Part one of a series exploring sideline reporting, a role introduced in 1974
Mention the 1972 Olympics to almost anyone and the first thing that comes to mind is the terrible tragedy of eleven murdered Israeli athletes. Jim McKay’s terse words on ABC live in infamy, “They’re all gone.”
Overshadowed by Munich’s darkness was the fresh technology that ABC employed to put its roving reporters on-air. Throughout the harrowing ordeal, the network used hardwired and handheld cameras to disperse information from breaking-news locations.
Upon their return to New York, Roone Arledge and Chuck Howard, two visionary ABC executives, set a goal; use the technology to build scale. Start by adding a reporter down on the playing field where the real drama unfolds. Deliver news instantly.
Enter a new job description: sideline reporter; born as an unpredictable footnote to a forgettable event.
ABC decided to go all-in on hand-held cameras and radio-frequency microphones for its aggressive, new and live-coverage plan.
Dick Ebersol, then an executive assistant to Roone Arledge at ABC Sports, later a legend in his own right at NBC, was asked to find a couple fresh-faced reporters. No significant experience was apparently needed. Ebersol focused on college campuses where Jim Lampley, a grad student at North Carolina and Don Tollefson, an undergrad enrollee at Stanford got the call.
On September 7, 1974, Lampley and Tollefson reported from center stage at the UCLA-Tennessee football game. Remember, back then a college football telecast wasn’t just one of fifty shown nationally, as is the case today. Until the 1980s, there was essentially one network telecast each Saturday seen coast to coast. And national cable wasn’t born yet either.
Lampley remembers it well, “Don was all over the telecast. I was on eleven times. I think he was on even more,” Lampley told Deadspin ten years ago.
Dennis Lewin, a top level executive at ABC Sports from 1971 to 1986, said that the sideline reporter’s early role was to get exclusive access to breaking news on the field. In other words, somewhere where no other media members could go. “The thinking was to provide a different visual perspective than what’s seen from broadcast booths located in press boxes and to gather information that might not otherwise be available,” Lewin said.
According to Lampley, ABC wanted him, “to provide program material that would help differentiate college football from pro football, and illuminate the unique lore and social interaction of college football.”
As such, by traversing the sidelines to glean news-making developments, the reporters would achieve the goal that ABC set. On that first Saturday, the two callow reporters were assigned more responsibility than Tracy Wolfson would typically get today. They both provided a detailed pre-game scouting report including interviews. Watching a recording 45 years later, it hardly seamed like an adjunct assignment.
But Lampley had his sights set on a bigger network role, so he left sidelining after three seasons. He just didn’t see the value of the role. In the same Deadspin article, he said that concept was “nonsense.” Lampley who later did tons of blow-by-blow boxing for HBO, said his job was not vital to ABC’s broadcast. “All the injury-related information….you can do that, just by having somebody on the sideline who’s not on the air, reporting directly to the truck,” Lampley said.
Lampley was replaced by Anne Simon, the first female sideline reporter for a sports broadcast. Simon was hired in 1977 and reported for ABC until the early 1980s. She’s remembered for her terse interview with Bear Bryant at halftime of a 1982 Alabama-Auburn game. The experience taught Simon and others that Bryant was a man of very few words.
Just a few years later, Lesley Visser began her career as a sideline reporter for CBS. Visser had been the first NFL beat reporter for The Boston Globe, a newspaper voted by Sports Illustrated as the number one sports section of all-time.
As Visser entered the unfamiliar world of field reporting, she was young and TV inexperienced. She sought guidance from others but the role was still too new for anyone seasoned to offer sound advice. So Lesley quickly learned that she was on her own.
“When I first went into television in the mid-1980s, there was no blueprint. No female had been on the sidelines of an NFL game. I never had a full-time producer on the field with me. I was expected to do all the work myself, as I had done at the Globe,” Visser recalled.
The role was extended to the hardwood in the early 1980s. Dick Stockton who called nine NBA Finals when CBS had the rights, worked with Pat O’Brien who was hired as a sideline reporter in 1981.
