Q&A: Sam Ponder on Sunday NFL Countdown gig, dealing with Internet trolls, more

0:44 | Tech & Media
Media Circus: Sam Ponder to take over ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown
Sunday March 26th, 2017

ESPN management pulled off something impressive regarding the end of the Chris Berman NFL era: They were able to thread the fine line of allowing Berman a celebratory exit as the host of Sunday NFL Countdown and ESPN’s NFL draft coverage while making it clear they were moving in a new direction for his hosting roles.

As the company made official last week, Sam Ponder is leaving her college football responsibilities to take over as the host of Sunday NFL Countdown. The news that Ponder could get the job was first reported by James Andrew Miller, the author of the These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN.

The thought process behind offering Ponder the hosting role is this: ESPN president John Skipper, senior vice president of event and studio production Stephanie Druley (who worked with Ponder at the Longhorn Network) and senior coordinating producer Seth Markman all believe Ponder has great potential as a studio host. She also came highly recommended from Lee Fitting, who ran College GameDay for years. Skipper has made it clear he wants to get more women in front-facing positions for the network’s NFL coverage. There has also been internal talk that management wants the host of this show to focus on facilitating conversations between the analysts as opposed to being an NFL wonk.

SI.com has learned that the position is guaranteed for more than one year. ESPN is committed.

That all serves as the backdrop for the Q&A below, a wide-ranging email exchange with Ponder over the weekend on her new role, potential conflicts with her husband as a pro football player, the sexism she has faced online, and where she stands on sports television people who are public with their politics.

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Richard Deitsch: What did management tell you regarding why they wanted you for this position?

Sam Ponder: The most reassuring thing I was told during our early conversations was that they wanted me to be me. Especially coming from Stephanie Druley, who knows me as well as anyone in the company That was really important. My first year with College Gameday I hosted the 9:00 am hour of the show on ESPNU. Sitting in Chris Fowler's chair was a little (okay, a lot) intimidating and I found myself trying to do the job like he did it. I was terrible and learned really quickly that trying to do a job just like someone else merely makes you a second rate version of who they are. Now that I will sit in another legendary Chris's seat, I know I can't fill his shoes. I also know that I'm not being asked to. I've been asked to be myself... I don't have a booming (no pun intended) television voice and I probably can't rattle off a ton of stats from the 1980s but I've loved and known football my entire life. Whether as the daughter of a high school coach, a media member covering it for the last twelve years, the wife of a player or as a fan on the couch, so much of my life and who I am is owed to this game. I'm grateful that my bosses want me to use my various experiences and perspectives to try to facilitate interesting and insightful conversation amongst our analysts and challenge or interject when need be.

RD: When were you specifically offered the job and what was the duration in time from management's offer to you ultimately accepting it?

SP: I'll respectfully defer to my bosses on these last two questions. I understand the reasoning for asking, but I also know that these things affect a lot of different people who were involved in this process in a variety of ways.

RD: Why did you decide to take the position?

SP: This opportunity provides a great combination of things I want most out of my life. It requires me to challenge myself and take some risks. It gives me a chance to participate in important conversations in areas I believe I can substantively contribute. It keeps me a part of something much bigger than me with some really impressive and quality people and keeps me involved in the game I love. It's a schedule that allows me to be the kind of present and engaged wife and mom I want to be. It also just sounded like a whole lot of fun.

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RD: ESPN has made it clear it sees no conflict in broadcasters calling or analyzing the games of relatives. The most notable person here is Jon Gruden calling the games of his brother, Jay Gruden. How will you approach any stories involving your husband, or the team your husband might be playing on?

SP: First and foremost, my role isn't that of an investigative reporter or an analyst. I'm a host. My job is to be a great point guard and put our guys in the best position to engage with our audience in an authentic way. This industry, like many, is about relationships and telling the truth. I'm of the opinion that fans are often best served by broadcasters who have the best relationships with the people they are talking about. In my experience, the more you know about a player, coach or team, the more likely you are to have more nuanced, interesting information and better context for analysis. I enjoyed calling Ohio State games with Kirk Herbstreit and Michigan basketball games with Dan Dakich (while his son was playing) because they genuinely knew more about what was going on and were actually even MORE critical as a result of that knowledge. The goal is to give football fans the inside scoop; to give them honest and interesting information. I am not an analyst, so my role isn't to critique my husband, his teammates or anyone for that matter. However, I do think that when fully disclosed and appropriate, relationships with athletes and coaches can greatly benefit sports fans. It helps me know the right questions to ask, to challenge guys when something doesn't add up and generally gives me a foundation of understanding about what these mens' lives are really like. I'm not ashamed to know guys in the league on a personal level and I'm certainly not going to try to hide who my husband is because I am immensely proud of the man I married. I'm well aware of the criticism that evokes among some fans, but I trust that over time, the way I do this job will put much of that to rest. Some people thought I shouldn't cover the Jameis Winston story at FSU because my husband played there and I have good relationships with their staff. When I was asked to give my thoughts on the situation live on College Gameday, I didn't hesitate to give my honest opinion and I doubt few people, if any, would say the result showed any favoritism toward the team that I had the biggest connection to.

