Savanna Hamilton: Ahead of the game

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The best basketball players can see plays unfolding a few possessions before they happen. Savanna Hamilton’s own playing career at Ryerson University was cut short due to injury, but on the court and off, she has always operated a few steps ahead of everyone else.

Today, the host and producer at MLSE, is known for an infectious personality and the ability to make whoever she is interviewing feel immediately at ease. Behind the scenes, though, Hamilton has been putting in the work. 

After back-to-back knee injuries grounded Hamilton’s playing career at Ryerson, the sports media student knew she still wanted to make the absolute most of her time in the program. Knee surgery and crutches weren’t going to get in the way, either. 

Hamilton laughs while thinking back to one of the first stepping stones in her path to MLSE.

“I was fortunate enough to meet [MLSE host] Akil Augustine in my first year at Ryerson, after I had surgery,” Hamilton said. “I was on crutches, and I volunteered at this event. So, I crutched over to him and I said, “I really love your work.”

Hamilton’s determination to network with Augustine paid off. Fast forward to six months after getting his contact information at that first meeting, Hamilton was now in her second year at Ryerson and needed to choose someone to job shadow. She contacted Augustine. “I want to do what you’re doing,” she said.

That job shadowing led to Hamilton’s first experience with The Hangout, the NBA TV Canada talk show that Augustine hosts. After her first day following Augustine on the job, she was hooked. During her time job shadowing, Hamilton also got to know Duane Watson, the supervising producer for Community & Culture at MLSE as well as a producer for The Hangout, among others. 

“Duane, to be honest, he completely took me under his wing,” Hamilton said. “He brought me in, I was an assistant writer and I just took notes in meetings and throughout the years I worked all the way up to co-producing the show. There were times when he wasn’t available and he completely slipped the show into my hands and I was cool to do it, no problem. He really trained me.”

Though Hamilton is known to Raptors fans for her work in front of the camera, as well as on the podcast mic, she also has logged extensive time behind the scenes away from sports as well. While getting her start with MLSE, Hamilton was simultaneously freelancing with CBC, working as an associate director. She was also managing social media for the Canadian bank Tangerine. It was during an event for Tangerine where Hamilton saw her next step unfolding.

Though she was freelancing with MLSE behind the scenes, Hamilton knew she wanted to be on-air. At her Tangerine work event, Hamilton saw an opportunity to speak with Toni Francis, a producer with MLSE, and she made the most of the conversation.

“It literally only takes the one right person that listens and that can give you that opportunity,” Hamilton said. “And that was her.”

Francis came to Hamilton with the idea of Hamilton hosting a digital series on Twitter recapping daily news about the Raptors. From there, Hamilton had another idea at the ready, pitching an idea to have a quick-hitting, snappy video series on Instagram called Rap-Up, featuring lots of audience engagement. It was picked up for the following season.

Shortly after the season started, the pandemic hit. After a few stressful months where freelancing gigs seemed to dry up overnight as news outlets and sports organizations shifted to figuring out how they would function and cover news of a global pandemic, Hamilton’s work, talent and persistence was rewarded. MLSE offered her a full-time position covering the Raptors and Raptors 905. Though the position was originally for producing, Hamilton negotiated a hosting role into her contract as well. 

“This past year has been amazing,” Hamilton said. “I was very, very happy to be able do so.”

From that first meeting when she crutched over to introduce herself to Augustine, Hamilton hasn’t stopped pushing.

“I definitely felt like opportunities were never just going to be handed to me,” Hamilton said. “I just want to make sure I’m always prepared for every step of the way. Being very aware that I am a woman of color, I’m biracial, but I also identify as a black woman, that it will be extra hard for me. And I definitely [have] felt and have expressed that, in the past, I don’t think I had as many opportunities in school, even just because, when you’re used to seeing one particular type of person on air, it’s hard for like anybody to imagine somebody else that doesn’t look like that being on air.”

During her time as a student-athlete, Hamilton found ways to make her own opportunities, using social media and technology to her advantage.

“When I was in school I created my own radio show,” she said. “I also decided to do a YouTube channel and just tried to get as many reps as I could while I was still playing basketball. I just wanted to make sure that when I was graduating, I’d be prepared and ready.”

Hamilton says she has grown into using her voice to call attention to things that are not right, as well as to push for change.

“It’s so important that we have people of color at the table making decisions because that is like covering your blind spots,” Hamilton said. “You might not know what you don’t know. And so for somebody who’s lived in the blind spots before, they know exactly what to look out for and what to think of so that’s why I’m so happy that Duane has stepped into the role that he’s in now as a supervising producer with MLSE. He’s already made such an impact. We [also] have guys like John Wiggins at the top of the Raptors as a VP in Organizational Culture and Inclusion. He’s made an impact already. We have Teri [Dennis-Davies, Senior VP Equity, Diversity and Inclusion], she’s also looking out for everybody. There’s research that the more diversity you have in an organization, typically, the better the performance, too.”

Over this past year, TSN’s Kayla Grey has been a source of inspiration for Hamilton. As long overdue conversations surrounding social injustices and systemic racism are happening, Grey has been leading the way.

“I like giving Kayla her flowers any day of the week, because [having these conversations] is a lot,” Hamilton said. “It definitely hits home for Kayla to speak up consistently. And as well as she does, it really speaks volumes to the person that she is because it really takes a strong woman to do that.”

On Wednesday, Grey will appear in the first all-female television broadcast for the Raptors when the team faces the Denver Nuggets. Grey will be joined by TSN’s Kate Beirness, TSN analyst and WNBA All-Star Kia Nurse, Washington Mystics play-by-play announcer Meghan McPeak and Raptors 905 play-by-play announcer Amy Audibert for the broadcast.

Hamilton is thrilled for Wednesday’s broadcast. She says its impact will extend far beyond a single game, and that it will long be remembered by those who will see themselves represented when they tune in to watch their favourite team.

“If seeing is believing, the all-women’s broadcast is an opportunity to inspire audiences across the country,” Hamilton said. “Personally, I know that the women involved in the broadcast are all highly capable individuals and established in this industry. I want everyone to understand that women can hold their own in a diverse range of broadcast positions. They are the trailblazers.” 

The Raptors organization has been vocal about wanting to level the playing field when it comes to hiring women in sports. With the aforementioned hire of Wiggins and a new position for Watson, MLSE has committed to expanding diversity at every level.

Whether it’s a courtside conversation with Raptors VP of Basketball Operations, Teresa Resch, a check-in call from CMO Shannon Hosford, or random conversations about basketball with Raptors 905 assistant coach Brittni Donaldson, Hamilton says the little things often mean the most when it comes to these interactions with her MLSE colleagues.

“I think it really speaks to the women that we have in our organization that they want to take the time to get to know you,” she said.

Hamilton encourages young women who are interested in getting into the sports industry to remain confident in their own voices and to push for their opportunities.

“There is a seat at the table for you,” Hamilton said. “At times you will have to use your voice, maybe more than you are comfortable with, but just understand that everything you want is on the outside of your comfort zone. You do belong here.”

She also wants to make sure that women know they don’t need to follow the same path as hers.

“You don’t have to be an athlete to have a voice and an opinion on watching the game,” Hamilton said. “Think about how many men that do not have an athletic background, but they’re very opinionated and they are on TV about whatever sport it is that they’re covering. Don’t be frightened to have your opinion. It may be hard to speak up in a room full of men, but just hold your ground.”