Southern Charm

by Matt Cosentino | Sep 5, 2024
Southern Charm
The answer is always yes.

That philosophy has served Ashlyn Sullivan well during her quick and impressive rise up the ranks in the demanding industry of sports broadcasting, whether it meant accepting gymnastics instead of football as her first beat in college, taking freelance work covering the Korn Ferry Tour for the Golf Channel or applying for a job she wasn’t really interested in just to get her foot in the door with an NFL team.

It was also the approach she took in late 2022, when “the best sports market in the country” beckoned and she left her home state of Florida to join NBC Sports Philadelphia, primarily to cover hockey, which wasn’t exactly a sport she grew up with. In the 18 months since, she has already won over the notoriously brutal Philly sports fans, who can be just as hard on the people who cover their beloved teams as they are on the players, coaches and general managers.

A host for the network’s Flyers coverage who conducts live intermission interviews as well, Sullivan also co-hosts Birds Huddle, a talk show centered on the Eagles, and provides additional reporting from practices and games. Viewers appreciate not only her pleasant demeanor and knowledge of the teams, but also the clear preparation she puts in behind the scenes.

Sullivan, who also works as a sports talk host on 94WIP, has certainly come a long way from the little girl who used to race her father to the sports page each morning before honing her on-camera skills at the University of Florida and during a six-year stint as a team reporter for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

She spoke with South Jersey Magazine about her adjustment to the Philadelphia region, the next steps in her career and why Erin Andrews is still an important mentor to this day.

 

It seems like you’ve already held so many different positions and covered so many different events during your career even though you haven’t been doing it for very long. Has sports broadcasting been everything that you wanted so far?

Oh yeah. It’s funny, I think in this industry you have to be so motivated and such a go-getter that I struggle at times to appreciate how far I’ve come, and my parents do a great job of telling me to look back. A year and a half ago, I was still in Jacksonville and I thought there was no way I would ever make it to this big of a market in my 20s, so I definitely have to remind myself at times to appreciate how far I’ve come, still being young. But to me, I think, ‘Gosh, I am so young and I still have so much to do, so much to accomplish.’ So I’m constantly trying to balance the appreciation but the motivation to get where I want to go.

 

What led you down this path to begin with? Were you a big sports fan growing up and were you an athlete yourself?

Both. I’ve been a sports nut my whole life. I’m so grateful [because] I know so many people who are young who have no idea what they want to do, who have changed careers three times. … Since I was 5 years old, this is all I ever wanted to do. I’ve known for so long that this was the only option. I think you have to be that way in this industry, because you’re going to get bumped and bruised and thrown off the path, and this has to be the only way you see it to succeed. It’s been this way forever [with me]. My dad always tells the story of me picking up the sports [section in the] newspaper, and it was always a race to see who would wake up first, because I wouldn’t fold it correctly the way he wanted it. … That was my whole childhood. I have a dad and a brother who are sports nuts, they love SEC football, so I was born and bred into that. I was going to Florida Gator football games when I was 5, 6 years old, and I’ve just been obsessed with it ever since.

 

What sports did you play?

I was a softball player. I wasn’t very good, but I tried my best. (Laughs) I was definitely a benchwarmer, and I think that’s the great thing about [my career]. I knew I was never going to be able to play anything professionally, I just didn’t have the ability. But growing up in sports, you can relate to what these guys and girls are going through, just on a much smaller level.

 

Was the experience you received in college instrumental to your development as a broadcaster?

Big time. My dad went to the University of Florida, so I always wanted to go there. I tell a lot of guys and gals who call me now and want to do this [job], in my opinion you have to go to a big-time school with big-time college athletics, because of the opportunities you get right away at 18 years old to be on the field for a Florida Gator football game. A lot of people don’t get those opportunities. I know how much harder it is now to get into these big state schools, but we were so lucky and grateful to have an ESPN station on campus. Gator Vision, ESPN Gainesville, getting those reps right away when we were young [was huge]. I cringe now looking back at my college tape, but I was at least getting reps and building this [skill], and a lot of times kids don’t start doing this until they’re 22 or 23. Sadly, they’re behind the eight ball with these guys and gals who are going to big-time schools now.

 

It seems like you jumped at every opportunity that was presented to you, whether during college or right after your graduation.

Your answer is always yes. You’re never going to make any money at first, and that’s OK. When I was in college, I went to Steve Russell, who was our sports director, on the very first day of classes. I was 18 years old and I said, ‘I want to work Florida Gator football.’ He said, ‘Great, so do 30 other people. Why should I give it to you?’ So my first beat was actually gymnastics. I knew nothing about gymnastics, but it was funny because it was the first sport I covered and they ended up winning the national championship that year. That was honestly one of my fondest memories, and by the time my sophomore year rolled around, I was able to be placed on football. You don’t get the job you want right away, and I think that’s a misconception in this industry, that you just arrive and show up. No one sees the 30 steps before that.

 

One of the big breaks in your career was working as a team reporter for the Jacksonville Jaguars, where you served in many different roles. Was that a rewarding experience for you?

