Michele Tafoya's sideline artistry; Grant Hill's new job, more

Monday October 21st, 2013

Michele Tafoya is in her third season with Sunday Night Football after 11 years with ESPN.
Matthew Emmons/US Presswire

Michele Tafoya has been looking forward to this week since the start of the NFL season. Rarely does the NBC Sunday Night Football sideline reporter get to spend seven consecutive days at home with her two young children, but next Sunday's Packers-Vikings game affords her the opportunity to spend the week at her home in Minneapolis. "I'm not a fan of any team, but this is like working a home game -- the only one I get," said Tafoya, who worked two decades ago for Minneapolis-based KFAN-AM as a sideline reporter on Vikings games. "Usually I'm on the road three or four days a week, and to have those days this week with my kids, who are seven and four years old is really significant. It is hard to be away from them every week."

This is Tafoya's third season on Sunday Night Football after 11 years at ESPN. Most would consider her at the top of her profession, a reporter who takes the verb "reporting" seriously and demonstrates weekly how a sideline reporter with news instincts can aid a football broadcast. She was sensational during the Ravens-Broncos weather delay on Sept. 5, providing viewers with timely updates as well as a strong post-game interview with Peyton Manning. She has been helped by the fact Sunday Night Football producer (and Deadspin.com favorite) Fred Gaudelli treats the position with gravitas as opposed to a fluffy appendage. (Former SNF sideline reporter Andrea Kremer recently offered thoughts on that topic to SI.com.)

Tafoya and I spoke this week on a number of subjects, including the value of sideline reporters, how much appearance plays into the hiring of the position and her long-term aspirations.

"It's a role people don't realize is quite difficult," Tafoya said. "You don't know when you will get on -- sometimes it is very little and sometimes you are very active. Every year I have found more and more ways to be better prepared for every game and it continues to a position where I can grow. Industry-wide, and I have to be very careful how I say this, I have seen some networks take the sideline reporter off of their broadcasts. I'll never understand that. They have found themselves in positions where they are missing a lot of information, lacking insight, and [losing] immediacy to their reporters because they do not have someone down there field-wise to access this stuff for them. That is mind-boggling to me. People ask me: Don't you feel relegated with this position? No, I feel valued down there. Now, does that mean that I would not love to be on the air more? I would. But there is no question that our broadcasts maximize the position for the sideline reporter."

I asked Tafoya how she felt when a network makes a sideline reporter hire based on factors that have nothing to do with reporting or news experience.

"I guess I can put it this way: I thank goodness that NBC appreciates my work and is willing to overlook some of my other deficiencies," Tafoya said. "Relatively speaking, I know what my other deficiencies are. Cosmetically, I'm not 28 and stunning. The fact that NBC appreciates what I do means a great deal to me because I know that without my reporting skills and my experience and all of that, I might not have a fighting chance. It is sometimes very disappointing to see people put in those positions for reasons that are not really the correct reasons. It makes me think what are they trying to achieve here -- and sometimes I ask that very rhetorically because it is pretty obvious what they are trying to achieve. I also think people don't realize how valuable the position can be if the person in it is really well suited to it. In some ways, it's still a man's world."

Tafoya said her long-term fantasy is to become the first woman to call play-by-play on an NBA television or radio broadcast. "Doris Burke has done great work as an analyst and she is good friend," Tafoya said. "I am so pleased for her and how well she carries herself. I think an NBA audience could receive a women's voice on play-by-play. I don't know that an NFL audience is ready to have a woman narrate a game. I will disappoint a lot of feminists with this but I am OK with that. I understand it. It's a violent game and it deserves the right voice calling it for you as an audience member. People ask me if I want to do play-by-play in the NFL and that's not on my list. But an NBA game would be a blast. Beyond television, I just can't wait to be a full-time mom."

The Noise Report

SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week.

1. Grant Hill has long been considered a can't-miss broadcasting prospect given his intelligence, media savvy and athletic accomplishments in the NBA and as a college player at Duke. The only question was whether Hill would be interested in the profession. "I do have a lot of interests and things in the future I want to do outside of basketball," said Hill, who played 18 NBA seasons and averaged 16.7 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists during his career. "But I love the game, and the league is tremendous in that it provides opportunities for players, whether that is the front office, coaching, positions at the league or broadcasting."

Unlike those who immediately become a studio or game analyst, Hill will appear this season on multiple platforms, including as the co-host on the reboot of NBA Inside Stuff (airing weekly at noon ET on NBA TV throughout the season beginning Nov. 2). Hill will also be a regular NBA TV analyst with select appearances on TNT. "This is an opportunity to stay around the game and contribute to the game," Hill said. "I started off as a fan and I am still a fan."

