written by R.L. Bynum
“Balbiz” returns to her home state to cover her home team
Growing up in a family of Tar Heels fans, Kristen Balboni remembers riding around Southern Pines in her dad’s Chevy Blazer listening to Woody Durham call North Carolina games. They would also turn the sound down on the television and turn up the Tar Heel Sports Network.
“He was the voice of my childhood,” Balboni, a 2011 graduate of UNC’s School of Journalism and Media, said of the legendary former Voice of the Tar Heels. “I just have such a respect for someone that can make you feel like you’re there even though you can’t see anything.”
Alongside Durham as the color analyst for 16 years before becoming the play-by-play voice of the Carolina Panthers in 2005 was Mick Mixon. Starting next season, Balboni will again hear Mixon’s voice during games, but as the sideline reporter working with Mixon on the Carolina Panthers Radio Network.
“I’m very excited. I grew up hearing him. So that’s surreal,” said Balboni, who will be on the radio consistently for the first time (other than being a guest on shows) since being dubbed “Balbiz” while working on ESPN Radio and TV’s “Mike & Mike” morning drive-time show from 2011–15.
That radio role is just one part of the job she started earlier this month as a team reporter for the Panthers. She’ll host podcasts and do digital interviews on the team’s social media channels and its website. She’ll also produce pregame and postgame content.
After working for ESPN in Bristol, Conn., Fox Sports in Los Angeles and Stadium in Chicago, she and her husband — who grew up outside Charlotte and met Balboni 10 years ago while they both attended UNC — are back home.
“I think it’s going to be cool because I get to just focus in and really become an expert on one thing,” said Balboni, who covered the entire NFL as a Fox digital host. “Sometimes I feel like when you’re covering the entire national landscape — and anything could come up on any show — there’s so much to wrap your head around. And I just think it really helps that it’s a team that I’m a fan of, so I’m reading that stuff anyway. I’m talking about those topics anyway. It’s not a team that I am not familiar with, or in a location that I don’t know. So, I think it’s gonna be fun.”
Balboni will host a live NFL Draft show on the Panthers’ website at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. It will include former players Jake Delhomme, Jonathan Stewart and Jordan Gross. She’ll also be talking to Panthers draft picks throughout the weekend.
Can’t believe I get to say this, but I’m moving back home to cover the team I love – the @Panthers. I’m already overwhelmed by the incredible support from this amazing fanbase. Let’s go!! https://t.co/v1C5QFDNpb
— Kristen Balboni (@KristenBalboni) April 7, 2020
Going from covering the national landscape to focusing on one team and working for that team aren’t the only huge differences. When you are a reporter or writer for a team or a school — such as Michael Smith with the Carolina Hurricanes, Adam Lucas with UNC or Jeff Gravley with N.C. State — you get significantly better access than other reporters.
That was evident during her second day on the job, April 8, when she talked to first-year coach Matt Rhule in his first interview since the NFL Combine. Since we’re all in the middle of a pandemic, it was conducted via video chat.
“There are people that are helping you out to get interviews, there are things that you get to have knowledge about,” Balboni said. “Another team reporter said when the media leaves, you get to stay. And that’s something that I’ve never had. I’ve never had access on that level before and I’m excited to see how that is and see the inner workings.
“I had someone else tell me that it’s kind of like getting your master’s in football to be able to sit with the team,” she said. “If you want, you can watch film, hop in on meetings, look at the business side of things and the operation side of things. So that’s something that I’ve never gotten to experience. So, I think it’s the right time to do it.”
Pandemic makes starting a new job different
Balboni met numerous co-workers and toured the Panthers’ facilities and offices during her interview process in February. Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t been to the office since she started the job. The closest physical contact she’s had with a co-worker was when camera equipment was dropped off at her home. Like with most other workplaces, Zoom meetings have replaced in-person contact.