Oh my gosh, yes. I look back so fondly on the team and everything. … There was a seasonal broadcasting assistant position that I applied for and thought nothing of it. There was no promise of being on camera; it was logging footage, labeling sacks, labeling interceptions, wrapping camera cords, shooting press conferences—nothing that I wanted to do, but I saw it as hopefully an in to joining an NFL team. I got it, and I just bugged the heck out of them every day to put me on camera. They finally did with little assignments, and it grew into the team reporter role. I loved being part of a team. You really didn’t, but you felt like you had an impact on the wins and the losses, you were traveling with the team, getting to know the players, eating lunch with them. It was a really cool experience, and I feel like it helps me now, being on the other side of it, because I know how to treat these athletes; I know how to talk to these athletes. These guys are human and I think we need to treat them like that. Sadly, in this industry you see stories or articles that don’t do that. I think team reporting really helped me see the human side of these guys.

 

What did you know about Philadelphia sports before getting this job?

I knew they were nuts in the best way, and that has absolutely been confirmed two years later. I flew up for my tryout in late October and November, and that’s when the Phillies were playing in the playoffs. I remember flying in when they had a home game, and seeing it firsthand in the parking lot and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope I get this. I want to be a part of this.’ Two years later, it’s been that and so much more. I live in Old City and I love when I’m walking my dog in the morning and I see [someone wearing] a Phillies T-shirt, a Flyers ballcap, an Eagles jersey and it’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday. I think there’s no other sports town like it. It unifies everyone, and in the Northeast where people can sometimes not be the most unified, that’s the one thing that everyone can agree on.

 

In this business, you’re most likely going to have to move around and live in different parts of the country. Was it hard to leave Florida or did you just expect that it was coming?

It was very hard to leave Florida. I always knew my time would come, and I just got really lucky that my first job was close to home and I was able to stay in the South. But I saw all of my friends moving to the middle of nowhere—Kentucky, the cold in Buffalo—and I knew that would happen. For my next step to be Philadelphia, the best sports market in the country, it was a no-brainer. Was I scared of the cold? Yes. Were the people kind of mean and scary at first? Yes. But you just grow to accept it, and now you love it on the other side. Now I love saying I live in Philadelphia, but it was definitely an adjustment. You just have to toughen up, I won’t lie to you. Driving around and having people honking and flipping you off, I was starting to cry, but you can’t cry here. You have to get used to it. (Laughs) It builds you up and bruises you, and I’ve noticed how much growth I’ve had being thrown into this environment.

 

I heard a story about Al Morganti and Scott Hartnell giving you a hard time about the snow.

Oh my gosh, they still do. I have to stop believing everything they tell me. I had never driven in snow before, and we were working a Flyers game and looked outside and it was snowing. To me, it was like an avalanche in the parking lot. I know to everyone else it wasn’t. They told me—and I believed them—that I had to get a snow license to drive on the highway. I was panicking because I didn’t have my snow license. It’s things like that where I know people are like, ‘You dumb Florida girl.’ But it’s the truth, I am that. (Laughs)

 

Is it true that you never had ties to hockey, at least professionally, until taking the job at NBC Sports Philadelphia?

Correct. If you would have told me that my next job would be covering hockey in Philadelphia, I would have said no way. But the opportunity came and I’m so grateful for Scott and Al. We did crash courses—we sat at lunch for three hours and went through the team and learned the sport. My first two or three weeks, it was trial and error: Mispronouncing names and learning from it. Sitting with Scott and watching a game, you can learn so much. Now, two years later, I feel like I’m really educated in the sport. But at first, I was definitely a Southern girl who didn’t go to a lot of hockey games, and I had to work really hard to catch up and hold my own.

 

But you also still get to do a lot of football, which you’re very familiar with. Is that something you’re happy about?

Big time. People told me I was crazy to leave an NFL team and that I would never get back into it; that once I left, that was it, I’d have to say goodbye to it. It was a risk I was willing to take. I was really scared to leave the sport that I’ve grown up in and had all my experience in, but for some reason I had the faith inside me and I knew that somehow I was going to be able to get into football in Philadelphia. There was no promise of it, but I knew eventually I’d be able to work my way back on. Now as the months go by, I’m seeing more and more opportunities with football, and now that I’m on WIP Sports Talk Radio, I get to talk football for four hours on a show. So I’m really happy I took the leap, but it was really scary at first thinking I’d never get back to the NFL.

 

Aside from covering multiple sports, do you enjoy all of the different aspects of the job, whether it’s hosting the pregame and postgame shows, doing interviews for the Flyers in between periods or going out and reporting on practices?