Like the original version that ran from 1990 to 2005 and was geared toward teenage NBA fans, Hill said Inside Stuff would offer access into players' homes and showcase players' hobbies and interests. One of the initial shows will feature Hill and Nets forward Kevin Garnett having an extended conversation while walking around the Duke campus. (The Nets practiced in Durham, N.C. during the training camp.)

"There are very few shows that players trust to bring in cameras and open up and reveal something," said Hill. "We want to have fun and give people access."

Hill was not specific why he chose Turner Sports, though he had served as a guest analyst with the network multiple times in the past. Hill said multiple networks approached him when he announced his retirement last June (he did so on TNT moments before the start of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals) and is interested in making broadcasting a long-term career. "I've learned not to look too far down the road, but it would be nice to do this for quite some time," Hill said.

1a. Asked where he rated LeBron James on a historical basis, Hill said, "He's an artist whose canvas is not done, so it's unfair to him and those who have come before him to rate him, but he is certainly cementing his legacy. Clearly, he has positioned himself as the best player in the game and now he's chasing legends. What he does from now until he retires will make it easier in terms of rating him. We all are pretty fortunate, to play on the words of one of his Nike campaigns, to witness what he is doing. He's a remarkable player and how he's grown and matured through some of his adversity has endeared him even more to the public."

1b. Hill also offered his thoughts on Kobe Bryant's return from the ruptured Achilles he suffered at the end of last season: "The toughest thing will be the mental and emotional part of the recovery. The beauty of Kobe is that he has obviously taken care of himself and his body throughout his career. In terms of mental toughness, he might be No. 1 in that category in the league. I think he will get back to a certain level, though he might not have that level of athleticism. Every injury and every recovery from an injury is different, but I think his skill set, his fundamentals, are by far the best on the league. I think once he begins to trust his body and get the confidence back in his body, whether it his midseason or end of the season, he will get back to the level where he can go out and still dominate. I'm not writing him off at all. He embraces challenges and this is one of the great ones of his career."

2. Viewers expect a superior broadcast from Sunday Night Football and they were rewarded at the top of the Broncos-Colts telecast. The network's cameras followed Peyton Manning running onto the Lucas Oil Stadium field, followed by a quick cut to the crowd, followed by a tight shot of Manning warming up as a tribute piece for the quarterback played on a video screen above the stadium. As the video ended and the Indianapolis crowd gave Manning a standing ovation, play-by-play announcer Al Michaels did what all good announcers do for such a moment: He shut up. Viewers saw the crowd reacting as well as Manning mouthing the words "Thank you very much." A great moment, and great work by director Drew Esocoff and Gaudelli.

2a. NBC's Football Night In America analyst Tony Dungy was asked by host Dan Patrick about Colts owner Jim Irsay's comments to USA Today about the lack of playoff success by the Colts during the Peyton Manning era. "I didn't take it personally because I wanted more than one Super Bowl," Dungy said. "I understand what Jim was saying."

Countered fellow analyst Rodney Harrison: "It was disrespectful."

2b. Dungy and Harrison offered some great analysis in breaking down what Manning's chatter means at the line of scrimmage.

2c. Football Night In America host Bob Costas got a nice quote from Manning during a sit-down interview with the Broncos quarterback on Saturday night: "It's a game that I never wanted to play," Manning said. "I always wanted to play for the same team for my entire career. I wanted to play for three teams: Newman High School; the University of Tennessee Volunteers; and the Indianapolis Colts because they were the team that drafted me, and that was a goal of mine. I got injured, things change and I have transitioned into this second chapter of my football career. The Denver Broncos have welcomed me warmly and helped me with that transition."

2d. NBC said the Colts-Broncos game drew a 17.3 overnight rating, the best primetime overnight for an October game in 15 years and the fourth-highest overnight rating in the eight-year history of Sunday Night Football. The top-five markets were Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, New Orleans and Albuquerque.

2e. NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger has wanted Brett Favre as a studio analyst for years and makes periodic pursuits of Favre every couple of months. So far, the soon-to-be Hall of Famer does not have interest in a full-time broadcasting position, but Favre was on NFL GameDay Morning on Sunday. Between Steve Mariucci genuflecting at his presence, Favre answered questions on Peyton Manning's return to Indianapolis. This answer, on returning to play at Lambeau Field, was interesting:

2f. The Sunday NFL Countdown crew had a lot to say about Peyton Manning's return to Indy.