“It’s been interesting. And the one thing I knew about this role going in was that I was going to have a lot of creativity and a lot of freedom,” she said. “It’s been a great crash course over these first two weeks to kind of figure everything out. I’m connecting with people, I’m formulating ideas. I think that if I can communicate well and produce good work while I’m at home and I don’t quite know everyone or haven’t met everyone in person yet, then it’s gonna be smooth sailing after that.”
During this odd time, it’s not crazy at all that she’ll report about the NFL Draft remotely considering that’s how the entire draft will be conducted.
Balboni replaces last season’s team reporter, Caroline Cann, who has returned to Indianapolis where she previously was a team reporter for the Colts. Her fiancé Parks Frazier is the Colts’ offensive quality control coach.
“When I came in and started this process of talking to the Panthers and interviewing, she was incredibly helpful,” Balboni said of Cann. “Just incredibly helpful and in helping me navigate the day-to-day. She’s put me on a group chat with a bunch of other team reporters. She couldn’t have been more generous with her time and her advice.”
Two factors lured her to Charlotte
The job appealed to Balboni because she’s followed the Panthers since she was a kid and became a passionate fan during her high school years. (She was in Pinecrest High School’s Class of 2007.) Getting back to her home state also was quite enticing. Both factors led her to Charlotte.
“It’s hard to kind of separate the two because I associate the Panthers with my love of North Carolina,” Balboni said, explaining that her husband is a huge Panthers fan and that they always subscribed to NFL Season Ticket so that they never missed a game. “So, I think it’s equal parts, getting to work for a team that I love and I root for and then also getting to be near our families. They are really kind of intertwined for me.”
It took her until high school to become a passionate Panthers fan because, other than her dad’s love of the Boston Red Sox, college sports were bigger in her family. Her parents both went to UNC and everybody in her family cheers for the Tar Heels with one exception.
“My middle brother, to spite all of us, became a diehard Duke fan and is still one to this day. And his kids are Duke fans,” Balboni said. “That’s exactly the kind of guy he is — against the grain. It’s fine. It’s all good.”
She’s always loved college sports and admits she’ll miss covering them.
“I’ll still watch college football on Saturdays, still watch college basketball, but I’m thrilled to be covering the NFL,” she said. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Being on an NFL sideline is just something I don’t think I could have wrapped my mind around maybe 10 years ago. There are parts of every job that I have left that I miss. But for me, the trade-off was absolutely worth it.”
Interest in sports journalism stoked at UNC
Balboni grew up loving sports but admits that she’s not incredibly athletic (she was, however, a cheerleader at Pinecrest). In high school, she wasn’t sure if sports would be any part of her career path.
“Going into college and deciding to major in journalism was kind of the first time that I thought my love of sports could actually translate into a career and it was really Carolina that helped me realize that,” Balboni said.
The day a veteran news journalist talked to one of her classes about how your day is made when you get a house fire, she decided that she wasn’t cut out to cover news. Balboni said that she couldn’t imagine looking forward to covering a tragedy.
She gives a lot of credit to John Sweeney, a UNC professor in sports communication, his sports communication courses and the speakers in the field who came to his classes with stoking her interest.
Sweeney brought in an ESPN recruiting team, and that led to an internship in its stats and information department the summer before her senior year.
“I wouldn’t have had that position or probably my career if I hadn’t gone to UNC for that specific reason,” Balboni said. “These people put a lot of time and effort into training their interns and giving them a great experience. You have a goal kind of at the end of the year; mine was to research a show. It’s not just getting coffee, you’re actually in it. And I think that was really to my advantage because they had already trained me.”
ESPN viewers introduced to ‘Balbiz’
ESPN offered her a job in February of her senior year and she started right after graduation. Balboni jumped at the chance in August 2011 to become a researcher for the “Mike & Mike” show, with hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic.
That gave her the rare chance at a young age to be a researcher for one show. But it also meant arriving to work at 3 a.m.
“The hours were not great, but they were also not the worst,” Balboni said. “I’m a morning person. Nothing in my career has flown by as fast as that show would fly by every day, those four hours. You feel like you get in there, you start your prep work, producers and hosts get in there, you have fun for four hours. And then you’re done and it’s noon. So, I have no complaints about that schedule at all.”
