Tracy Wolfson heads to NFL sidelines, plus ESPN duo on race in sports media
Tracy Wolfson has some advice for aspiring sideline reporters.
"Never Google yourself and never search yourself,” says the CBS Sports broadcaster. “It is the first thing I tell young broadcasters getting into the business because it is a cruel world out there. You have to be really confident in yourself to do your job well and know your stuff so you don’t give people any other reasons to critique you. I know some people will not like the beauty mark on my face or think that I wear green too often, or won’t like the shirt I picked out that day. There is nothing I can do about that. If I present myself well and do my job, that’s all I can do."
For the past decade Wolfson has served as the lead sideline reporter for CBS’s Saturday afternoon SEC football coverage as well as the NCAA basketball tournament, morphing between the worlds of Les Miles and Thad Matta. She is poised, prepared and viewers are left with the notion that here is a reporter on air, and not a sports personality who occasionally offers reporting.
While well-known in the college universe, Wolfson’s 'recognizability' will soar this year given her latest assignment: the lead sideline reporter for CBS’s Thursday Night NFL package. That assignment comes as CBS Sports management has dramatically shifted its philosophy on NFL sideline reporters. This year the network will have full-time sideline reporters for NFL regular season games for the first time since 2006. Last year Wolfson worked select NFL games including the Super Bowl.
"We are looking at the Thursday Night coverage as basically being playoff quality coverage,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “We have had sideline reporters for years at CBS for the playoffs and when we looked at how we will produce Thursday night, we thought we wanted to do this like the playoffs. We then decided to do the same on Sunday."
The NFL will not be an easy assignment for Wolfson. She lacks the contacts and sources she had in the SEC but she has covered many of the players in the league when they were in college. She said she’s leaned on longtime NFL sideline reporter Lesley Visser for pointers and contacts and believes that appearing on college football broadcasts will help her with some subjects.
"People know me more than I know them and that can help to my advantage," Wolfson said. "I want to meet trainers, assistant coaches and form those relationships and as quickly as possible. I think what management expects from me is what I have done for 10 or 11 years at the SEC. It will be extremely different at first but my role is to be the third member of the booth and be its eyes and ears and get things that Jim Nantz and Phil Simms cannot get. That could be someone I speak with pregame or the weather or what happened to Gary Kubiak on Sunday Night Football or the lights going out. There are on many instances where you need someone on the field."
To get some tips from a veteran, Wolfson reached out to Visser, the longest-tenured sideline reporter in sports television history.
“Having done that job in many professional sports -- the NFL, the World Series, the NBA -- I recommended she get to know assistant coaches, team doctors and a couple of players on every team whom she could approach before kickoff for last minute information," Visser said. "I also told her, when it gets cold, the best trick for warm feet is to put a sock under a plastic baggie, followed by another sock. John Madden told me this 30 years ago, and it works!"
Wolfson started at CBS as a researcher and runner in the mid-90s and as she approaches 40, she knows that sports television executives have traditionally chased youth for her position. CBS Sports has been an exception to that -- Visser was on the sidelines in her late 50s -- but the trend is always toward young.
"I say that my career has gone from [former Patriot] Jim Nance to Jim Nantz and I think passion and knowledge and a sense of humor have carried me," Visser said. “There are two kinds of women who do this job: women who want to be on television and end up in sports, and women who love sports and end up in television. Tracy has already proven herself for a decade, doing it with skill and charm."
"Someone asked me recently what I would say to my 30-year old self,” said Wolfson. “What I would say is I’m really proud of you because I stuck with it all this time. I do hope I have a career like Lesley’s and the longevity she did. But if that's not the case, I will be really proud of what I have done. My theory is that you keep going until it works no more. If someone is going to tell me I am too old, well, you move on and do something else. I’ve been so fortunate in my life and I can honestly say I am proud of what I did."
