Pam Oliver never saw it coming.
"I was shocked, floored, a monumental surprise," says Oliver. "The call came out of the blue."
The call was from Fox Sports president Eric Shanks and executive vice president John Entz, and it came the second week of January prior to the NFL divisional playoffs. And the call came with a question.
Would Oliver consider coming back to do NFL sideline reporting for Fox in 2015?
"I think I was silent for a good 10 seconds and then screamed out, What?" Oliver recalled on Monday afternoon. "I thought: 'This makes no sense. What are they talking about?'"
On the surface, what were they talking about? Last year Fox announced that Oliver would be replaced by Erin Andrews on Fox's top NFL team. Furthermore, management initially planned to remove her from the NFL sidelines entirely. As she recounted to this column last July, "To go from the lead crew to no crew was a little shocking. I said I wanted to do a 20th year [on the sidelines]. I expressed to them that I was not done and had something to offer."
The backstory did not make Fox Sports management look good. In April 2014 executives traveled to Atlanta, where Oliver is based, to tell her in person that she would no longer hold the job that has been her professional life for two decades. They initially informed her that not only was she being removed from Fox’s No. 1 NFL team, but also that she was being taken off the NFL sidelines completely in 2014.
"The emphasis at the meeting was always placed on how they saw what was next for me versus what I saw would be next for me," Oliver said. "I felt I was not done. I still felt I had more to offer with sideline reporting. I think that took them by surprise a little bit."
After meeting with her bosses, Oliver spoke with her agent, Rick Ramage. They held meetings with other outlets—for sports and news roles—before she ultimately worked things out with Fox and got one final year on the sidelines as part of a new multi-year contract including longform pieces, specials, major interviews and some producing as well.
Oliver spent last year on a farewell tour of sorts, working with a new broadcast team (announcers Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch) and production crew (led by producer Pete Macheska and director Artie Kempner). It took her a long time to mentally accept that this was her final NFL go-around, but she entered last season in a healthy place and had a strong year. Her bosses noticed. Shanks and Entz told her they really liked the chemistry of the No. 2 team, they thought she had a good year, and they wanted her back.
"The call was so completely out of the blue," Oliver says. "I also felt it was one of those things like, 'Why would we go back to this possibility?' I felt we had all come through a pretty big ruckus and that door had been closed, dead-bolted, chained up. I had fully weaned myself from that role so to have that door open again, and I had difficulty wrapping my brain around it. So I put the decision on the shelf."
Oliver took a couple of weeks to think about the decision. She solicited opinions of family, her mentors, her agent and some friends. Finally, she decided that she wanted to continue and told her bosses on Feb. 3 that she would come back to the sidelines. Here’s the kicker: The new assignment isn’t just for 2015. She will be part of the No. 2 team of Burkhardt and Lynch for the 2015 and 2016 NFL seasons, which is the duration of her contract with Fox Sports.
"I wasn’t that interested in just one year," Oliver says. "So this is great. I know that for the next two years we are a true team and I am not some guest. I think we will really take it to another level next season."
While Oliver is very close with Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman—Aikman told me in January that he thinks of Oliver as a sister and Oliver said she considers Aikman like a brother—she loved being on her new crew. The group had dinner together often, and Oliver said she felt a renewed energy. She said she felt "freer" this season than she had in a long time.
"I felt I could do my thing, not without fear, but without dread of making a mistake," Oliver says. "It was such a different feel, and this is no criticism of the A Group [Aikman, Joe Buck, producer Richie Zyontz and director Rich Russo]. But this is a different kind of group. I would bring seven ideas to the table with Pete, and he is very open and accommodating. I had a whole bunch of opportunities to add things. I felt I had I had more opportunities with Pete than I had with Richie [Zyontz] but I don’t want this to sound like I am criticizing Richie. There was just a different energy and also knowing it was my last year, I just felt things were just easy and light."
Now she is back, remarkably, for another two years, and in a very good place with Fox Sports management.
"I don’t think it was easy for anyone and I had to learn to step back and not make it so personal and understand management has the right to do whatever it wants to do," Oliver says. "The decision [last year] was made and I had to accept it and it took me a little bit. There was never any animosity or hard feelings; I was just heartbroken. And you do look at the messenger.
"But once the dust settled, I have always enjoyed those two [Shanks and Entz]. They had a choice and a job to do, and they handled me respectfully. Now we have come to a place where I feel so grateful and fortunate to be on the other end of a different decision they’ve come to. It is absolutely crazy that they have given me something that I least expected, and something that will give me joy for another couple of years. It really is just amazing."
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines the week’s biggest sports media stories.
1. What’s an estimated $9-12 million between friends? That’s the reported price—according to Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and John Shannon of Canada’s Sportsnet—ESPN paid to secure the rights to the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which will take place at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre from Sept. 17-Oct. 1, 2016, and will culminate with a best-of-three final. A minimum of 16 games (17 if the final goes three) will be televised, and most of the games will air on ESPN or ESPN2. The tournament is expected to feature the top NHL players representing six countries, including the U.S. and Canada.
Ourand reported ESPN’s winning bid was several million more than bids from NBC and Fox. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he viewed the tournament as a chance to "rekindle the SportsCenter interest" with ESPN. He also added that scheduling issues were the primary reason ESPN was a more suitable partner. (We imagine money probably was also a factor.)
"We have a terrific relationship with NBC Sports," Bettman said. "We love the way they cover our game and the way they've treated us throughout our relationship. They were involved in the process, but it became clear in the course of the discussions that among other things, they had scheduling issues, and it made the most sense for us to be partnering in this regard with ESPN, and we couldn't be more delighted than to be having them involved. If you look around the U.S. major league sports broadcasting landscape most of the other sports, the other three majors, are on multiple platforms to begin with, and so nobody should find this as particularly revolutionary. Despite suggestions and rumors to the contrary, we have continued to maintain an excellent relationship with NBC. There were no points of friction or hard feelings."