Since Greenberg insists on giving everybody nicknames, she was given the Snoop Dogg- styled nickname “Balbizzle,” eventually shortened to “Balbiz,” a nickname that has stuck, although mostly used online. Many call her “KB.”
Her breakthrough in terms of national visibility came when she was brought on to ask the hosts questions in the “Next Question” segment. One day, voiceover announcer Curt “Joaquin” Kaplan was busy putting together the “Stone Cold Lead Pipe Locks” segment, so Balboni was asked to do it.
“I had on a North Face [jacket] because the studio was freezing. I was not at all ready for this. I’m sure probably one of the worst ESPN on-camera things that’s ever happened,” she said. “And then, a few months later, it happened again. They’re like, ‘Hey, can you come up and read this?’ And so, it was really pretty slow before it became a regular thing. But eventually, it did, which was something I never expected.”
“Mike and Mike,” of course, aired on WCMC (99.9 The Fan), and she did a “Next Question” version on the “Adam & Joe” show in 2013. In that case, producer Shannon Penn provided Balboni the questions to ask for the segment.
While at ESPN, she got her first podcast experience as host of the “Behind the Mikes” podcast for about a year and was the host for ESPN Fantasy Sports’ “Strength in Numbers.”
She said that people have inspired her at every job. She remembers plenty of helpful advice from Greenberg.
“He said you have the ability to be great at this,” said Balboni of Greenberg, who would even give her feedback about her voice inflection. “He gave me the best piece of advice that still sticks with me today. And I’m sure he probably wouldn’t remember saying it. And he said, ‘All you can ever do in this industry is be yourself.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to make it pretending to be what you think a sportscaster is or pretending to be someone else.’
“And he said, ‘And you may not make it if you’re yourself — that may not connect with anyone. But that’s the only shot you have. So, you might as well be yourself and be as goofy as you normally are. And, you know, don’t try to cover up the flaws, because that’s the only way that you’ll succeed in this business.’ And I think that that has been probably the most formative piece of advice I’ve received in my sports career because I don’t take myself seriously.”
Balboni said that she probably wouldn’t be where she is today if she was afraid of being embarrassed or if she has what “someone might call an annoying laugh or caring what anyone thought about the parts of myself that were not perfect. I just want to be myself and have fun. And I think that was such a huge piece of advice.”
Balboni quickly concluded that she had no interest in being an old school sportscaster reading from a teleprompter. She prefers live and unscripted, which she attributes to her time on “Mike & Mike.”
“I think that’s where the most organic stuff comes from — the stuff that shines through and hopefully it gives people a taste of who you are beyond just the sport you’re covering,” Balboni said. “And it’s also the most fun. That’s when I laughed the hardest when I’m at work is when you’re doing stuff that’s completely unscripted. I think that’s the best stuff.”
In 2015, Balboni left ESPN for Fox, where she was the host for the daily digital show “The Buzzer” and a contributor on FS1 and other digital shows. She had been behind the scenes with “Mike & Mike” at the Super Bowl for three years but was a host on Fox Sports Digital for Super Bowl 50. That, of course, featured the Denver Broncos beating the Panthers 24–10 on Feb. 7, 2016.
“And it’s definitely one of the highlights of my career even despite the outcome,” she said. “I did Super week that whole week and my broadcasting partner for Fox Sports Digital was Peanut Tillman, who played for the Panthers. A short but memorable, memorable stint.”
She calls the 2016 interview with Snoop Dogg on “The Buzzer” the most surreal moment of her career.
“To interview someone who was so pervasive in the mainstream culture, and such an icon,” Balboni said. “If you told me as a kid I would be sitting there interviewing Snoop Dogg, I would not believe you.”
When Fox Sports revamped its digital department, downsized and stopped “The Buzzer,” she started doing college football sideline reporting for Stadium during the 2017 season, then did some basketball before going full time at Stadium in February 2018. She also covered Supercross once.