RD: What kind of relationship, if any, do you have with the current members of that show?

SP: A huge part of why I was excited to take this job is that it's not about me, nor should it be. The crew we have this year is impressive in resume and personality. I have some prior relationships with a couple of guys, but there's also going to be a period of chemistry development that we'll inevitably go through. I've seen it when it's great (in my five years with College Gameday) and I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't believe we have that same potential to gel and connect with the audience. I love that this crew is relatively young and current when it comes to their experiences in the NFL. That's no disrespect to anyone else, because there's value in some distance too, but I love hearing from guys who were recently in NFL locker rooms, who can speak to today's issues and still personally know the guys we are watching on the field as teammates and co-workers. That helps pull the veil back on some of the mystery in the league, and I think it will be really beneficial to people watching at home.

RD: On March 7, you tweeted about getting sexist and vulgar tweets about your appearance. What is social media like for you on a weekly basis with regard to sexism and misogyny?

SP: That tweet was a great example of what can be lost in translation on social media. I was actually referring to the fact that people (yes, men and women) had been tweeting me all day that the only reason I was getting this job (the story had just been leaked) was because of how I looked. The irony of being told you're getting a job for sex appeal when you are seven months pregnant wearing your husbands clothes because nothing else fits and also covered in toddler pee (yeah, potty training isn't going great) was not lost on me.

Like any woman in the public eye, I get a considerable number of sexist/misogynistic tweets from people. I also know that getting hateful messages is something every one of my colleagues, male or female, deals with. Kirk Herbstreit, David Pollack and I used to read some of ours to each other —everyone's were brutal. The sexist comments are simply the low hanging fruit for any critic of a woman on TV. 'I don't know what to do with my dislike for this woman so let me just tell her to get in the kitchen.' Well I love the kitchen, that's where all the food is.

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RD: You have occasionally tweeted things that would fall under politics or social issues (For example). There has been a lot of discussion about what individuals who work for sports outlets should or should not tweet beyond sports. In your opinion, should people in the sports media make their political viewpoints known publicly? If yes, why? If no, why?

SP: This is a tough one because there is so much grey area. Generally speaking, I don't engage in much political discourse online. The example you referenced was a direct reply to something I found particularly appalling and offensive, given the context. Social media is called "social" for a reason. People want to connect, they want to feel like they know who you really are and what you're really all about. Ever followed an athlete or broadcaster who only tweets ads and promotional info? Probably not for long. Similarly, few people enjoy following someone in sports who uses their platform solely to rant about political beliefs. I use social media as a way to engage with people about the things that matter to me. A lot of that is football related. But a lot of it is also about my family and other passions of mine. I tweet about the famine in the South Sudan because my dad is the head coach of the South Sudan National Basketball Team. I tweet about things happening in the Middle East because my parents live in Palestine part time. I tweet about good books I'm reading, things I think are funny and yes, I have tweeted about controversial issues like the inherent value of every human life. It's difficult to be authentic without ever being offensive to some. We are all flawed, figuring this social media stuff out as we go, but I do my best to choose my battles.

RD: How much was taking this job about transitioning away from sideline reporting for a long-term career as a host in either sports or beyond sports?

SP: I got into sports broadcasting because I loved sports, not because I loved TV. Actually, I didn't have a TV for a lot of my childhood (the horror!) I have been hosting College Football Live for a few years now, hosted a show at Longhorn Network and at Fox College Sports. I really enjoy hosting, not necessarily because it provides more airtime, but because it allows me to be a part of more substantive discussions. Sideline reporting was a great way to be a part of the game and develop relationships, but it's no big secret that it's relatively limiting.

RD: Has Chris Berman reached out to you, as of this writing?

