“No man is going to be criticized to the level a woman would. It doesn’t matter whether I wear pants and a loose-fitting top, I look fat or if I wear a normal looking skirt and top, my intentions are bad, whatever that means. Woman can’t win.”
Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about your destination. For CBS’ Amanda Balionis, her journey to becoming one of the best interviewers in sports was never a certainty or a slam dunk.
Speaking with her recently, I got the sense that Amanda leaned on her athletic instincts and family values to keep herself moving in a business that at times can be downright brutal to achieve at the highest levels. She was born in Pittsburgh and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There was really no question about it. Somehow, someway she would be involved in sports. Albeit, a very circuitous one, for sure!
Amanda knew early on that watching a legendary reporter like Bonnie Bernstein was exactly what she wanted to do. Like many in the business she had her plans adjusted. In time though, her destination became reality. What you find with Amanda, 36, is that off air she comes across just as authentic and humble as she is on air. It’s likely the reason that athletes feel at ease with her.
Just check out Chesson Hadley’s interview with Amanda after the Wyndham Championship when he learned he qualified for the PGA Tour playoffs by one point. Want more? How about Dustin Johnson’s Masters win last November! These couple interviews sum up Amanda and why she’s one of the best in the business at what she does.
We discussed a myriad of topics beginning with her upbringing, early career, her views on social media and where she sees things going for her.
Take me back to your early years?
I was born in Pittsburgh and moved to Lancaster when I was in 4th grade. Very cool area to grow up in. The whole family was into sports. I remember watching the Steelers with my grandmother on the couch when I was very little. Football and sports in general were always a big part of our lives. I swam competitively, played field hockey and soccer before discovering volleyball in 8th grade. I took volleyball through high school and into college at Kutztown University before I transferred to Hofstra.
Talk about your time at Hofstra. They have a very good presence with their on-campus radio station at WRHU.
I did a full year at WRHU Radio, but chose the route of interning, and did as many internships as one could physically do. My thought process was that I’m so close to New York City and at the time the Jets still shared a practice facility with Hofstra. All this real-world work experience was so close to me so why wouldn’t I take advantage of it. I interned with the Jets, Islanders, CBS2, ABC and US Weekly magazine.
It was interesting because my parents weren’t thrilled when I went to Kutztown and I told them I just really wanted to get it out of my system to prove that I could play college volleyball. I made a deal with them that I would transfer at a certain point, to a school that made more sense for my career. I did that after two full seasons of volleyball and ended up transferring to Hofstra the spring semester of my sophomore year. It was then that I started treating college as a place where I wanted to hone my career.
Did you know at a young age that you wanted to be involved in sports?
Yes, I grew up watching Bonnie Bernstein work the sidelines for CBS. I wanted to be like her. I never altered too far off course. At one point I thought I wanted to do entertainment which is why I interned at US Weekly Magazine. But every time I covered a red carpet event, I always ended up finding a sports story, an athlete there who gravitated to sports. I might not have been the greatest athlete, but I am a really competitive person with an athlete’s mindset. If I can relate to athletes, they’ll relate to me.
Over the last ten years or so you really seem to have morphed into golf coverage. You didn’t play a ton of golf growing up but were around the sport a bunch growing up, correct?
I grew up on a golf course. My grandparents met on a golf course. My mom still plays three days a week, dad played five to seven days a week when he was alive. I kind of resisted my parents pushing me to golf and much preferred team sports because I was an only child and was alone a lot. That’s probably why golf didn’t click for me in terms of wanting to play it all that much. It was the ultimate irony when I called my parents and told them I was going to work for the PGA Tour. They were laughing their butts off. No one was prouder than my dad who just absolutely loved golf. My favorite story is when my dad went into an Apple Store to get something fixed and when they were leaving my mom noticed that my dad had essentially turned every device in the store to my show on PGATOUR.Com!
Speaking of your parents there was a serious automobile crash in which they were involved.
