Sideliners Tafoya, Wolfson, Tappen, Washburn, Greenberg and Sedano face tougher job than meets the eye

On success:-Wolfson: Trust and rapport with talent and production staff; Washburn: There's no detail too mundane; Tappen: Watching how coaches react to good plays and bad; Tafoya: Nothing should be forced


This is  part  three of the multi-part series exploring sideline reporting, a role introduced by ABC in 1974. We’ll have the final part next week. It will mirror today’s format, covering additional Q&As with these lead reporters: 

Michele Tafoya stood in a tunnel interviewing Chuck Pagano at halftime of a Colts vs.Texans game back in November of 2013.

Tafoya heard her name being called repeatedly in her IFB, which was out of her ear and resting on her shoulder. Tafoya decided to cut the interview short and put her IFB back in to find out what her sideline producer, Michele Froman, needed so urgently. 

Someone had collapsed on the field.

Tafoya sprinted out of the tunnel to discover Coach Gary Kubiak lying on his back at the 23-yard line. She spent the next few minutes observing Kubiak and collecting any helpful information.

“The story was no longer about sports, it was about a man’s life,” Tafoya said. “It was a singular experience that required us all to be nimble, I will never forget it.”

This is only a small part of the readiness the sideline reporting gig demands today. These reporters prepare for anything and everything, sometimes only to be blindsided by the unthinkable. Some of the sports world’s best observers, sideline reporters have to be quick on their feet, swift to gather accurate information and be prepared to perform efficiently and effectively at the sound of a word.

We communicated with some of the top sideline reporters at CBS, NBC, ESPN and Turner and got their insights into a variety of subjects in the their world.

Here’s what we found:

What are you looking for when you patrol the sidelines?

Michele Tafoya (NBC): I start the game charting every play. This prepares me for the halftime interview with the coaches. Outside of the action on the field, observing injuries is a huge part of the job. And that includes far more than asking the team’s PR staff the nature of the injury. Many teams offer minimal information, which is their right. Therefore, it is my job to observe the player’s facial expressions, the medical staff’s actions, and gain every possible insight into what is happening on the bench. If a kicker or punter gets hurt, I want to know who is warming up to replace him? I also watch position meetings — the offensive line, defensive backs, etc, to get a feel for their mood or mindset. Honestly, you are simultaneously watching a dozen things at a time.    

Tracy Wolfson (CBS): Everything and anything that cannot be seen from the booth. Injuries, conversations among teammates and coaches, answers at halftime about the game plan or adjustments, how weather may impact a game or the crowd, unique stories that relate to the game or players that fans are following. The key is to fit things into the broadcast at the appropriate time; educate viewers, share information that they can’t otherwise get and to answer questions they may have while watching.

Kathryn Tappen (NBC): In college football it’s difficult to pick up on information on the sidelines because schools and the NCAA protect their student athletes. These are students, not pros which is very important to remember while sharing information on the broadcast.

This being said, I love to report what coaches are telling certain players when they return to the sideline after a play, how the coaching staff reacts after good plays and bad . Injuries are obviously a significant responsibility of the sideline reporter. During my first year, my producer told me to be the “eyes and ears” on the sideline, and that’s what I adhere to each week.

Evan Washburn (CBS): Everything! There is no detail too mundane, because you never know what might lead to a bigger story. This is especially the case when monitoring the health and availability of players. I can’t tell you how many times I have sprinted to the opposite sideline to catch a player just tying his shoe, because anything out of the norm could be something impactful. Again, it goes back to never wanting to miss something and hear about it later.

Jared Greenberg (Turner): I feel like I am the ‘boots on the ground’ for the telecast. Sure, I do my best to come into every game/broadcast as prepared as possible, but my priority as the reporter is to convey information that can only be found by being inside the arena.  I am always looking to speak with people who can add color and/or perspective to a story that I plan to use during the broadcast. 

Jorge Sedano (ESPN):  My primary role is that of a newsperson. Reporting what you hear in a huddle, reporting when someone goes down, things of that nature. I go into a game prepared with about 5 or 6 possible stories. Most of them related to a particular player’s game or recent play. Sometimes it’s a discussion of a team’s play.