SP: He certainly didn't owe that to me but yes, he reached out and was incredibly gracious and encouraging. I told him what I've told everyone who puts my name in the same sentence as his: I couldn't fill his shoes if I had a lifetime to try. His legacy puts him on the Mt. Rushmore of ESPN and I'm just grateful I get to sit in his seat for a couple hours a week. We are obviously two very different people but hopefully I can build on his incredible foundation in a way that makes him proud someday.

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RD: Has management told you they are committed to you beyond this year in the role? If yes, what did they say?

SP: Yes, but I will leave it up to them to say what they want to about that.

RD: How will you determine success in this role?

SP: Success in this role is up to my bosses. This is a business, and I'm not going to pretend like numbers and money don't matter. I've also learned to separate a show's success with my own personal definition of success. I work for ESPN and I would love to see this show grow in viewership and interest, but as great as this company is, they don't determine my value, identity or whether my life is successful. I will do my absolute best to help this show be as entertaining, informative and interesting as possible, but I'm also not afraid to take some risks and mess up.

RD: Is there is anything you wish to add?

SP: I'd just like to add that my new NFL colleagues at ESPN have already been amazing when they certainly didn't have to be. I've admired Suzy Kolber from afar for a long time now and she was one of the first people to reach out and congratulate me and offer any help. The narrative that women are unkind and unsupportive to other women in this industry is largely inaccurate in my experience. There are always exceptions, but I couldn't be more appreciative to be joining a team at ESPN that genuinely acts like a team.

The Noise Report

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. Episode 110 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Dave Meltzer, editor of The Wrestling Observer newsletter, Wrestling Observer.com and a writer for MMA Fighting.com. This is Meltzer’s second appearance on the podcast.

As part of this conversation, Meltzer discusses the success of the split between the Raw and SmackDown Live brands; how he evaluates WWE broadcasters; what he expects the WWE to do about the leaked release of explicit photos and videos of wrestlers Paige and Xavier Woods; what it was like to work at the National; how he would evaluate ESPN’s coverage of pro wrestling; his opinion of the Something To Wrestle With podcast and the criticism he gets from Bruce Pritchard; whether Stephanie McMahon will ever be in a bout again; the potential of an Andre the Giant doc; how often wrestlers contact him;  the possible returns of Hulk Hogan and C.M. Punk; how WWE brass feels regarding fans booing Roman Reigns; the health of independent wrestling in North America; whether a  new promotion could become a legit competitor to the WWE in North America; why the WWE brass does not allow its wrestlers to appear on your radio shows; whether the McMahon’s close relationship-partnership with Donald Trump has impacted employee morale and much more.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.

2. I reached out to Jonah Keri and Bill Simmons on the subject of Simmons asserting via Twitter that Keri’s MLB Trade Value column for SI.com, clearly a version of the NBA column Simmons wrote for years at ESPN, was a swipe of intellectual property as opposed to an ode to a format.

At first I thought this was a work between the two former Grantland colleagues (which in wrestling parlance is a staged fight for the amusement of the audience). I now believe that Keri, at least, believed Simmons was serious. It’s up to you as the reader to determine where you stand regarding what right another writer has to use such a concept. In his introductory piece, Keri credited Simmons for coming up with the concept. 

I did hear back from Keri. He said, “I totally appreciate your reporting here. But I have to very politely decline to comment. Thank you again for inquiring, and all the best.”

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2017 MLB Trade Value player rankings: Nos. 50–1

2b. Highly recommend an upcoming Vice on HBO episode titled "End of Amateurism," which examines the ongoing debate around paying college athletes. Vice correspondent Gianna Toboni spent a year on the story and the piece features interviews with Michigan State officials including Tom Izzo (they gave Vice terrific access), Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt , and Martin Jenkins, a Clemson football player from 2010-2014 who, along with Nigel Hayes and other former and current players, has brought an antitrust case over grant-in aids against the NCAA. The players, whose attorneys are prominent sports lawyers Jeffrey Kessler and David Greenspan, argue that the NCAA and its members should not be able limit the value of student-athlete compensation to tuition, room, board, books, fees and the full cost of attendance. The episode airs Friday at 7:30 ET/PT on HBO.

3. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Thursday that the broadcasting interest for Tony Romo now extends to CBS. Schefter previously reported Fox was interested in Romo for its No. 2 analyst spot should Romo opt to retire.

3a. Re/Code said the NFL is selling the rights to stream its Thursday Night Football games next season, and at least four big tech companies are interested—Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and YouTube. Twitter had the package last year.

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4. Non sports pieces of note:

Politico’s Tim Alberta did some remarkable reporting on the GOP’s Health Care Debacle.