They were hit head on with a guy who was confused in a construction zone. The accident happened six years ago and my dad fought for two years after until he passed. Mom’s a Rockstar. She’s back to playing golf. She has a bigger social circle than I have! She’s always the first phone call for women who unfortunately have lost their husbands and how they can get their lives back on track.
You get the call to the big leagues at Turner and CBS. Your career was starting to take off. What was that like?
Right before I got the job at CBS, I actually left broadcasting. I had been at PGATour.com for five years and was basically told I wasn’t good enough for a bigger job in golf. I also wasn’t getting any looks from local sports departments because there was a sense that I only knew about golf. So I was essentially pigeonholed. To a degree, that’s what I did for five years. There wasn’t much interest in looking at my college reels because that was too long ago. I kind of felt that I gave this all I could. Nights, weekends, holidays.
I took a step back and honestly, I wasn’t too happy with where things were going in my career. Callaway Golf had called me out of the blue and I had a very good relationship with their CMO at the time, Harry Arnett, who’s now a mentor of mine. He asked me my thoughts on moving to San Diego and helping Callaway get their media production team off the ground. It was a 9-5 job. Golf was telling me where I was and I wasn’t good enough. So I just made this leap into something new.
Wouldn’t you know it, three months after I give up on this dream, I got a call from Turner Sports, saying they wanted to bring me back. The year before ,they had eliminated my earlier role due to budget reasons. I said sure I’d love to come back and they said no, not in your usual role, we want to elevate you to the broadcast.
I was walking my dog near the ocean, sat down near a bench and just started crying. I was just so happy and caught off guard. I called my parents and was crying, just so happy because I knew that I’d be able to say I did it. I made it on television and this was my chance regardless of what happens going forward.
Did you ever figure out why you weren’t getting the calls?
Not really. Our industry is so subjective. I think if you happen to have someone in a hiring position who doesn’t see the potential in you it dies right there. The places I could go were mainly pigeonholing me to the studio and I saw myself out in the field where I could showcase what I could do. When I look back it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Turner was partnered with CBS on The PGA Championship which was being produced by Lance Barrow who learned about me. Without the journey and that didn’t happen I would’ve never come into this most amazing career.
When you took that role, you’re dealing with some of the best in the business. Lance Barrow, Jim Nantz, Ernie Johnson and more.
Yes, guys like Brian Anderson and Craig Sager too! I got to meet some legends which was incredible. That was the most encouraging part. I kept running into people who were telling me I am good enough. I remember running into Frank Nobilo and Ian Baker Finch, (current colleagues at CBS) and they were telling me you’re good enough. Brian Anderson was fantastic in letting me pick his brain. Same with Ernie. An amazing human being. They all were honest and very encouraging.
I always said after that week how great the culture was at Turner and it was such a family atmosphere. This business can be so consuming and if you don’t have a great work family it can be kind of a lonely life. CBS is the only other place that I’ve been at that has that same environment and that same feeling, where people genuinely love each other, take care of each other and want to be around each other. That doesn’t happen everywhere.
Do you remember what it was like after your first broadcast with CBS?
The first person to find me afterwards was Jim Nantz. He said I’d love to talk to you for a second. He said you are a part of this team. You just brought something with your personality and we’re so happy you are here with us and basically, I was there in an audition! I’m not saying you always need validation but imagine having arguably the best ever tell you that you fit in after I’ve been told that I wasn’t good enough. It was a life changing two-minute conversation.
I wrote two years ago that don’t be surprised if you see Amanda Balionis calling the action from her own hole someday at Augusta. Do you ever see yourself in a tower?
I was just having this conversation with our Hall of Fame analyst Dottie Pepper the other day. I think it’s really important to understand what your strengths are and what others strengths are. I’m working alongside major champions, hall of famers, people who have forgotten more about golf than I’ll ever know. All I can do is learn from them. There are people who are much better equipped and better qualified to do that than myself. I see myself as a storyteller who can get more out of someone in the right environment and situation.