2g. The Wall Street Journal's Matthew Futterman and Shalini Ramachandran reported last week that the NFL is considering selling another slate of Thursday games to a media outlet to increase the audience. Peter King reported on Sunday Night Football that a league source told him there is no chance of a second Thursday night game, but by 2015 "the Thursday Night package will be split between the NFL Network and another network in a big-money deal."

2h. NFL Network's A Football Life will profile broadcaster Pat Summerall on Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET.

Rachel Nichols' new show on CNN will present views from a mix of people in and outside of sports.
John Biever /SI

3. CNN's Rachel Nichols debuts her new weekly half-hour show on Oct. 25 at 10:30 p.m. ET. "Unguarded With Rachel Nichols" will feature one interview (or longform feature) with a big-name sports figure each week and a panel discussion that mixes people from sports with those from the worlds of politics and entertainment. "One of the cool things about being on CNN is how wide the field of interest is at a network like this, so we really get to broaden the conversation and who gets to participate in it, and explore all the ways sports connect to the other parts of our lives," Nichols said in an email.

Nichols said the show's debut piece will be an all-access ride-along with LeBron James on his recent trip to China. "We have some great behind-the-scenes moments, as well as some pretty crazy visuals of him among the tens of thousands of people who clogged the streets just to see him there," Nichols said. "LeBron has traveled to China every summer for the past nine years, and it struck me that here is one of the biggest athletes on the planet, whose every move is chronicled (There are articles like: Will he wear a headband? Will he not wear a headband? What does the save-the-date card for his wedding look like?), and yet here is something that's become a regular part of his life that most sports fans had never seen much of ... before now."

"Unguarded" will air on CNN's U.S. channel, CNN International, as well as the CNN Airport Network. "That's [CNN Airport Network] is the place I'm most likely to catch it," Nichols said.

4. The head football coach at the Episcopal School of Jacksonville is adding an interesting second job at the end of this month -- ESPN NFL analyst. "I think I have the best jobs in the world -- I'm coaching high school football and I'm working for ESPN," said Mark Brunell, the former NFL quarterback who played 19 seasons, including nine with the Jaguars from 1995-2003. Brunell starts with ESPN on Oct. 28 and will appear on NFL Live, SportsCenter and ESPN Radio. (Brunell's high school team completes its season Nov. 8 at home against Bishop Kenny.) "I want to be very good analyst, get better and better, and hopefully be someone ESPN wants to keep around for some time," Brunell said.

Brunell, who served as a color analyst for the Jaguars' 2013 preseason games on WTEV-TV, said he was contacted a couple of months ago by ESPN NFL senior coordinating producer Seth Markman to gauge his interest in working for the network. He auditioned with ESPN at Jacksonville's EverBank Field (with Wendi Nix) and Markman came away impressed. Brunell said Tim Hasselback, a close friend, also championed Brunell working at ESPN. "I think he's really smart," Markman said. "He was a really good player in the league for a long time and when I first talked to him, he reminded me of Steve Young, Trent Dilfer and Tim Hasselbeck. He seemed to be cut from the same mold -- really smart with a little of the quarterback goofiness I like."

4a. Brunell was part of a Vikings-Giants Monday Night Football audio preview with Mike Tirico, Jon Gruden and Cris Carter.

5. CBS Sports said that through the first five weeks of its national college football coverage, the network's 2013 SEC game coverage was averaging 7.3 million viewers, the most-watched for SEC football games on CBS at this point in a season since 2001. The viewership is 49 percent higher than 2012's 4.9 million average. (Thanks, Johnny Manziel).

5a. Good for ESPN's Brian Griese, saying what needed to be said about the curious end-game coaching strategy on Saturday of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who called multiple timeouts on a fourth down with the ball deep in his own end. Said Griese: "When you try to be too cute -- to look at a formation, to play around and think about a fake --- it's going to come back to bite you. ... Boy, you could not have used the three time outs if you are Steve Spurrier any worse in this fourth quarter."

5b. Fox College Saturday co-host Joel Klatt on the composition of the College Football Selection committee: "I applaud the addition of someone like Condoleezza Rice. I think that's someone that's really going to help this committee get it right. The sitting athletic directors have a bias that is really unmatched, when you think about it. You're asking them to make decisions based on their hires, their conference and their budgets. Those five sitting athletic directors should not be on the selection committee."

6. Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, whom Fox Sports management is very high on as a future full-time employee, joins the network's postseason coverage for a third straight year, teaming with Matt Vasgersian, Harold Reynolds and Jimmy Rollins for every World Series pregame and postgame show on Fox. Following each postgame show on Fox, Pierzynski and Rollins and Ryan Field will be live from the ballpark for analysis on Fox Sports Live.

