Inside the Green Room with Steve Bunin
Once a month, CSN Houston shines the spotlight on a network staffer, providing an inside look at the people that cover your favorite teams. This month, CSN communications manager Rich Bocchini sits down with former ESPN anchor and current CSN anchor and reporter Steve Bunin.
Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch once described Bunin as, "one of the most underrated talents in sports journalism.” Bunin, who joined CSN Houston shortly after its launch in October, 2012, is an anchor, reporter, and host for CSN Houston programming including SportsNet Central.
CSN: Most people consider working at ESPN the pinnacle of sports broadcasting. Why leave such a sought after position to join CSN Houston, a brand new network?
SB: Professionally, to be a part of a startup, to mentor younger employees in our business, to host my own 1-hour interview show are just some of the reasons. On a personal level – the work-life balance. The reality of working as an anchor at ESPN is, while it is an absolute dream job - and was since I was 12 years old - work has to come first, or you simply fall by the wayside. If you get an opportunity to do a high-profile show, you take it. No matter what, basically. And for me, once we had our daughter, that became harder and harder to rationalize. I knew my time with her would be finite, and the opportunity to come here and have a consistent schedule was huge. No matter which anchor you are at ESPN, there is no consistency in your life, because a sick call or a flat tire by another anchor can throw off like 10 other anchors’ schedules that day… I wanted to have more control of my life. It was also exciting to move from a smaller city in Hartford to a major city like Houston for a number of reasons. Plus, and don’t underestimate this: no more April snowstorms.
CSN: Are the buildings at ESPN set up like we see in the commercials? You know, mascots hanging out, sink handles that look like baseball bats… that sort of thing?
SB: There are so many cool things. The sink handles aren’t baseball bats, I’m afraid to say, but in the cafeteria, they have an American flag made out of baseballs and bats that were used, I believe, in actual MLB games. Lots of employees’ cubicles are lined with random bobbleheads and sports memorabilia, so you walk into, say, Chris Berman’s or Steve Levy’s office and it’s just littered with great collectors’ items. One of the main buildings has the letters ESPN randomly stitched into the carpet pattern. The centrally-located lawn is transformed from a football field to a tennis court during Wimbledon - I once served an ace there, during an on-air SportsCenter lead-in to a highlight - to a soccer field, depending on the major event going on at the time. What else? Oh, the floor for the set of NFL Live is a parquet floor – and underneath it are the floors for the NBA and MLB shows and First Take. So on many days, the entire floor is replaced multiple times per day. And right near the entrance to the SportsCenter studio, there is a huge locked, fenced-in area that holds helmets and caps and jerseys for every major pro and college sports team, which is what they use for their “matchup” shot going into most highlights. That was always a huge winner when I took friends around. I could go on… but that gives you a taste, I guess.
CSN: Have you ever been part of a startup before?
SB: No. That was one of the things that appealed to me about CSN Houston – taking my experience from nearly a decade at this well-oiled machine like ESPN and helping implement those things here, giving a major city’s sports fans the coverage of their teams that they craved, but would never find at a national network which, somewhat understandably, spends more time on East Coast, or more accurately, “Big Team” – Packers, Cowboys, Yankees, Lakers, storylines.
CSN: What’s been the most challenging thing from a news perspective about being part of the launch of CSN?
SB: Establishing our foothold in a market where there are a handful of journalists who’ve been here for so long. From a news perspective, gathering contacts is everything. It’s hard to come in fresh, not just for me, but for us as a network, and compete. But I think we’ve made great strides in our first year. Our competitors’ advantage is experience. Our advantage is coverage and – I like to think – quality. We simply have so much more time to devote to each Houston entity – from youth sports to preps to NCAA to the pros. A local news sportscast is 2-3 minutes long – maybe 10-to-15 on a special Sunday or Friday night. We do 90-minutes every day, and that’s JUST in our newscasts, not to mention our specialty weekly Texans, Rice and UH shows, or nightly Rockets, Astros and Dynamo shows. It’s just no competition.
CSN: Let’s talk about the sports media business for a minute. Can Fox Sports 1 unseat ESPN?
SB: Not for a long time. But people once said CNN could never be overtaken by FOX in the ratings, and it was. FOX found a different way to approach news presentation. ESPN is more vulnerable than in the previous decade because now there are so many competitors out there – from niche networks like The Tennis Channel to regionals like us here at CSN. What ESPN has, though, is a 30-year head-start on FOX1 and, just as importantly, rights to all the major sports. Live events drive ratings more than newscasts. So if FOX opens up the bank and locks down more NFL or the NBA when that contract comes up, that’s a way to make up some big chunks of yardage. But it will take years to catch up. I’m excited to see if they do it – I have a lot of friends on and off-the-air at both networks.
CSN: You’ve done a lot of mentoring work with kids and even won a Presidential Award for your service. What got you involved in that?
SB: Going back to high school, I was friends with kids 2-to-3 years older and younger than me, and I think the idea of mentoring just sort of suited me. Then, as I crossed the country chasing my dream (12 moves in 7 years after graduating college), I found that coaching and/or mentoring provided me some balance in my life and a strong foothold in the community, not to mention, tons of story ideas. It wasn’t easy moving all the time, and getting involved with kids gave me an anchor. Of course, moving away so soon often made it way more difficult, but I found it worth the tradeoff. Mostly, I just found it fun – seeing a kid smile, especially a kid with a hard life, just moved me in a way that nothing else in life did. I always say, I get just as much out of my work with kids as they do. I was lucky – plain lucky - to be born into a strong family, and I feel it is an absolute obligation of those of us who were - to try to provide some of that love, discipline and stability in the lives of others who – simply out of bad luck, through no fault of their own – were not born into that type of situation.
CSN: Part of your work with kids involved coaching basketball. Do you find that you lean more towards basketball stories in your newscasts?
SB: Nah. I take a lot of pride in putting in the same effort into all the sports I cover. Certainly, I have a passion for hoops that, say, poker or hockey doesn’t rival. Coaching a pair of varsity high school basketball teams, and a handful of younger kids, definitely gives me a different insight into that sport, but I’m passionate about football and baseball and tennis and soccer and all the others. Like everybody, I have sports that aren’t on the top of my list. I’m not a big auto racing guy, for instance. But one thing I learned at ESPN that Kenny Mayne, a fellow Seattlite, told me, is you don’t have to memorize every roster of every team in every sport to be a great anchor. What you have to do is commit yourself to whatever story you’re covering. I think he’s right, and I think it has always been strength of mine. And ironically, I’ve probably interviewed as many racers than any other athlete, simply because there are more circuits and they crave the coverage – from IndyCar to FunnyCar to NASCAR … I’ve done them all. And I commit fully. But between you and me, yes, I like basketball more.