I think nowadays you have to do that, and I’m really grateful for my production background and the editing and shooting I’ve done. When you learn how to do everything, it gives you a greater appreciation for all the people on the team who are helping to make the show what it is. I think everyone should know a little bit about everything and be in the control room and understand how hard it is to time a show and get to a break on time. Nothing makes me more angry than when people are mean to their crew and act like ‘divas’ of the industry. There’s no place for it. It’s really, really hard to do this, and normally the producers and the directors aren’t getting the credit. I hate the term ‘talent’—they call us talent because we’re on camera, but we’re the ones with the least amount of talent. It’s funny that they call us that. I’m grateful because with the Jaguars I was holding boom mics over Calais Campbell’s head at 22 years old. My arms were shaking and I was so sore the next day, but now I know how hard that job is and I will never say anything mean to a boom mic operator because he has the hardest job of the day.

 

Is WIP a nice side gig for you because it allows you to express your opinions more?

Oh yeah. Sports talk radio is something that’s somewhat new to me; I did it in Jacksonville, but never a four-hour show. The coolest part about WIP has been getting to know Philadelphia. We have regular callers who call every day, and now I know Truck Horn Jerry’s story: I know where he lives, I know what happened to him last week, I know what his job is. It’s been really cool getting to know the city through the lens of those phone calls. I joined WIP in January, so that was a peak time for whether or not Nick Sirianni was going to get fired. Every four-hour show was about that and I thought, ‘This is insane, that this many people care about this; that who the Eagles coach is going to be is impacting everyday life.’ (Laughs) It was nuts to get to know these people and I think it’s helped me grow into the city.

 

Are you encouraged by how far women have come in sports broadcasting—such as Kate Scott being the play-by-play voice for the Sixers?

It’s been so cool to see. I’m only 29, and there’s already a big difference from when I started at 22. For example, I was on a phone call with my agent and he said the phones are ringing off the hook trying to find female play-by-play talent, just like Kate Scott. That’s why she’s such a trailblazer, because right now, there aren’t a lot of them. There’s maybe a list of eight, and I think that’s the next step. My agent is pushing me to get comfortable with play by play, and if you had told me even 10 years ago that it would have been possible to be like a Jim Nantz, no way would a female have been able to do that. So the fact that companies and networks are looking for that is so encouraging. There’s at least an opportunity out there, and now you just need the experience to go get it.

 

Is there a particular person you’ve interviewed who stands out as the most memorable?

Honestly, I’m most proud of my interviews with [Flyers coach] John Tortorella. I’ve done three sit-downs with him now. I’ve interviewed Urban Meyer, Jalen Ramsey, but for some reason, my first interview with Torts, I was so nervous, just because I know the stigma with him. I knew how brutal he was and honest, and I knew if I asked a stupid question that he would tell me it’s stupid on camera. For some reason, since day one, we’ve just clicked. He’s always been so kind to me and welcomed me in. Erin Andrews is one of my mentors and I’m so grateful to her, and I told him the story about how she started with the Tampa Bay Lightning for her first job when Torts was the head coach there. So it was kind of a full circle moment: Now I’m here and we talk about her all the time, and she calls and checks in. I hope that I’ve been able to show the side of Torts to fans that not a lot of people see. When you see him outside of a press conference in the hallways, he is the kindest, most compassionate person and so sincere. Then you see the coaching side, and I don’t think anyone can imagine that he’s like that. It’s been such a challenge for me in an interview to show people that side, and I hope that we’re getting there.

 

Did you form a connection with Erin Andrews since you’re both University of Florida graduates?

Yes. I’ll never forget, my senior year they brought myself and two other reporters I was graduating with—Sara Perlman and Savanna Collins, who are still in the industry—and I think they told us they were going to give us lunch or something. They brought us into this room and sat us around a phone and said, ‘OK Erin, they’re here.’ It was the coolest thing ever: Erin Andrews was on the phone with us. She gave us great advice, she gave us her personal number, and we’ve kept in touch since then. I’m happy to see her all the time now at Eagles games, because Fox has a ton of them. She has no doubt been a trailblazer. Growing up, she was the one everybody wanted to be. She gave us all hope that this was even an option.

 

Even though you’re obviously busy with work, have you been able to explore this area at all? Have you been to the Jersey Shore?

I have been to the Jersey Shore, and that’s been very fun. I spend a good bit of time in Cherry Hill, Haddonfield and Voorhees, with the Flyers’ training facility being in that area. I’m actually in the process of buying a house there, so I’m hopeful of being a South Jersey resident soon. That’s exciting. Right now I’m in the city, and I love the restaurants and I love how everything is within walking distance. It’s great to have both: I love how in South Jersey you can still live a ‘suburban life,’ and in 15 minutes you can go to one of the best restaurants in the Northeast.

 

Are you looking forward to some much-needed vacation time before Eagles training camp starts?

Yes, because then life is over, but in a good way. (Laughs) I know that if I don’t do it now, I never will. You always say, ‘I’ll do it during the bye week.’ No, you won’t. You’re so tired and you’re not going anywhere. It’s football and then hockey starts, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I love that NBC is giving me the opportunity to do both and I didn’t have to say goodbye to football. It’s been very cool of them to understand that I have this passion and to give me the platform to do both at the same time. 

 


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Author: Matt Cosentino

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