Will we see more of you this fall with football?
I’ll be doing some roving reporting on NFL games and sometimes I’ll bounce to college. It’s actually how I met my future fiancée, I was working a college game. So not only do I owe CBS my career but I owe them for the opportunity to meet my future husband.
So have you worked a Steelers game because you’re still a fan deep down. Correct?
I have and it was Steelers/Cardinals. Of course, I’m a fan and I think if you’re in this business and you’re not a fan you’re doing it all wrong. It’s supposed to be fun. I was over the moon working that game as I’ve known their head PR guy Burt Lauten for some time. What I found is that golf tends to be the road through which I’ve gotten to know Larry Fitzgerald, (Larry’s a fine golfer). I had a great time with Ben Roethlisberger and Jim Furyk the last time the US Open was at Oakmont and we did a piece from Heinz Field where they hit golf shots. That was when I was with Callaway and years later Ben had remembered me from that shoot.
Your square in the generation of social media and its influence. Your thoughts on social media positive and negative?
It’s a double edge sword. There’s so much good but you have to be careful with it. You can’t get locked in this rabbit hole looking at strangers’ comments for hours on end. I use it as a way to connect with sports fans. Social media is one of the great ways to learn about a player’s life away from the field of play. The negative is that there’s always going to be someone who tries to expose an insecurity and you can’t get dragged into that. It’s the balance of finding the fun and what your purpose is for it.
As a woman in a business that is often times dominated by men, what is your advice to those aspiring to be Amanda Balionis?
I think a lot of those obstacles come from certain stereotypes and the need for females to fit inside a certain type of box. Once you try to fit inside that box as to what you need to look like, dress like, talk like is the minute you’re in big trouble for a couple reasons. The best lesson I received when I was interning at the New York CBS affiliate was that you have to be yourself and that people will see right through you if you’re not. You don’t have to wear something super-short and tight to get attention but at the same time don’t feel like you have to cover yourself up because we’re in 2021 and you should be able to have the body you have, whatever that is, and still be respected as a journalist.
That’s the thing we’re fighting now, is the amount of time that people comment on my outfit instead of the words that are coming out of my mouth. That can be disheartening. I do think that’s been used as a tool to diminish what females are doing and making them feel smaller and feel ashamed because it’s easier to control that.
No man is going to be criticized to the level a woman would. It doesn’t matter whether I wear pants and a loose-fitting top, I look fat or if I wear a normal looking skirt and top, my intentions are bad, whatever that means. Woman can’t win.
Technically can you walk us through what it’s like to grab a player off 18 after he just finished.
Logistically the PGA Tour communications department is amazing. We have the Smart Cart group-chats and I’ll text them who we’re requesting. Some 99% of the time the players agree to the interview. Usually, I have about thirty seconds to feel things out and I’ll let them if I have a tough question. Let’s not ask them something I have a hunch on but more so a question of something I’ve seen. It’s really behind the scenes that we’re able to do the fun stuff and work a story, and eventually work that story angle into the broadcast. Just last week we were able to work the Patrick Reed double-pneumonia story into the broadcast or the Jon Rahm breaking news at the Memorial when he was diagnosed with Covid after the 3rd, A moment none of us will forget.
You have a foundation centered around No Kill Dog shelters. Tell me about it and how others can get involved?
I founded this nonprofit called Puppies and Golf. It started even back when I was working at PGATour.com and learned how therapeutic dogs can be. The best part of my week was when I was volunteering. I learned that over 90% of these dogs are saved from high kill shelters. They’re trained to be service animals for veterans. Shari Duval, (recently passed in February) was the founder of K9’s for Warriors. When I started working for CBS and was travelling, I wanted to get involved again. During Covid I officially launched it and it’s been great.
SIDENOTE: Puppiesandgolf.org is where our readers can learn more about Amanda’s non-profit and how to help the organization!