“Pat O’Brien was the perfect sideline reporter for us,” Stockton said. “He was solid and had a terrific news background. Pat was also a personality who connected with players, so the combination worked beautifully.” The veteran play-by-player, a Naismith Hall of Fame winner, thought O’Brien excelled because as he put it, “Pat was a sidebar. He reported stories that were away from the action, yet relevant to the game. O’Brien struck the perfect balance—he never got in the way of a contest. Pat was not a sports expert, but he was able to offer an added dimension, away from nuts and bolts basketball, that fit our production.”
Visser, O’Brien, and every other NFL sideliner in the 1980s and 90s, faced barriers. The league didn’t allow them on the field until the late 1980s. When Dennis Lewin was promoted to Senior Vice President of Production at ABC Sports in 1986, the sideline movement accelerated.
“I suggested to my ABC boss, Dennis Swanson, that we include the right to use a sideline reporter in our upcoming TV negotiations with the league,” said Lewin. “I wanted to bring that perspective by adding Lynn Swann to Monday Night Football.”
Lewin and Swanson succeeded in getting league approval to add the on-the-field enhancement. In doing so, the other networks that also had NFL contracts were permitted to do the same. Still, the role was restricted. The reporters were limited to an anchored position, the 20-yard line.
In 1998, Lewin left ABC to become the NFL’s Senior Vice President of Broadcasting. After 12 years of limited mobility, sideline reporters on the gridiron were free at last.
“I was able to remove that restriction [the 20-yard line] and give them [sideline reporters] more freedom of mobility,” Lewin said. “The only restriction still in place is that sideline reporters cannot enter the bench area,” Lewin, now retired, added.
The first three decades of sideline reporting marked a period of pioneering challenges. But over time, more access was provided and viewers became more accustomed to seeing reporters roam fields and basketball courts across the country.
It would be unjust to recount the early years of the sideline presence without referencing the garishly dressed Craig Sager who patrolled NBA arenas for longtime rightsholder, TNT. He was so identifiable with the league that when he passed in 2016, several players wore gaudy looking shirts during their warm-ups to memorialize the once omnipresent Sager.
The role’s benign complexion changed gratingly when Jim Gray came onto the scene and peppered his subjects with probing questions. His run-in with Pete Rose at the 1999 World Series was an epochal moment that rocked the definition of the gig. The two of them got into a verbal spat that almost outdid the game story.
David J. Halberstam, who publishes this site, wrote a piece for Yahoo Sports in January, 2009, listing the all-time, top-50 network television announcers. Gray was included at #49. Halberstam says Gray deserved inclusion on the list because he made the sideline position relevant.
Following stints with CBS and NBC, Gray was taken off the television sidelines. Halberstam believes that the networks felt that Jim wasn’t worth the flare-ups that would occasionally arise from his in-your-face interviews.
Today, there are tens upon tens of sideline reporters and they’re generally given two meager questions to ask coaches at halftime or at the end of quarters. From Erin Andrews and Ken Rosenthal at Fox to Lisa Salters and Holly Rowe at ESPN to Tracy Wolfson and Evan Washburn at CBS and to Allie LaForce and Kristen Ledlow at Turner, they’re all under the microscope for a couple minutes a game.
A postscript on the two pioneers who worked the 1974 game:
Lampley had a successful career, most notably as a boxing announcer for HBO. He never quite reached the very top level many projected he would when he bolted onto the scene as a bonus baby. There was talk of him succeeding Jim McKay or turning into the next Howard Cosell. Unquestionably talented, Lampley had an edge to him. He eventually followed Ebersol, the fellow who hired him, to NBC where he did NFL play-by-play and studio work. In 2007, Lampley was arrested for domestic violence and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor for violating a restraining order. He was sentenced to three years of probation.
The Tollefson story is ugly. He had two fairly long stints as a television sports anchor in Philadelphia. Not just anywhere, Tollefson was visible on the Fox and ABC affiliate. But what many might not have known was that ‘Tollie’ as he was called suffered through years of addiction to alcohol and painkillers.
He was convicted of running a financial scheme connected with a charity which fleeced hundreds of thousands of dollars from fans and supporters. He spent 14 months in a Pennsylvania prison. As of last year, he was living off social security in a small apartment.
It ain’t always as good as it looks.