ESPN president John Skipper said he spoke with NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus following ESPN winning the bid.
"Our intention here is to do a spectacular job of handing them [hockey] over," Skipper said. "[There is] a lot of interest in the start of the NHL season. We all get involved in these competitive bidding processes, and we all win some and lose some. We think they do a great job at NBC, and we look forward to working with them on this."
1a. The tournament will use a world feed for the games (which is what happens at the Olympics), though ESPN will be able to custom-make pre- and postgame coverage.
1b. Sportsnet was awarded the exclusive English-language media rights in Canada, and TVA Sports won the exclusive French-language media rights.
2. Women in their 50s on sports television have long been an endangered species. So I asked Oliver why we do not see women her age on sports television. "By the time I hit the field I don’t have any thought about my age or being a role model or anything like that," she said. "You are just busy. But somebody has to be older and I just look at it as: I want to be a lifer [in television]. I’m not saying it will be in sports. I think a return to news is more likely because I feel to some degree that news is probably more forgiving for an older woman than sports. And I love news, too. I’m not in denial about the age thing, but I am too busy to focus on it. It’s other people’s trip. Not mine."
On the role of older women of color in sports television, Oliver said, "I have spent time wondering where they are and where is the next generation. It’s a great curiosity for me and something I think about. I just hope other women get a chance and not to sound grand, but get to follow in my footsteps. I run into a lot of young women of color who want to do what I do and want to know how I did it. I always tell them there are different paths to get to where I did."
2a. Fox Sports management was obviously concerned last year about the reaction to Oliver being removed from the top team and any narrative that pits Oliver versus Andrews. Clearly, Fox has a lot invested in Andrews, and the network has long been swooned by talent who cross over to popular culture platforms, as Andrews has with Dancing With The Stars. The same is true for Terry Bradshaw and Michael Strahan. I asked Oliver how often she has reacted with Andrews over the past two years.
"I have had no occasion to run into her," Oliver said. "I feel like that change was up to Fox and that team is now that team, and I have a team. It worked out the way it was supposed to. I don’t lose any sleep over that. I don’t concern myself with what other people have and what they are doing. I don’t root against people ever. This is a unique job, and you just want everyone to do well. We were paired against each other, and I never felt comfortable with that. The perception is we are arch enemies. The times I have been around her, I have liked her. Things changed, and it worked out the way it was supposed to. There is enough for everyone."
3. Last week I had a long sit-down with Traug Keller, who oversees all aspects of the ESPN’s audio business, including talent, staffing, national programming content, scheduling and event production. It was an interesting conversation given my love of sports radio, and one of the topics I was really interested because I live in New York City was ESPN Radio’s struggles in the morning and afternoon against local powerhouse WFAN, and specifically why trotting out an unpopular host (based on ratings) such as Mike Lupica is a smart strategy against Mike Francesa, the longtime drive-time host for WFAN.
One show that was only touched on briefly in our interview was "The Dan Le Batard Show", which airs on ESPN Radio nationally weekdays from 4-7 p.m. ET. It’s not a show I listen to regularly, and the host and I don’t see eye on eye on many things (I do love his father, though, as you’ll see here). But I heard from some civil listeners of the show (as well as the show’s co-host Jon Weiner) on Twitter asking how management viewed the show. That’s a very fair query and so I reached out to Keller again for some follow-ups.
How do you view the Le Batard Show in terms of having a long-term impact in markets outside of Miami?
Dan’s show has big potential on a national basis going back to what you and I discussed in our sit down: The listener is in charge in this digital era. They vote every day in digital form, and in Dan's relatively short run on ESPN national radio, his streaming is up 102 percent and SiriusXM numbers are up 114%.
How many markets does it air in right now?
225. You should note that Dan's window in terrestrial radio is afternoon drive, which is primarily a local day part for our affiliates and that terrestrial radio pickup is only part of the distribution story. He is also online, the ESPN Radio app, iTunes Radio, TuneIn, Slacker and satellite.
Can a Miami-based show have impact in say Minneapolis or New York City?
I would counter that and say if a Bristol, Conn.-based show can, why can't a Miami based show do it? We think what matters is that if the ingredients are there for good and compelling audio, the show can resonate. Besides, listening to a show from South Beach in the dead of winter might sound rather appealing to folks in Minneapolis!
Something interesting John Skipper told me was that Highly Questionable was important to him because of the Hispanic metrics the show brought in. Is there a corollary for ESPN Audio with the radio show?
It’s really important to cast a wide net with a diverse offering. The Hispanic audience is the fastest growing in this country, and there is no question that we want to make sure we are increasing folks behind the mikes who reflect back on the makeup of the population. On Le Batard’s home and largest station WAXY-FM, 32 percent of his Male 25-54 audience is Hispanic. The appeal to the Hispanic audience is one reason Fusion will simulcast later this spring.
What is the biggest challenge a national drive time show such as that one faces against local?
The economics of the local cutaway day part make that an incredibly important local time slot. So getting stations to give that up for a national show is a challenge. We are quite pleased that we have 225 doing that. I go back to what I said earlier: The evolution of audio is that the listener is in charge, and in the connected car he or she has a choice such as Dan Le Batard from South Beach or Waddle & Silvy talking local Chicago sports.
4. Yahoo Sports has hired former NBA player Jason Collins as an NBA and NCAA analyst. He makes his debut on the site’s Tourney Bracket Live show Sunday.