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, the co-hosts for ESPN2’s Numbers Never Lie, met in 2002 during the NBA playoffs when Hill was working for the Detroit Free Press and Smith was at the Boston Globe. Some mutual NBA beat-writing friends -- Sherrod Blakely, Perry Farrell and Rob Parker -- attempted to set the two up by seating them together at a screening of Spider-Man.
“I thought Mike was smart and funny, but I had just started seeing someone at the time,” Hill said. “Nevertheless, he and I exchanged numbers, just as friends.”
Hill later called up Smith when she landed in Boston for the first time.
"I mentioned that I'd never been to Boston and didn't know what to do there," Hill recalled. "I'm basically nudging him to ask me out. His response: 'Well, I don't really hang out that much, so I wouldn't know.' So, now I'm thinking, well, maybe he needs a more direct approach. I told I wanted to go out and see the town. He said he couldn't hang out with me because he was playing Madden and was in 'franchise mode.' A beautiful friendship was born. I also no longer date guys who play video games."
Twelve years later, Hill and Smith are co-hosting NNL, which airs daily on ESPN2 at 12PM ET and has become the second most-watched talk show on that channel behind First Take. (Look for the show to eventually be re-branded as His & Hers, which is the name of the podcast hosted by the duo. Last week we engaged in an email interview on a variety of topics. Part I is below. Part 2 will publish in this week’s Tuesday media column.
SI.com: Your show is unique in sports television given it is hosted by two African-Americans and one of them is a woman. Viewers have not seen such staffing previously on a daily sports show and part of that is networks have rarely, if ever, placed black women in roles where they can offer sports commentary. How do you view your roles amid the larger sports media marketplace?
Hill: The aesthetics say this isn't the model for a successful sports show. You have me, a black woman who is not a traditional host, or an anchor, but an 'opinionist.' And you have Mike, who is not an ex-athlete. We both have very deep journalistic backgrounds. We both understand this is very different dynamic in terms of race and gender and we strongly embrace that. We hope we're providing a different blueprint. TV is a copycat business and I'd like to think our success will encourage TV executives in our industry to be more bold about talent choices, and how they create shows.
Smith: When I first agreed to be a part of this project, early in 2011, I was asked for names of other on-air talent with whom I was interested in working. I submitted three: Jemele, Bomani Jones, and Michael Holley. In response someone [half] joked, 'Any white people on your list?' Three years later, we're providing daily proof that the right chemistry, content and commentary are far more integral to the success of a television program than typical/traditional racial/gender dynamics. At the same time Jemele is helping blaze a trail for all women, regardless of race. I can't think of another talk/debate/discussion show where a man and woman are intellectual equals. Just to be clear, when I use the phrase 'intellectual equal' I'm referring to sports knowledge and journalistic experience and I'm talking on a full-time basis. Of course Jackie MacMullan, Christine Brennan and others have contributed second-to-none sports commentary. Furthermore it was Jemele who suggested Sarah Spain as a guest co-host. Josina Anderson has co-hosted our show. Hopefully we're inspiring and paving the way for other Michaels and Jemeles out there.
Do African-American sports opinion-makers have a ceiling on sports television versus those of a different race. If yes, why? If no, why?
Hill: There are two ways in which I look at this question -- inside of ESPN and outside of ESPN. Inside of ESPN, I think our commitment to African-American opinion-makers is quite obvious. There's me, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Michael Smith, Bomani Jones, Jason Whitlock, J.A. Adande, LZ Granderson, Kevin Blackistone, and plenty of others. They've made a real commitment to many of us by giving us our own real estate. But then you look outside of ESPN, and I can't say that I unilaterally see the same commitment. The ceiling is obvious. Other than hiring former athletes, it doesn't seem like the other networks have broken much ground.
Now, some will say that ESPN is hoarding all the talent and that's why other networks haven't been as successful. But I don't buy that. There are talented, African-American journalists and columnists out there, but sometimes I think we're up against an unfair standard. There's a mentality that we have to come in as stars, even though I could point to plenty of examples where they've groomed someone white into a star. Or, they're looking for another Stephen A. Smith, or another Bomani Jones. They're looking for 'types,' and overlooking the unique assets that person can bring to the table. Right now, in general in our industry, I think we're viewed as starters, meaning we can definitely get our foot in the door and do meaningful work, but who's willing to treat us as a franchise player or a superstar? Who's going to give one of us a Jim Rome-type deal? That's where significant progress must be made.