She sometimes did two or three Stadium studio shows a day and would travel to games on weekends. She reported during two full football seasons and basketball seasons until last month.
From working at Stadium to now working the sidelines of NFL stadiums, she’s eager for what’s ahead as she reports on the Panthers. When she’ll be able to go to the office to do it or when the season might start is anybody’s guess.
Panthers also hire writer
The Panthers also has hired Myles Simmons as its senior writer/editor. Simmons was the Raiders beat reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal last season and was a senior writer/team insider for the Los Angeles Rams the five seasons before that. The only previous state connection for the 2014 Columbia graduate was a summer 2014 internship in Charlotte with Sporting News Media.
Simmons replaced Max Henson, who became a digital content producer with Lowe’s after nearly eight years with the Panthers. Until last summer, former Herald-Sun sports writer and UNC grad Bryan Strickland was a senior writer for the team for nine seasons.
McClatchy lays off N&O/H-S publisher, furloughs non-newsroom employees
The McClatchy Company, which owns The News & Observer, The Herald-Sun and The Charlotte Observer, laid off four executives April 9, including N&O/H-S publisher and president Sara Glines, who also was east region lead, in “executive realignment.” She succeeded Orage Quarles II as N&O publisher when he retired in September 2016.
Robyn Tomlin, the executive editor of the N&O/H-S and Southeast regional editor added the title of president.
McClatchy also furloughed about 115 advertising employees at its 30 newspapers. No journalists were affected by this action. It also cut compensation for some executives.
McClatchy reported last week that the chain’s largest creditors, Chatham Asset Management and Brigade Capital Management, offered to buy the chain for more than $300 million.
“Last Dance” big hit in state
The best market ratings for the first two of 10 episodes of “Last Dance” on ESPN and ESPN2 on Sunday night were, of course, in Chicago (12.1 rating). But the rest of the top five markets for the documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls are in or including North Carolina: Raleigh-Durham (6.5), Norfolk (4.9), Charlotte (4.7) and Greensboro (4.7). Although much of the Norfolk market is in Virginia, a good bit of it includes northeastern North Carolina.
The episodes averaged 6.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched original programming in ESPN history, easily beating the 3.6 million who watched “You Don’t Know Bo.”
Episodes 3 and 4 air Sunday night beginning at 9 p.m. on ESPN and ESPN2.
One of the show’s executive producers is UNC graduate John Dahl, the vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and original content.
North Carolina-related sports stories of note
Who was the last UNC men’s basketball player to wear a No. 23 jersey before Michael Jordan? Andrew Carter of The N&O/H-S talked to Ged Doughton, who played for the Tar Heels in the late 1970s and was a starter for two weeks during his senior year.
Should the Carolina Panthers have made Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in the NFL? The Athletic’s Joe Person says yes.
In a collaborative effort of many reporters at The N&O and The Charlotte Observer, an interesting collection of vignettes looked at how state residents dealt with the pandemic over 24 hours. Included was a blurb on freshman Duke discus and shot-put thrower Payton Little. Instead of competing during her freshman season, she is home in Hampstead, forced to find an abandoned field where she can throw.
The Charlotte Observer sports department did a similar collection of stories, looking at a day in the North Carolina sports world during COVID-19, which also included Little’s story.
What’s it like to cover Duke men’s basketball? The Athletic’s Brendan Marks gives you some interesting insights into covering that beat.
Luke DeCock of The N&O/H-S caught up with former N.C. State player and Duke coach Bucky Waters, who is “a grateful 84” after having a heart procedure. Waters, whose freshman year in Raleigh was the first year of the ACC, is full of stories.
NASCAR is trying to give its fans the option of simulated races during the pandemic. Should racing writers cover it? The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck would prefer to leave that to somebody else.
In the Winston-Salem Journal, Patrick Felise wrote about the altered recruiting process for highly sought-after football prospects in North Carolina during the pandemic.
In the News & Record of Greensboro, Ed Hardin wrote that UNC’s Cole Anthony may have been the best player we never saw.