After 20 years at ESPN, Holly Rowe still cannot believe she’s paid to watch sports and go to games — something she’d do anyway.
“You will never meet someone who is more grateful to have the job they do,” she says. “I get to go and do something I love every single day. There’s never been a luckier girl in the world. I think that having that spirit of gratitude, instead of entitlement, has served me well.”
Rowe covers college football, men’s and women’s college basketball, the NBA and WNBA as a reporter. She’s also provided play-by-play commentary for women’s college basketball, softball, volleyball and gymnastics.
She shared her story in February at a presentation sponsored by WELD and Beyond the BaselineTM. The series was part of the NCAA’s commitment to ensure the Women’s Final Four® and women’s college basketball reached as many people as possible in the Columbus area.
Be grateful, but work hard
Rowe discovered her passion early and has never wavered from it. It also never occurred to her it was unusual for a woman to work in sports.
“My naiveté and not putting limitations was really helpful. I don’t feel like ‘I’m the only woman, what do I do?’ Instead, it’s, ‘I’m Holly and I’m here to do a great job.’” Rowe says. “I think your attitude determines in some respects how you’re treated. Not always, but I think it does a lot.”
At the University of Utah, Rowe took every opportunity, including unpaid internships. One of her first radio station assignments was to cover the NBA All-Star Game.
“I hear from people every day who say, ‘We want to do what you’re doing. We want to have your job’ (because it’s the best job in the world.) But very few people are willing to do the hustle and the work that it needs,” she says. “Because you don’t just pop up one day and get on ESPN. It doesn’t work like that.”
At one point, Rowe worked 9-to-5, would sleep a few hours and then head to a radio station to run the control board for an overnight trucking show. There were breaks for news reports, so Rowe did a sports report to practice being on air.
“If you do the work that other people don’t want to do, you will start small and get the opportunities,” she says. “In my life, I wanted to work hard and make a difference wherever I was. Nothing should be beneath you.”
Rowe’s tireless work ethic comes from not only loving what she does, but also realizing younger people want her job. She treats every event like it’s the Super Bowl and believes that you should make the big time where you are.
Make it count
Rowe has learned every opportunity can be special, even if you don’t realize at the time. For instance, Pat Summit, women’s basketball coach for the University of Tennessee, was in the Final Four, and Rowe attended her practice for the fifth time.
“She comes up to me and says ‘Holly, why are you here? What could you possibly learn that you don’t know already?’ I said, ‘People in America would pay money to be in here. I will never miss this opportunity.’”
That was the last time Rowe went to a Summit shootaround before the coach retired with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Rowe also struggled with work-life balance as a single mother. When her son was 3, she did college football games on the weekends. During the week, she would head to a Salt Lake City radio station at 4 a.m.
“I’m an on-the-air personality at ESPN. You’d think I was big time or something, and I’m doing traffic updates with my kid in pajamas on the floor to try to make ends meet. It took a long time, working at ESPN, before I finally started getting paid what you would think of as a salary,” she says.
Rowe never gave up on her dream, no matter how tight money was or how difficult work was to balance.
“I was one of those moms that I was every class’s room mother, I coached every team. I had such guilt for being gone on the weekends working for ESPN that I overcompensated during the week,” she says.
When she asks her 22-year-old son about it now, he doesn’t remember any of it.
“You have to do what makes you happy. If you are a happy human being, you are going to be a better parent,” Rowe says.
Learning to let go of insecurity was driven home when Rowe was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago. She kept going to work, even with a port under her arm or wig on her head.
“What I learned through cancer is that every time I don’t go to work, and I don’t do what I love, what I’m passionate about, I’m letting cancer beat me — and I’m competitive, I do not want that,” Rowe says.
In addition, she says when she doesn’t cave in, she’s rewarded. For example, Rowe had to cut off her hair, which was falling out, but that night she attended the ESPY Awards and got to meet Chance the Rapper.
Her cancer, which was in remission, came back, but Rowe’s latest tumor is shrinking, and she takes inspiration from seeing people every day who overcome challenges and win.
“There’s a hundred things that happen in the course of every day that make us want to quit or throw our hands up (or) get frustrated, but I have been unyielding in my love of sports,” Rowe says.