A four-sport athlete at Wilmington High School, Lisa Stokes is now using her athletic skills in another capacity, as Director of Booking and Talent Productions for ESPN.
Stokes graduated from both Wilmington High School and Suffolk University before moving on to intern with Fox25 Boston and the Lowell Spinners. She then ended up working with the Women’s Sports Foundation run by tennis legend Billie Jean King. In that role, Stokes worked with a lot of athletes.
In 2008, she came to ESPN as a talent producer. For the past six years, she’s been running the department.
When asked if she could see ESPN being her last job, she stated how much she loves coaching and teaching and hinted that she may love to do that someday. She also reminisced about her time at Suffolk University and Wilmington High School and how she can’t imagine those places without thinking about the basketball teams for which she played.
She said Suffolk holds great memories not only because of the basketball team, but also because she met her husband there. Most importantly, according to Stokes, it’s those sports memories that made her into the woman she is today.
She mentioned how even at seven years old, so many children only play one sport nowadays. She said she’s not about to tell someone how to parent, but added children should be exposed to many different activities.
“Playing four sports helped develop me into who I am,” she acknowledged. “I never didn’t have practice in high school.”
She said that sports taught her discipline and they helped her graduate Suffolk with a 3.9 GPA.
“I learned how to manage time. Being an athlete is a huge part of who I am. Being a boss and a mom is only a small percentage of my life,” she noted.
She did add that many of the people who work with her only see her as the boss and mother and not the athlete. This is probably a situation that befalls many women: being seen as something other than a mom or a (fill in job title). With men, they are often treated as though they have many layers, which they do. Men, though, seem to reminisce about past accomplishments more than women, which may play a part in why they can be seen as athletes and fathers and (fill in job title).
Some part may lie in how men and women are raised differently and how they are told what to hold in high esteem. Stokes said she was raised by an “incredibly strong mother.”
“She would come to all my games and clap, even though she didn’t know the rules,” Stokes remarked.
She even came to her games at Suffolk University after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Stokes said she’s doing well now.
Since her mom wasn’t the athlete, her best friend from back in elementary school really got her into sports.
“I owe all credit to my best friend who moved to Wilmington at eight-years old. He taught me how much fun sports could be. We’d play basketball and hockey, then he would teach me how to swing a golf club.”
Nowadays, her teachers/mentors have a little more clout than best friends. Stokes has been able to meet and speak with some of the best coaches of all time: Bobby Bowden, Nick Saban, Jay Wright, Les Miles, Pat Summit, Muffet McGraw, and Geno Auriemma.
Those men and women have showed her how it’s even more important to be a good person than it is to be a good coach. She said if her children ever get into sports, she wants them to have the influence of amazing people that will raise and develop the whole person.
As a mother, she knows how hard it is to raise children, but she hopes teachers can help kids know the alphabet and show empathy.
After excelling at basketball and hockey, among other sports, Stokes now gets to work closely with top NBA players and coaches, not to mention college stars and coaches. Of course, it’s not just basketball players who come to ESPN. In fact, it’s not just athletes.
Just this year, she’s worked with actors Mark Wahlberg and Michael B. Jordan. In the past, she’s worked with people like actors Josh Duhamel and Will Smith, whom she described as her “white whale.” She had spent eight years trying to book the multi-talented star.
“When I shook his hand and told him,” she said, “he said, ‘well, I hope it’s not eight more.’”
It’s not all fun and games for the Wilmington native. ESPN is a 24-hour a day network. When news breaks she has to be on top of it. Luckily for Stokes, she has an “amazing” team of 10 people in her department situated around the country. Since she’s a mother of two kids, she lets the west coast bureau handle any overnight news.
“It’s a challenging job, 24-hour news, but it’s a blessing to work in sports,” she acknowledged. “We have the ability to find great stories and put them on national TV.”
She mentioned how the world is such a different place right now and ESPN gets to be an escape for people.
“We tell many great stories that give people hope,” she noted.
Of course, ESPN isn’t just ESPN. The network has grown leaps and bounds even over the last decade, not to mention since its inception in 1979. But in the past 10 years, the “worldwide leader” has added more programming across its variety of channels, plus social media content like SportsCenter on SnapChat and the new ESPN+ which allows the network to broadcast even more games than ever before.
Stokes said she does a lot of work with the social team, ESPN+ and ESPN Radio. She said the volume of guests she booked was very high early on (100s each week) across all the different platforms.
“ESPN is constantly inventing new shows, revamping old shows; no show is ever the same,” she mentioned.
This is why her “amazing” team is so important: with all this content, and the never-ending news cycle, someone always has to be ready to break any important story. Stokes said she built her team of 10 from the ground up, calling them all very independent and hard working.
“I’m not a micromanager. I let people work,” she said.
With all the ways people get their sports now, Stokes said the job isn’t any more difficult, just different. It’s also changed the way she connects with talent. Whereas 10 years ago it might have been a phone call, now she’s using email and Twitter to book guests.
Regardless of how the ESPN audience gets its fix, Stokes said they’re still there. She pointed to the big audience for its SnapChat shows, plus SportsCenter at Night with Scott Van Pelt. Of course, like any big business, ESPN is constantly trying to avoid stagnation. So, popular shows like Mike and Mike in the Morning get switched up and turned around and become Get Up! with Mike Greenberg and Golic and Wingo with Mike Golic and Trey Wingo.
“I’ll always remember the saying that ‘successful people can adapt to change and are open to learning new things,”’ she said.
Change is inevitable, and businesses, like people, adapt or become irrelevant. ESPN News,a flagship of the brand since its inception 20 or so years ago, went from having its own specialized programming to not having it any more. That’s just how it goes.
Stokes added how ESPN’s mission is always to serve the fans.
In her role as Director of Booking and Talent Productions, she’s learned how to work with the athlete or celebrity, but especially how to work with their agent and/or team. During the season, she has to work with both the agent and the team. With celebrities, it’s just the agent. She did say that she hopes celebrities have a little more say in their schedules than athletes do.
It’s a lot of fun and work and responsibility,” she said about the process.
When asked about ESPN’s popularity, and how that must make it easier to book big stars, she said “ESPN isn’t Ellen,” referring to the popular and successful talk show host Ellen Degeneres. But as challenging as it is she can still book major celebrities like Massachusetts native Steve Carell. She called his visit to ESPN her most favorite day.
“It was like meeting my sports idol,” she admitted, adding that Carell “is the greatest guy. He’s kind, down-to-earth and naturally funny. I was amazed at how naturally funny he is without even trying.”
For so many who visit the campus located in Bristol, CT, it’s a break from their media tour. On Ellen or Access Hollywood or the late-night shows, they might get asked about rumors and stuff they’d probably rather avoid talking about. On ESPN, Stokes said people like Duhamel get asked, “Why do you love the Vikings so much?”
ESPN simply allows people to talk sports.
As the network has grown, it seems more and more women have stepped in front of the camera either as sideline reporters or on-air anchors for SportsCenter or other shows. However, many talented women work behind-the-scenes as well. Stokes said she’s gotten to work with many of them.
Her life isn’t just ESPN, though. Stokes is currently taking classes at Georgetown University for her graduate degree in Sports Business Management. More specifically, she’s taking classes online, as she currently lives in Connecticut. She will, however, visit the campus on Nov. 29th as she’s honored as a Hoya Professional 30 (a group of graduate students on the rise at the School of Continuing Studies).