Smith: ESPN has led the way over the years when it comes to showcasing African-American commentators, from the late Ralph Wiley to William Rhoden to John Saunders to Mike Wilbon to Stephen A. Smith to J.A. Adande to Kevin Blackistone to Howard Bryant to LZ Granderson to Scoop Jackson to Rob Parker to Jason Whitlock to Bomani Jones to Freddie Coleman to us. Michael Holley and Chris Broussard have co-hosted NNL and are great together. Our former colleague Mike Hill had his own radio show on ESPN and now has his own TV show, America's Pregame, weeknights on FS1. Hopefully broadcast executives at other networks see that African-Americans don't have to have played the game professionally in order to offer thoughtful, provocative commentary, and more important that we are as capable as our white counterparts of not only producing quality content but developing and carrying a show -- as in we aren't just co-stars but leading men (and women). There are just as many African-American stars in the making, waiting. Of greater significance, though, is the lack of minorities in upper-management and executive positions at networks and in newsrooms.
SI.com: Who do you believe is your audience for Numbers Never Lie?
Hill: Young. Fun. Married. Single. I'm sure a significant percentage are people of color. And given our affinity for comics and comic book movies, I'm sure we're doing pretty well with that crowd, too.
Smith: Pretty sure we skew young. A lot of the feedback from viewers (and listeners to the His & Hers Podcast) suggests that we have a fairly significant female following. Young or old, man or woman, white, black, or other, if you want a show to help you think, learn, and laugh about the big stories in sports, then I'd like to think you're tuning in to NNL.
SI.com: How do you separate yourself content-wise from other shows on your network (and other sports networks) that have a rundown of the hot sports topics-of-the-day and volley back and force between the hosts and guests?
Hill: For one, our relationship and chemistry set us apart from practically anyone in sports television. You do not see a man and a woman on equal footing in terms of sports knowledge and credentials doing a sports TV show together. Besides that, we love to have fun, we love to relate sports to life, and we love to make fun of ourselves and one another. We've smashed cupcakes in each other's faces live on national television. We've done the "Nae Nae," and The Electric Slide. I forgot exactly what we were discussing, but Mike called his mother while we were on TV. We interviewed Brittney Griner while she was eating bacon. We've drafted action stars, and Super Bowl party foods. When I was at the Detroit Free Press, my sports editor, Gene Myers, told me his philosophy for our section was to do 'one dumb thing a day.' He didn't mean doing something dumb that would compromise our professionalism or integrity. He meant something fun, spontaneous and creative. On Numbers Never Lie, we also live by the mantra.
We also get personal, especially when discussing very serious stories. During the Jameis Winston sexual assault investigation, I told the story of how I was nearly assaulted as a pre-teen. When we discussed the tragic death of Kevin Ward Jr., Mike talked about how as a father, he couldn't imagine how Ward's parents must have felt losing their child. And I discussed how I saw a friend's body thrown from his vehicle in a car accident. In general, we handle complicated, serious issues extremely well. We may talk about the same topics as everyone else, but no one talks about them the way that we do.
Smith: Obviously our relationship and individual personalities naturally will make the discussions/debates different from those of other shows. NNL examines stories from the standpoint of statistics and advanced analytics more than other ESPN/ESPN2 talk shows. Since Jemele came aboard last year, NNL has taken on the vibe of the His & Hers Podcast, where our mission is to make the conversations as personal as possible. As for NNL's 'rundown,' every now and then we'll check out what topics other shows are doing and how they're doing them, but no matter what anyone else is or isn't doing we discuss the stories that matter most to us.
Do you see First Take (your lead-in) as a complement, a competitor or something else?