• CBS Sunday Morning’s Ted Koppel reported on the great divide politics in the age of Trump. If interested in the media, I’d watch this.

• From Garrett M. Graff of Wired: Inside the Hunt for Russia’s Most Notorious Hacker

• Miners found a 706-Carat Diamond in Sierra Leone. Who should get the profit? 

• A four-part series from the New York Times on Canadians sponsoring Syrian refugees for a year.

Indianapolis Monthly on a white nationalist in Paoli, Indiana 

• From CJR: A Q&A with Garry Kasparov on the press and propaganda in Trump’s America. 

The Washington Post on Pennsylvania steel country.

Sports pieces of note:

• Dan Pompei, writing for The Athletic, wrote a beautiful piece on sportscaster Mike Adamle suffering from dementia:

• Via Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com: Inside the 'Tinderization' of today's NBA.

• From the Players Tribune: Indians pitcher Carlos Carrasco, on his journey to becoming a U.S. citizen.

• The MMQB’s Tim Rohan spent 24 hours with ESPN’s Adam Schefter for the whirlwind first day of 2017 free agency:

• From Wall Street Journal reporters Alexandra Berzon and Chris Kirkham: It’s Not Your Imagination: There are Loads of Jalens in College Basketball.

• SI’s Tom Verducci profiled Kris Bryant.

• ESPN’s John Buccigross wrote about watching his son play his last high school hockey game.

• The Undefeated, on the disappearance of first generation students in college sports.

• ESPN’s Craig Custance on the season-long goal scoring slump for Red Wings center Riley Sheahan.

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5. ESPN reporter Victoria Arlen, who is covering the Special Olympics World Winter Games this month, has her own remarkable athletic journey to tell. On March 3, 2016, after spending 10 years in a wheelchair paralyzed from the waist down, she took her first steps without assistance. Arlen earned three silvers and a gold medal as a swimmer at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. You can read her story here. Today, Arlen’s ESPN assignments include espnW, the X Games, SportsCenter, Special Olympics Games, and the ESPYs. We exchanged emails last week as she was covering the Games in Austria.

RD: What kind of stories are you looking to tell during the Special Olympics World Winter Games and why?

VA: The most amazing part of Special Olympics is the stories. Each athlete has had a remarkable journey to get to the world games and has a story to tell and a message to give the world. It is an honor to give a voice to those athletes who may not have one. Bringing awareness and spreading the light and love that the Special Olympics is known for is truly a blessing. My friend Dustin Plunkett told me back in L.A. at the 2015 Games to "take the time to speak with and get to know the athletes and I guarantee they will change your life." Dustin was right.

RD: What do you ultimate hope to cover at ESPN that you are not covering now and why?

VA: I have been incredibly lucky the past two years covering all kinds of incredible events. I think I would love to be able to continue to be a part of covering the events I already cover as well as continuing to try new things. I'd really love to host SportsCenter one day and be a part of that anchor team; they are rock stars. 

RD: Why do you think the Special Olympics is important for ESPN to broadcast?

VA: Sports, regardless of ability, is so incredibly impactful. The Special Olympics is a movement that promotes the power of sport and truly makes an impact. ESPN is more than just a sports network; it is a place where stories are told and lives are impacted. So the combination of ESPN and The Special Olympics in my eyes is a perfect match. I cannot tell you how honored and inspired I am when I'm covering this event. The athletes, coaches, volunteers and ESPN team truly make it a remarkable event.

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24 Hours ... With Adam Schefter

5a. MLB Network averaged 2.3 million viewers last Wednesday for Team USA's win over Puerto Rico in the final of the World Baseball Classic, the network's second-most watched telecast ever. Per Josh Carpenter of Sports Business Daily: MLB Net averaged 377,000 viewers per game for he tournament, up 32% from 285,000 in 2013. Carpenter said 15 out of 40 games in 2017, and 16 out of 39 in 2013, aired overnight given their start times in Japan and Korea.

5b. Fox Sports PR put out a release that said its coverage of Big East men’s basketball games on Fox, FS1 and FS2 averaged 192,000 viewers per game during the 2016–17 regular season and conference tournament, up 16% over least year (166,000 average) and 84% over the 2013–14 average.

5c. Washington Post sports writer Chuck Culpepper on deadline writing.

5d. NPR examines the history of English-language media being insensitive in the coverage of Latino baseball players and what is being done to improve it.

5e. Jeff Jeffers of WNDU TV​, a longtime voice of Notre Dame athletics, passed away on Sunday.

5f. CBS Sunday Morning ran a great piece Sunday on Verne Lundquist.

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