6a. Fox Sports MLB director Bill Webb and coordinating producer Pete Macheska performed a production clinic during the American League Championship Series, and the duo were at their best in Game 6 on Dustin Pedroia's near-home run in the third inning, with priceless shots of the ball just missing the foul pole and Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer's pleading for the blast to go foul.

6b. Fox said its Game 6 coverage of the ALCS drew 9.0 million viewers, up 20 percent over last year's 7.6 million viewers for Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

6c. The 2013 six-game ALCS on Fox averaged 7.7 million viewers, up 23 percent over last year's 6.5 million viewers for the seven-game NLCS on Fox and the network's best LCS average since 2010 (9.1 million viewers).

6d. The Top 10 highest-rated markets for Game 6 of the ALCS were: Boston, Detroit, Providence, Hartford, St. Louis, Fort Myers, Norfolk, Sacramento, Tampa and Greensboro.

7. Notable sports pieces of the week:

• ESPN.com columnist Jeff MacGregor wrote an essay for ESPNW on rape, football and society stigmatizing sexual assault victims. I'd urge you to read it.

• New York Times soccer writer Sam Borden on pickup soccer in Brazil.

• Yahoo! Sports writer Les Carpenter on the professional compulsiveness of Peyton Manning.

• SI's George Dohrmann on what caused Grambling football players to revolt.

• Mike Tyson in a riveting first-person piece for New York magazine: My Life As a Young Thug.

Non-sports pieces of note:

• "I'm Daisy Coleman, the teenager at the center of the Maryville rape media storm and this is what really happened."

• Texas Monthly's Pamela Colloff writes about the amazing story of how death row exoneree Anthony Graves thanked the attorney who saved his life.

Why we make bad decisions.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek had a fascinating excerpt from senior writer Brad Stone's new book on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

8. The TBS postseason show -- with Keith Olbermann, Pedro Martinez, Tom Verducci and guests such as Gary Sheffield -- proved to be an interesting grouping and strong sports television. The network would be wise to bring them back next year if they are available, especially if Martinez delivers candid thoughts, as he did on the Dodgers' handling of Clayton Kershaw.

8a. TBS said it averaged 4,160,000 total viewers for 24 postseason game telecasts, up two percent compared with an average of 4,079,000 total viewers for the same number of telecasts in 2012 (and down three percent from 2011).

8b. The Cardinals-Dodgers NLCS series on TBS averaged 5.0 million viewers, a nine percent increase over the last time the network aired the NLCS in 2011. But that number was down 16 percent from last year's four-game Tigers-Yankees ALCS (5.9 million).

9. The burying of Outside The Lines was particularly amplified last week when the show drew just 152,000 viewers at its new time and network (Sunday at 8:00 a.m. on ESPN2.) The last Sunday OTL show on ESPN -- which aired an hour later -- drew 846,000 viewers. That's a clinic on how to devalue a brand, and a brand that makes ESPN management and its public relations staff look exceptionally good externally as a counter to manufactured debates, Jadeveon Clowney-bashing and the monorail salesman act from the likes of Skip Bayless. OTL is still holding on when compared to its own shows on ESPN2 later in the day. It finished with the same household rating as Colin Cowherd's new football show, which airs one-hour later.

10. Interesting piece by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News on the current state-of-affairs between the Pac-12 and Fox Sports.

10a. Former Indiana Pacers and Providence College player Austin Croshere has been hired as a studio analyst for Fox Sports 1 and FoxSports 2. Croshere will appear at halftimes and between games during Big East coverage as well as an analyst for the Fox College Hoops Tip-Off show, which will air from January through March. Croshere previously appeared on Fox Sports Indiana as a pre and postgame analyst for Pacers games.

10b. ESPN's E:60 examines sexual abuse of young athletes with disabilities this Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.

10c. Ken Fang of the Fang's Bites website offered his analysis of Turner's coverage of postseason baseball from 2007 to 2013.

10d. I appreciate when writers profile television staffers away from the camera as Newsday's Neil Best did here with College GameDay's researcher Chris Fallica.

10e. ESPN news editor and former New York Times sports writer Claire Smith has been named the first winner of the Sam Lacy-Wendell Smith Award, presented by the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. The award is given to a sports journalist who has made significant contributions to racial and gender equality in sports.

10f. U.S. national soccer team goalkeeper Tim Howard will serve as the analyst for the Chelsea-Manchester City match next Sunday at noon ET on NBCSN. Arlo White will call the game with Howard, who will be in the booth one day after suiting up for Everton against Aston Villa. "It is the first time we will have an active player in our announce booth," NBC Sports Group coordinating producer Pierre Moossa said.

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