It’s basically an accent job. You’re adding accents to the broadcast. And then there’s the interview part of it, which most days can be pretty mundane because most coaches won’t give you much. And then you have coaches like Pop who can make things challenging. I took a different approach with him, and it paid off. I think it made it a memorable moment without making it about me. I felt like it was just us clearly understanding the joke together.

Should there be more interaction between play-by-play/color team and a sideline reporter?

Michele Tafoya (NBC): The game or event is the most important part of the broadcast. Period. The action on the field dictates the direction of the broadcast. The play-by-play announcer and producer steer the ship. The analyst is the co-pilot. The sideline reporter does his or her job. Would I like to be involved more? Absolutely. However, nothing should ever be forced.  

Tracy Wolfson (CBS): That’s always the goal I think. It takes time though. It takes forming a trust and a rapport not only with the talent but the production staff as well. I always say the sideline reporter is the eyes and ears of the booth. I have to give so much credit to my (NFL ON CBS) producer Jim Rikhoff, director Mike Arnold and of course Jim (Nantz) and Tony (Romo) for creating an environment where we are a complete team where everyone’s role is equally important.

Kathryn Tappen (NBC): That’s always an interesting question, and the answer is always determined by the game itself. Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and I have a great rapport during Notre Dame football broadcasts. That’s because we spend a significant amount of time pre kickoff with our producer Rob Hyland and director Pierre Moosa. We trust one another. They know that  if I have something that will enhance the broadcast, it’s ready to go. But no extra words. Mike and Doug are also aware of my stories on players that I’ve gathered throughout the week. But the game dictates if we can get them in or not. Most get left to the cutting room floor, and as a sideline reporter, you need to be prepared for that. My job first and foremost is to be the eyes and ears on the field, report on information that no one else can see. If we don’t get to my stories on the players that I gathered during the week, then that means we are having a kickass game and there’s zero wiggle room outside of the play on the field.

Evan Washburn (CBS): I think it’s a case-by-case situation. The chemistry and trust from the booth, truck and field have to be incredibly strong under normal circumstances, so if there is going to be more of an ongoing conversation, those factors are heightened to the nth degree. My belief is that there should be no hard and fast rule either way on how much a sideline reporter contributes to the broadcast. It has to feel relevant and natural every time that person comes on and that viewers’ best interests and entertainment have to be top of mind for everybody.

Jared Greenberg (Turner): I learned from the great Craig Sager that you don’t have to be on-air to contribute to the broadcast.  Sure, I enjoy being included in a back-and-forth on-air conversation with the play-by-play/color analyst, particularly if I can add context/perspective.  However, I am also happy to provide information to them as well as our production truck, off-air, if it helps our broadcast.  I think a key role for the sideline reporter is assisting the broadcast wherever possible, which includes, but is not limited to, passing along information and/or observations in the arena (celebrities in the crowd, interactions between players/coaches) as well as injury updates and notes/stats.  Not all of that has to be communicated on-air, it can be passed along through an off-air note.

Jorge Sedano (ESPN): I can see it being more of a conversational role. Right now, that depends on the producer. And everybody’s style is different. I think my talk show background lends itself to having the producer be like ‘Hey Jorge, you’ve probably talked about this on your radio show, do you have something on this?’ And I’ll be like ‘Yeah, let me in.’ Usually those scenarios are early in the game or in a blowout. In the NBA Summer league, we do the broadcast a little differently. It’s much more conversational. It’s a lot looser. You have guests popping by the broadcast table such as coaches from around the league. When I do sidelines on summer league broadcasts, I’m almost like a legitimate third member of the broadcast team. The producers give me leeway like, ‘if you have anything to add at any time, just let me know and say I want in.’ And then I get in. I think as time goes by, there will be a little more of that. Again, there’s a time and place for it. It’s not going to be like summer league exactly. But I think it can be a little more conversational.

Marcus Gronauer

Marcus Gronauer is a junior at Syracuse University pursuing a B.S. in Broadcast and Digital Journalism. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Gronauer has a passion for writing, reading and telling powerful stories in sports.

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