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VOL. 43 | NO. 13 | Friday, March 29, 2019

Rising ESPN star Lyle finds sports niche behind microphone

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Courtney Lyle swore she would never become a sports play-by-play commentator. Too much prep work required. Too many things to research.

But something funny happened once Lyle actually tried doing play-by-play. The thing she dreaded most about the role became the thing she loves more than anything.

“I went from thinking, ‘Man this is not for me’ to realizing it was perfect for me,” Lyle says. “The hours I spend preparing for games is what I really enjoy. I’ve completely come around.”

Lyle, 29, is a rising star in the ESPN broadcasting lineup. The Nashville native, Brentwood High and University of Tennessee graduate possesses a versatility that spans all college seasons.

In her fourth year as a fulltime commentator for the network, Lyle covers basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and softball. She worked 93 events last season, traversing the country for games and meets at different campuses and in different cities.

Lyle is in the midst of calling the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for ESPN. She worked the opening games at Notre Dame in a play-by-play role alongside broadcast partner and Lady Vols great Tamika Catchings. Lyle will transition to sideline reporter this weekend in Chicago to work Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games.

“Courtney is going to be very, very terrific. I think she is already terrific, but she has the ability to be one of the best,” explains Pat Lowry, ESPN’s coordinating producer for women’s basketball and volleyball. “It’s hard to imagine how young she is in her career because she presents herself so well and her prep work is mature beyond her experience.”

Lyle grew up in Middle Tennessee playing soccer, softball and basketball. She loved everything about sports. But once she entered high school, Lyle realized her calling was probably something on the sidelines.

“My freshman year I played basketball and was like, ‘Oh man. I am terrible at this. This isn’t going to work out,’” the self-effacing Lyle recalls. “I knew I didn’t have a chance to play in college or anything, but I still wanted to be around sports somehow.”

Lyle’s father worked in advertising and broadcasting, and suggested she start reporting on sports. Lyle got her start while still at Brentwood High, calling basketball games on the educational access channel for three years.

Once Lyle arrived at UT in 2008 as a journalism and electronic media major, she started working for VFL Films. She primarily covered the women’s athletic programs and helped produce Pat Summitt’s coaching show in the final season of Summitt’s legendary career.

“It was really special to be a part of that,” Lyle says. “I grew up going to her basketball camps and thinking I was going to be a Lady Vol someday, which obviously wasn’t going to happen. But it was just really cool to still get an up-close view of the program and go to her practices and see her coach the team.”

Link Hudson was introduced to Lyle by Bob Kesling, the play-by-play voice for Tennessee football and basketball, during Lyle’s freshman year.

“I remember Bob saying we have a future superstar right here, and he was right. She was a superstar,” adds Hudson, the senior director of video for VFL Films. “She was very eager, and we all knew we needed to pour into her and make sure we were doing all we could to help her.”

Hudson still tells students the story of Lyle going the extra mile to get an interview completed for Summitt’s show. Hudson was driving back to campus from lunch one day and spotted Lyle pushing a cart full of heavy camera equipment in the pouring rain. She was soaking wet, but refused to use the weather as an excuse.

“It was quintessential Courtney. Don’t accept any obstacles. Plow through and make it happen,” Hudson says. “That is what it takes to succeed, and that story just embodies who Courtney is and how dedicated she is to doing the job right. She was the most prepared student I think we’ve ever had.”

After graduating from UT in 2012, Lyle moved to Macon, Georgia, for a job as a weekend sports anchor. She was there for 16 months before returning to Knoxville to work at WBIR.

Lyle was able to work a few games for ESPN that streamed online while at WBIR, and the experience awakened her to the joy of doing play-by-play.

She asked Lowry if they could meet at the 2016 SEC Women’s Basketball Tournament.

“I wanted to come beg her for a job,” Lyle remembers. “I really knew I loved doing play-by-play and I wanted to do it full-time at some point. She was really fantastic about helping me get that part of my career started.”

Lowry had already been tipped off about Lyle by ESPN and SEC Network coordinating producer Meg Aronowitz, who immediately spotted Lyle’s natural ability to develop into a play-by-play commentator.

“I had watched some of her tape and was really impressed,” says Lowry, a Mt. Juliet native. “To be as young as she was, she had a good delivery and the ability to paint the picture but do it in few words to give the analyst time to talk. She did things in a very concise manner and very informative manner, but is an easy person to listen to.”

Lyle is working her third NCAA Tournament for ESPN, having been paired with Catchings from the start. The UT graduates were familiar with each other through previous interviews Lyle had done with Catchings during her playing career.

“She has been a great resource for me because she obviously knows so much about basketball,” Lyle points out. “Everybody knows her when we walk into the gym, and coaches usually ask her to talk to their teams. A lot of times the talks are more about life than basketball, and putting in the hard work and being accountable and being a good teammate.

“Watching her share that with the next generation of women’s basketball players is fascinating to me.”

Lyle eventually wants to break into doing play-by-play for college football on ESPN. She spent last fall as part of the broadcast crew for “Friday Night Stripes,” a series of streamed high school football games created through a partnership with Twitter and Adidas.

“I just want to do everything I can because I really like the challenge,” says Lyle, who supplements her TV coverage with light-hearted interviews and videos on social media. “I just want to keep trying to get better. I think it’s really important to go back and watch yourself and learn how you can improve no matter what sport you are doing.”

Once Lyle finishes calling basketball next week, she will jump right into softball and then begin preparing for the NCAA Women’s Beach Volleyball Championships.

She will pore over new game notes and analyze different sets of stats. She will talk to players, coaches and even stadium ushers to uncover any extra nugget of information she may use on air.

The prep work Lyle once dreaded has become the adrenaline that fuels her during long days at the field and nights at the gym.

Lyle shows no signs of slowing down, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“One of the most rewarding parts of the job is putting someone like Courtney in a position to succeed and then watch her go,” Lowry says. “Once you first listened to her, you knew the potential was there. It’s just great to put them in a place where they can go out and really make a name for themselves and have a great career doing what they love.”

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