Pam Oliver is no longer Fox's top NFL sideline reporter. And after this coming football season, she will no longer be a sideline reporter at all.
Oliver confirmed the news to Sports Illustrated on Sunday night that she will move to the network’s No. 2 team for her 20th NFL broadcasting season. Erin Andrews has been elevated to the No. 1 sideline spot, joining the team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Oliver’s last season working as a reporter on the NFL will be spent with the No. 2 Fox team of Kevin Burkhardt and John Lynch.
After a painful couple of months, Oliver said the disappointment of that news has subsided and that she has accepted her new professional reality. But it was a shock last April when Fox Sports executives traveled to Atlanta, where she is based, to tell her in person that she would no longer hold the job that has been her professional life for two decades. Oliver says that while she respected Fox Sports president Eric Shanks and executive vice president of production John Entz delivering the news in person, she was stunned when 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.
“To go from the lead crew to no crew was a little shocking,” Oliver said. “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. Again, I think it was predetermined coming in. Not at that meeting, but two years ago it was determined that no matter what I did or did not do, a change would be made for this year.”
After meeting with her bosses, Oliver spoke with her agent, Rick Ramage. They held meetings with other outlets –- for both sports and news roles –- before she ultimately worked things out with Fox. Shanks and Entz eventually agreed to give Oliver one final year on the NFL sidelines.
Removing the well-regarded and well-connected Oliver from the No. 1 team, not to mention initially wanting her out of sideline reporting altogether, seems counter to what a sports network should want in an NFL reporter. Why the decision to make the switch? SI.com contacted Shanks on Sunday night in Minneapolis, where he was preparing for Fox’s coverage of the MLB All-Star game on Tuesday at Target Field.
“I think in the last five years we have made a lot of changes with the NFL crews,” Shanks said. “We have made changes to keep our coverage across the board fresh, including the addition of Burkhardt and Lynch -– which has been one of the more exciting pairings we have put together. This is kind of the next move in that evolution.”
A veteran NFL reporter -– who has worked in television and asked for anonymity -– offered another reason. “She’s not blonde, nor is she in the demographic,” said the reporter. “I’m not naïve and I understand it’s a business, but I think that Fox did not treat her as befits a woman who has been the female face of their sports operation for the past 19 years.”
To be clear: Fox Sports executives insist they traveled to Atlanta not to jettison Oliver but to switch her role within Fox Sports. When Shanks and Entz flew to Atlanta to see Oliver, the three discussed Oliver's future at Fox over a meal at a restaurant. They insist they wanted her to stay with the company heading forward.
“That was a private conversation and where it ended up we think was a great place that it ended up,” Shanks said. “We sat with Pam and talked through what we needed each other to do to maximize the impact Pam could have. Where it ended up is more important than where it started.”
“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. So we focused on what the next step was and that’s how we ended up where we now. And I am excited about that.”
Oliver signed a new multi-year contract for Fox Sports last week and will be doing long-form pieces, specials, major interviews and some producing as well. She will continue her work on Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports.
“Clearly it’s an expanded role that meets the needs of all the big events that Fox and Fox Sports 1 covers as well as the NFL on Fox,” Shanks said. “I can’t think of a more respected person in the entire industry than Pam Oliver, and when you find out that Pam is going to be doing the interview, I don’t think you would say that anyone else would do the interview better. Her being a part of the Fox family now and in the future is really important to us. The move is hugely positive to where Fox Sports is going and building its journalistic chops and credibility 365 days and not just 17 days a year.”
(One might argue that if Fox Sports brass is so high on Oliver’s journalistic and reporting chops, why would it remove her from an interviewing role on its most important NFL games?)
Oliver turned 53 in March, and women in their 50s on sports television have long been an endangered species. Oliver said no one at Fox has ever indicated that they have a problem with her age. “But I live in the real world and I know that television tends to get younger and where women are concerned,” Oliver said. “Just turn on your TV. It’s everywhere. And I’m not saying these younger girls don’t deserve a chance. I know I’ve had my turn.”
“Disappointment is not really a word I’d use right now because I’ve had some weeks to process it,” Oliver continued. “I think my emotions during the season will be sadness because I had been around that group for a decade. I will miss all the little things, just from Joe’s impersonations of people and Troy’s bad impersonations of people and all of the running jokes -- that was the hardest part of hearing the news. But you have to move forward and deal with what is on your plate. I went through a range of emotions, but as I speak with you today, disappointment has passed me and I have reached a point of trying to move forward with some sadness."
Fox Sports management is obviously concerned about the reaction to Oliver being removed from the top team and any narrative that pits Oliver versus Andrews. By every metric, at least on my viewer scale, from experience on the NFL beat to contacts around the league to the journalistic nature of her questions, Oliver provides more for viewers on an NFL broadcast than Andrews does. That’s not a knock on Andrews. That’s simply a statement on Oliver’s work.
Asked why Andrews was the right person to be Fox’s No. 1 NFL reporter, Shanks said he wanted to focus on Oliver for this story.
Clearly, Fox has a lot invested in Andrews, 36, and the network has long been smitten 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. Bumping her up to the No. 1 NFL team fulltime will put her in more homes and, executives no doubt believe, give her games a bigger feel. Will it improve the broadcast? Time will tell.
“I think Erin is solid,” Oliver said. “They have made a determination and it just happened to be with a position I had held for almost 20 years. It’s not necessary to feel something [bad] toward the person who is assuming your former role. You just understand that they have changed. The crews could change too. In a few years I think Fox will look radically different. I don’t know how, but you have your thoughts and opinions. For people to pit us against each other is not necessary and not going to get far if the two of us don’t participate.”
Last year was among the roughest professionally for Oliver. While at MetLife Stadium in August to cover a Giants-Colts preseason game, Oliver was hit on the side of the face by a football during pregame warmups on a wayward pass thrown by Colts backup quarterback Chandler Harnish. Though she worked the game, she suffered a concussion and spent five days in a dark room inside her Atlanta home. She grinded the year out and did her usual solid work. Now she begins preparing for her final season on the sidelines.
“The No. 2 team is not chopped liver,” Oliver said. “It is an up-and-coming crew and a really good group of guys. They called me the other day and we had some laughs. So I will savor this year. I will get my goodbyes to the security guys and the fans I’ve known for years. It is not even remotely bad, not even anything remotely like ‘Poor me.’ I feel like I have landed in a pot of gold at this stage and how it could have gone. My role has changed. Sideline reporting is being phased out and I’m fortunate enough to get this year. I am lucky. I do know that.
“So I want people to know that this ain’t that tragic in the grand scheme of things. It is a change. Despite me having a two-year heads up, it was still kind of shocking. I went through all of the emotions you can imagine. It’s just that I love the job. Nothing else. The NFL is the best thing going and I love that sideline. People will sometimes say to me, Are you not tired of it? I’m like, think about it: What did you do last Sunday? ‘Oh, you watched football.’ Yeah, you want to know what I did last Sunday? I had the best seat in the house.”