Friday, May 25 , 2018, 9:37 am | Mostly Cloudy 63º

 
 
 
 

Samantha Steele: Time to Remove the Chains on Sideline Reporters?

Rather than having us just stand by, we could fan out and take the stands for a real game change

I have a love/hate relationship with The Wall Street Journal.

In a day and age when most of the news I read is delivered in 140 characters or less, the WSJ serves as my post-college professor ... constantly reminding me of how little I really know.

It’s the humility that comes from reading financial articles referring to a mysterious term called REIT, only to realize that my confusion is the equivalent of someone reading a sports article and wondering what NCAA stands for.

While I’m learning about left bookrunners and proprietary trading, I tend to pathetically reassure myself with thoughts like “I bet these guys don’t know the difference between With the awareness that my assertion was at best presumptuous, my confidence reached an all-time low as I read the sports section in The Journal’s Jan. 15 edition. In a diagram titled, “What’s in a Game?” David Biderman broke down an average broadcast of an NFL game into frames representing every 1 percent aired.

As someone who has watched countless football practices and games, the fact that only 9.4 percent was actual playing time was no big shocker.

What surprised me was the frame labeled “Other.”

A subset underneath the frame divulged its contents. Coming in behind “kicker warming up” was “sideline reporters” at 0.1 percent.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure we still allow trans fats in our food if it’s only at 0.1 percent. There’s usually an asterisk that states, “not a substantial source of ...”

I’m always unsure of what to say when people ask me what I do for a living. I learned very early on that “reporter” can be interpreted by some to be false advertising. The word “sideline” is quite the qualifier. When added together, the words evoke an entirely different response (think along the lines of the difference between “mother” and “potential mother”).

When I took my first job as a sideline reporter, I had no delusions of grandeur. I grew up the daughter of a coach, in a household where sideline reporters were as appreciated as the vegetables on the tray next to the chips and salsa. There was no real problem with them being there, but no one had any use for them either.

Over the last three years, I’ve listened to execs, super-fans, coaches and co-workers tell me what a sideline reporter is supposed to do. None of them entirely agree.

I’ve had post-broadcast discussions with people who think my hair was of utmost importance and those who think I didn’t expound upon the difference between slide and gap protection enough. Still, they all agree on one thing. Don’t interrupt a play — the cardinal sin of sideline reporting.

Got it.

At the risk of making this job sound overwhelmingly easy, let me clarify by saying that I genuinely believe sideline reporting is one of the most difficult jobs in TV.

Now that I’ve got you laughing, think this one through with me.

Here’s your task: I’m gonna need you to say something that your football-savvy and highly critical audience would be intrigued to know about the players they read about daily and you’ve been around for a day (maybe), with limited access. It needs to be relevant to this drive, objective, professional yet comfortable and, hopefully, funny. Also, please look gorgeous. You have 20 seconds.

GO.

Now before I sound like the most bitter-for-no-good-reason 24-year-old, I must say that I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to get paid to talk about football for any number of seconds. I travel around the country and get to meet all kinds of people, pick the brains of some of the best coaches around, and watch some of the best athletes perform in front of thousands. There is nothing to complain about.

I guess I just wonder if fans, networks and sideline reporters themselves are getting their time and money’s worth. The amount of preparation in research, meetings, interviews, etc. that goes into a job that we now know fills a gaping hole of 0.1 percent of broadcast time makes me wonder if we’ve really thought this through.

The reasons I hear most often for why we need to keep sideline reporters are three-fold.

The first is the need for eye-candy. Cheerleaders everywhere are crying foul. “Hey! That’s our job!” In Dallas, they’re making sure you don’t forget.

Then there’s the legitimate desire for injury updates. Totally understandable, especially with so much money riding on the “fantasy” performance of any given player. Here’s the problem: Camera angles and quality are so advanced now, that upon instant and slow replay, average fans can see how serious the injury is for themselves. Does the obligatory “I talked to the trainer and he said they’re not sure about the extent of the injury but they’re gonna take a look at it” report really help anyone? By the time the report comes, fans have a good idea if the player is OK from the shot of him on the trainer’s table or from the tweet they just got from the radio guy on the field.

Don’t get me started on the halftime interviews. You want to know why the coach called a play with all his receivers running 10- and 12-yard routes on third and 17? Don’t worry ... I’ll ask him how he feels about his defense giving up 21 points instead. And when it comes to adjustments, Coach would like to stop the penalties and quit making mistakes. You’re welcome.

There are always exceptions. I’ve watched games (and, hopefully, been a part of a few) where a sideline reporter makes a great contribution to the game in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game or serve as an aside followed by an “Anyway ...” from the guys in the booth. And yet, I still find myself thinking there has got to be a better way to do this thing.

Some would suggest networks just “whack ‘em” and relieve us all from the often awkward threesome that is play-by-play, color and sideline reporter.

It is then that I return to Biderman’s diagram. Fifty-nine frames are labeled “Standing Around.”

Now I know that this is the time when the analysts analyze, and the play-by-play guy recalls a game from the ‘70s when the Steelers were in this exact same situation, but what if we did something different?

What if we made a football broadcast interactive? You want to see what it’s like to be in the box with Jerry Jones? Follow me. You want to hear Brenda Warner’s commentary as her husband gets shellacked for the third time in the second quarter? I’m sitting next to her. Curious as to who that old guy is who’s always catching the Lambeau Leaper? Just told me he was there when LeRoy Butler did it. Lost his wife last year and the Packers keep him going. Now you know.

In my family, sports are our main source of entertainment. Sports evoke emotion in people almost as much as love and money. Now that they’re all intertwined, we should recognize the great opportunities we have in sports broadcasts to share in the human experience.

The notion that broadcasters are some group of elite professionals with a responsibility to educate their audiences is on its way out. The information is too easily accessible now. Fans can find out what happened with the Seahawks in practice from Matt Hasselbeck on Twitter.

I like to ask strangers what they think about sideline reporters. I often hear that “sideline reporters are a waste of time.”

When the time we’re “wasting” only makes up 0.1 percent of the broadcast, I think it’s time to re-evaluate what we’re doin’.

Samantha Steele Ponder is, yes, a sideline reporter for Fox College Sports and she writes the “Blame It All On My Roots” blog. You can follow her on Twitter: @SamOnFCS.

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