Hill: We're two cars on the same freeway, but in very different lanes. We're much closer to Highly Questionable and PTI than First Take.
Smith: First Take is our lead-in.
2. Sports outlets have always been besotted by celebrity: the ESPYs are ground zero for this and SI is certainly not immune but Fox Sports management has always struck me as valuing connection between celebrity and sport more than the other sports network. Fox has long encouraged and championed talent such as Erin Andrews, Terry Bradshaw and Michael Strahan to push their brands beyond sports. For instance, Fox Sports Live’s Charissa Thompson recently joined the staff of Extra, and no network supports its talent more on commercials, no matter how ridiculous those commercials are. (I don’t think you’ll see an ESPN anchor pushing penis enlargement pills anytime soon.)
The question is, does celebrity attract more viewership within a sports context? It can certainly bring more attention to a one-off show (say, the Kentucky Derby pregame or getting Ken Jeong to host SportsCenter) but you have to pick the right spot for the connection so it feels somewhat organic. More people will not be watching Fox NFL Sunday because Strahan is part of the Live With Kelly and Michael show or Andrews is part of Dancing With The Stars. Fox Sports management likely disagrees. Maybe it’s an L.A. thing and the Fox suits do look healthy with their tans.
With an eye toward celebrity first and foremost, Fox Sports recently greenlit a fantasy football show featuring NFL on FOX insider Jay Glazer (another Fox talent who has gone the commercial route), actor-comedian David Spade and a band of other somewhat familiar names: Entourage actor Jerry Ferrara, comedians Nick Swardson and Brody Stevens, Rascal Flatts’ bassist Jay DeMarcus, retired MMA fighter Chuck Liddell and FS1’s Katie Nolan. Fantasy Football Uncensored (Gotta love marketing buzzwords like “uncensored”) is scheduled to run for 16 weeks during the NFL season on Fox Sports 1, beginning September 4. Orthopedic surgeon and Fox Sports contributor Dr. Robert Klapper will also be part of the show to talk on injuries.
Whether watching ESPN2’s excellent Fantasy Football Now or listening to SiriusXM Fantasy Channel, the committed fantasy player will tell you the most important element to fantasy sports content is service and information. The least important is famous people telling you who is on their team. At SI, I have worked with dozens of fantasy writers and they all agree on this.
"As a 'pundit' and talking head in the fantasy industry, I couldn't agree more,” said Brad Evans, a longtime voice in the Fantasy Sports space for Yahoo Sports!, NBCSN and other outlets. "It’s not what fantasy players want in a show. People want info, opines, not what tough lineup decision Turtle has to make."
I hope my instincts are wrong (I didn’t see the preview show) here because I’d like to see FS1 make inroads with successful original programming. The competition would be good for viewers, and good for talent, but this feels straight out of the bro-playbook for show creation. If it’s a hit, I’ll own it, and declare Glazer my permanent Fantasy commissioner.
3. The time has come to give a woman an NFL play-by-play assignment and that woman is Beth Mowins. My column for the MMQB on why Mowins should get the Monday Night Football assignment currently given to Chris Berman for the first week of the season.
4. It’s a big soccer Monday for the NBC Sports Network as Premier League champion Manchester City hosts runner-up Liverpool at 3:00 p.m. ET. The match also marks the 2014-15 broadcast debut for U.S. national team goalkeeper Tim Howard (he’ll be an on-site studio host) as well as 'Tactical Cam,”' which you can find on NBC Sports Live Extra (for desktop and mobile and tablet). According to the network, 'Tactical Cam is a high sideline camera that can show all 22 players on the pitch at the same time, which will give fans a great look at how each teams builds its runs. World Soccer Talk has more on Tactical Cam here.
