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Aliya-Jasmine gets her head in the game

The ‘Play with AJ’ host creates a world where sports and pop culture team up
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Samantha Sobolewski, May 2, 2013 12:00:21 AM

Aliya-Jasmine Sovani has become a household staple for MTV. Between her job as anchor of MTV News and her four years hosting the hit series 1 Girl, 5 Gays, the journalist and producer has continually demonstrated her diverse set of knowledge and interview skills.

Now Sovani’s taking that knowledge to the field, court, ice, turf and whatever other sport surface she can stand on, as producer and host of MTV’s new show Play with AJ.

“I’ve been pitching it for a while,” Sovani said of how her dream job became a reality in a recent interview with TV Guide Canada. “It’s the first time that sports and pop culture have come together.”

Sovani calls it a hybrid-style show, a world where pop culture and sports can easily overlap with each other. “I think it’s a really interesting time in the world of sports and pop culture because you’re really crossing over in an intense way, and that was kind of my idea for the show,” Sovani says. “I’m a huge fan of [SportsCentre host] Jay Onrait. We worked together at the Vancouver Olympics and you’ll hear him, for example, talk about how Tom Brady showed up at the season opener with a pocket square in his suit jacket. But he’ll kind of just say it and move on.”

Rather than just move on, Play with AJ divulges further into the actual lives of the athletes, finding out where they shop, what they do before and after games, and their favourite pieces of pop culture.

“These are guys in their 20’s making millions of dollars. You thought that MTV viewers cared about the rich kids and their lives on The Hills? Imagine what Carmelo Anthony’s life is like, or Lebron James’s life is really like, or Joffrey Lupul or Sidney Crosby,” says Sovani. “It’s a really interesting world of MTV viewers we haven’t explored yet.”

Not only is the show tapping in to unchartered territory for MTV, but it’s the athletes and the musicians who are as well embracing the show’s unique crossover aspect. Sovani says that not only are the athletes she interviews familiar with her and MTV programming, but they grill her on the musicians she’s gotten to talk to.

“Sports guys notoriously have really bad interviews,” she says. “The weird thing about them is that when you talk to them about something that’s not sports, and they just like to do in their spare time, they all of a sudden light up.”

The same goes with musicians, she says, who also “light up” with stories when probed about things like their favourite sports teams. “That’s the cool thing. It’s talking to young professional people who are stars in our eyes about something we’re not used to seeing them talk about.”

Growing up in an Ottawa household of sports fans, and being a huge Senators fan like her mom, Sovani says her parents are extremely supportive of her new gig. To this day her family still goes to hockey games together. Not only has she covered the Euro Cup, but she’s been a playoff reporter for the NHL and covered the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games, rightfully demonstrating that she knows her stuff.

With her new gig, Sovani has now become a full-fledged member of the minority world of female sports reporting, quickly identifying TSN’s Jennifer Hedger as one of the journalistic influence on her life. But being a member of the minority she also has to deal with comments like those of Hockey Night in Canada contributor, and former NHL coach, Don Cherry, who’s faced some serious heat for his statement that female reporters shouldn’t be allowed in a male dressing room.

“I love Don, but I think he’s a bit of a dinosaur,” Sovani says. “As someone who does interviews in the locker room I want to be there. I want to get [athletes] in that mindset. That’s where I get my gold and I don’t think I shouldn’t be allowed in there.”

That being said, she’s not out to villainize the Coach’s Corner commentator. “I don’t think he necessarily meant it. It’s Don Cherry, you know? It’s not the first ignorant comment he’s made unintentionally. He’ll stand by it for the rest of his life, and that’s what you love about Don Cherry, but I don’t agree with it.”

So far Sovani has taped numerous segments for the show with the likes of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (whom she cites as the NHL’s best dressed – I wouldn’t disagree), the Toronto Raptors’ Rudy Gay, who wants her job, and talked fishing at Saddam Hussein’s house with retired mixed martial artist Tito Ortiz. Surprisingly one person whom she calls her “dream interview” is Rangers coach John Tortorella, notorious for his downright scary attitude towards the media.

“I just want to get into his psyche,” she says. “I’d love to sit down with him in my studio, my turf, and be like ‘Dude’ – that’s probably my opening question – ‘Dude, why are you so mean?’ then find out why he has no patience.”

Although she felt it was creatively time to move on as host of 1G5G, Sovani never expected how much her four years on the series, the stories she’s heard, and the experiences she’s had with the LGBT community would help her host her own sports show, particularly with the landscape of the sports world right now. Sovani cites two major events in the sports world – the NHL’s team-up with the You Can Play foundation and Jason Collins coming out as the first openly gay active member of a major U.S. sports franchise – as two examples in which her experiences on the show will help in her reporting.

She may know her stuff, but Sovani’s still taking in new things about each sport she covers, continually learning about the games, the athletes, and the fans themselves.

“It’s hands-on learning. It’s like a sink or swim experience for me,” she says. “This is my ocean. I’m swimming in it and loving it.”

Play with AJ premieres Thursday May 2 at 10:30 p.m. ET on MTV Canada.

Will you be tuning in to Play with AJ? Comment on Twitter and/or Facebook.

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