pat McAfee will be part of their Thursday college football coverage and make appearances on shows like Get Up. It’s hard to point to the upcoming launch of the XFL and not see a fit for McAfee there as well. He already works with the WWE, where he brings an unmatched level of energy and excitement. Could he be the next talent to get a daily show?
#9 Adam Amin (ESPN)
Adam Amin has proven he can be a prominent play-by-play announcer by calling pretty much everything. He can call any sport, at any level, at any time, in any moment. He is moving up the ranks with college football, a sport he may one day be the best at.
#8 Joel Klatt (Fox Sports)
Joel Klatt is coming off his best year in the booth and has turned into one of the best color commentators in all of college football. Klatt is also the go-to college football analyst for all of Fox’s FS1 shows, where he gives them real credence on the sport during his appearances. He will once again be on the call for some of the biggest Big 10 matchups this season.
#7 Ryan Ruocco (ESPN, DAZN, and YES)
What a resume Ryan Ruocco is going to have when all is said and done. Ruocco has now added DAZN boxing to his arsenal and is far from being done. He captures big moments like Mike Breen and should be in the running to one day replace him in calling the NBA Finals. That goes along with being the presumed future voice of the New York Yankees.
#6 Nate Burleson (NFL Network and CBS)
Nate Burleson is following in the footsteps of Michael Strahan by crossing over into entertainment. This September, Burleson will be featured on Billy Bush’s new Extra Extra. In addition, Burleson will be seen plenty in the football world both on Good Morning Football and CBS’s The NFL Today. Two roles he is excellent in.
#5 Joe Davis (Fox Sports and SportsNet LA)
Joe Buck would be the first talent signed in sports media in an open market. His presumed heir apparent Joe Davis wouldn’t be far behind. Like Buck, Davis is elite in memorable moments. Despite being many years away, it’s not hard to see a World Series in Davis’ future. The strong-voiced play-by-player has done as well as anyone could have imagined in replacing a legend in Vin Scully as the voice of the Dodgers.
#4 Laura Rutledge and Maria Taylor (ESPN)
You cannot have the conversation of the next face of ESPN without bringing up – and maybe concluding at – Maria Taylor and Laura Rutledge. Whether they are hosting, opining, sideline reporting, or interviewing, the two have enhanced each broadcast they have been on. Rutledge has proven she should be the full-time co-host to Mike Greenberg on Get Up. Taylor has already been rumored to be the next host of NBA Countdown and is the network’s best option for several marquee roles. ESPN can afford to lose most talents. These are two they would be better off giving featured platforms to before rivals start offering them.
#3 Charissa Thompson (Fox Sports)
She is no longer with Extra, but in the sports world, Charissa Thompson is one of the best. Fox NFL Kickoff is the best pregame show in large part because of her work on it. While always standing out, she makes everyone around her better. She is a dynamic interviewer and few hosts, if any, have been better over the past two years.
#2 Big Cat and PFT Commenter (Barstool Sports)
No time slot, lead-in, promotion, season, or topic is needed for Big Cat and PFT Commenter to do what they do. Pardon My Take has been the top sports podcast on nearly every podcast player nearly every day since it launched. The duo has chemistry we haven’t seen since Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser. They have each expanded well beyond the podcast. Both of them host high-level radio shows on SiriusXM, PFT plays guitar in Barstool’s pop-punk band, and Big Cat is involved in most of the company’s content projects. Solo or as a pair, few under or over 40 have the open-market value they do.
#1 Tony Romo (CBS)
As good as the other color commentators in the NFL are right now, none have the impact of Tony Romo. Romo is already an all-time great at this and the further the season went last year, the better he got. A lot is made out of him accurately telling you what is going to happen before it actually happens. But his love for the game and ability to make the viewers smarter is what sets him apart. With his contract set to expire in a year, Romo is going to be the most highly sought after sports media free agent in recent memory and a $10 million annual salary is likely. ESPN and Fox are expected to make a run at him.
Under the radar sports media talents under 40 to watch out for this year: John Jastremski (WFAN); Malika Andrews (ESPN); Vincent Goodwill (Yahoo); Nabil Karim (ESPN); Robbie Fox (Barstool Sports); Sarah Kustok (YES)