5. Pitcher Mo’ne Davis, 13, has left the nation’s stage but not before being the catalyst for the most-watched Little League World Series telecast in ESPN history. With Davis pitching for Philadelphia last Wednesday in an 8-1 loss to Las Vegas, the ESPN telecast drew 4.99 million viewers and peaked between 8:30-8:45 p.m. ET with 5.59 million viewers.The previous viewership record for a Little League World Series game on ESPN was set on Aug. 23, 2001, when 3.22 million viewers watched Oceanside, Calif., and the Bronx, N.Y., featuring Danny Almonte. Davis became the first little leaguer to grace the national cover of Sports Illustrated after throwing the first shutout by a girl in Little League World Series history.
6. As a kid I loved listening to Chris Schenkel call the Pro Bowlers Tour and the legendary voice for ABC Sports will be inducted posthumously into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame on Dec. 16, in New York. Among Schenkel’s firsts in sports broadcasting: Schenkel was the first to cover the Masters Tournament on television (1956); the first to call a college football game coast-to-coast on ABC; and the first to serve as live sports anchor from the Olympics (Mexico City, 1968). He also called the 1958 NFL championship game between the Colts and Giants.
Most famously, he was the voice of, the Pro Bowlers Tour for 33 years. Schenkel passed away in September 2005 at the age of 82. Other inductees include: former ESPN president Steve Bornstein, Ken Aagaard of CBS Sports; sports television executive Bob Dixon; Fox executive David Hill; George Orgera, the founding CEO and president of F&F Productions, and former NBA commissioner David Stern.
7. Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Chris Ballard traveled to China with Kobe Bryant
• NCAA Champion Magazine writer Brian Burnsed on the death of Wilmington College cross country runner Jenna Parlette
• Sensational, sobering work by Kevin G. Armstrong on the racing life & death of Kevin Ward Jr.
• "Jared Lorenzen and I are in love with the same woman. Her name is Little Debbie." Great work by ESPN’s Tommy Tomlinson
• Great Q&A with Roger Federer by SI’s Jon Wertheim:
• Yahoo Sports columnist Jeff Passan argues those playing in the Little League World Series should be paid
• The NYT profiles college football magazine guru Phil Steele
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Writer Jim Miller profiled SNL producer Lorne Michaels for Grantland
• GQ’s Michael Finkel had a brilliant piece on a Maine man who lived in the woods for two decades
• Texas Monthly editor Pamela Coloff profiles a woman who witnessed 278 executions while in Texas prison system
• This last paragraph from New York Times' Rukmini Callimachi will leave you frozen:
8. Jason McIntyre of The Big Lead did a deep dive on Fox Sports 1 as it passed its one-year anniversary last week:
8a. On the same topic: Awful Announcing also examined Fox Sports 1 in a series of articles including thoughts from readers on the network’s opening year.
8b. Well done to Fox Sports Live producer Matt Schlef (and reporter Bruce Feldman) for this profile of Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury. The producer here really did fine work, bypassing an over-the-top soundtrack underneath (a Fox specialty) and providing viewers with great pacing on Kingsbury’s day.
9. The longtime CBS voice for the U.S. Open, Dick Enberg, will return to the booth on Aug. 31 to call a match with John McEnroe and Mary Carillo. CBS said Enberg will also be part of the network’s final weekend coverage as an essayist.
9a. Look for the upcoming CBS Sports Network sports talk show featuring an all-female panel to make some additional adds this week. Network officials say that they will use staffers from other networks so respected people like HBO’s and NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer or the Tennis Channel’s Mary Carillo could get involved. The show would air weekly during some nighttime slot.
10. SI’s Robert Klemko and I did a podcast for The MMQB on his experiences covering the protests and riots in Ferguson, Mo
10a. Former Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik and former Georgia quarterback David Greene were added as analysts for the SEC Network. The network said Chizik will be a studio analyst on Mondays and Tuesdays and Greene will host Film Room (Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. ET.)
10b. The Keith Olbermann brand expands at ESPN as the network will air a one-hour special titled Olbermann Presents Pete Rose: 25 Years In Exile on Monday at 10 p.m. ET. Olbermann will be joined by Bob Ley, Tim Kurkjian, Jeremy Schaap, and T.J. Quinn for an examination on Rose’s ban from baseball 25 years later