Samantha Ponder shares the ins and outs of sideline reporting
Dr. Jerry Punch
“Let’s go to the third member of our team today. . .”
It’s a “throw” like that, from the play-by-play announcer to the sideline reporter, that has become a staple of game coverage on ESPN and throughout the industry.
At ESPN, the roster of sideline reporters is deep, diverse and talented. Whether it’s Lisa Salters on the Monday Night Football sideline, Jeannine Edwards at a college basketball game or Quint Kessenich at a college football game, the network’s sideline patrollers have become the gold standard for sideline reporting, regardless of sport.
With a mix of experienced, familiar faces and up and coming reporters, ESPN is uniquely positioned to develop sideline reporters who add important perspective, information and interviews to game telecasts.
Samantha Ponder has been with ESPN for two years, starting as a reporter at Longhorn Network and then reporting from the sidelines for the Thursday Night College Football game package and debuting on College Football GameDay.
When football season ended, Ponder transitioned to the hardwood working courtside with some of the most recognizable voices in college basketball — Jay Bilas, Dan Dakich, Mike Tirico and Dick Vitale — on the Super Tuesday and Saturday primetime college basketball games.
She will be reporting from courtside at Rupp Arena for Missouri at Kentucky this Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Front Row spoke with Ponder to get a recap of her time at ESPN and a look ahead to her bright future.
Is there a sideline reporter mission statement or an ultimate goal regardless of the sport?
Everyone is different. My goal is to give the viewer information they couldn’t get if they weren’t on the sideline. I don’t pre-plan stories. In my opinion, those are best told by the booth, from someone who has more than 20 seconds to explain.
I want to get timely, relevant information from observations on the field/court that a fan at home couldn’t know unless they were right there with me. What is the point of field/court access if it doesn’t provide new insight?
My focus is always injuries first, coach instruction/demeanor/commentary and player communication/demeanor second. Anything else needs to be interesting and not distract from the flow of the game.
What advice have you gotten from other female reporters?
First, I’d like people to know that the vast majority of us get along great and support each other. I’ve had great experiences with other reporters at ESPN. I’ve gotten advice from Shelley Smith about staying true to myself. Jenn Brown and I became friends when I was at LHN and often compare notes on things we experience. Holly Rowe does an amazing job of giving valuable information all while looking like she enjoys her job. It’s such a huge industry now. There’s plenty of room to be yourself and support other people at the same time.
Did you come into ESPN with any goals or expectations?
This all happened very quickly. I’ve said before that I didn’t have cable growing up, so I didn’t get to watch ESPN as a kid. If someone told me I would be covering the Phoenix Suns for my hometown station I would have thought I had the coolest job ever, so doing what I do now is so far beyond my expectations.
My goal is cheesy but I like to keep it simple: I want to do the best with what God gave me and make the people around me feel important along the way. If I ever master that perfectly, I’ll find a new goal.
Did you always want to be a sideline reporter?
No. I grew up in a house where my dad muted them. Who wants to grow up and be the woman her dad mutes on TV? As a basketball coach, he just wanted to watch the game.
That’s why I still have a complex about saying anything that distracts from the flow of the game. If what I want to say isn’t necessary, unknown, interesting or relevant information to that drive or play, I’m keeping my mouth shut. Obviously there is a lot of subjectivity in that, but I err on the side of, “Will Pops mute this?”
What are the best attributes of a sideline reporter?
When one can give unknown, interesting and timely information that is relevant to the discussion in the booth. I love trying to make people at home feel like they’re down on the court or field with me.
People shy away from talking about the entertainment side of my job, but I realize that people want to watch someone who looks like they’re having a good time and enjoying the access they get. Sports were my family’s entertainment. It should be fun.
My mom texts me all the time reminding me to smile on camera. It sounds childish, but the truth is if you’re doing this job and struggling to smile, you’re missing it.
What were some of the major things you learned at LHN?
I definitely learned that you don’t need as much sleep as you think you do. I’ve been a lifelong nine-hour kinda girl. That turned into five very quickly. I learned how to host a show. (Not that I’m great at it now, but it’s so different than all the on-field stuff I’d done.) Pros like Chris Fowler and Rece Davis make it look so easy, but there are so many moving parts. I received a lot of help from producers like Ande Wall and my boss at LHN, Stephanie Druley.
What was the learning curve like from your LHN work to ESPN games and College GameDay?
The games were the same, just with a bigger audience. I pretend my sports-loving grandma is the only one watching anyway, so that didn’t make much of a difference.
Hosting College GameDay was very different. People assume we use a teleprompter. We don’t… for anything.
Hosting a live show for an hour with a live and crazy audience behind you is hard to practice for or simulate if you’ve never done it. (Not that I’m trying to make it sound like rocket science. . . but it’s just a different animal.) Having veterans like Chris Fowler around to give advice gives me a huge advantage. And my producers, Lee Fitting and Tom Engle, were very patient with me.
You’re moving from football to basketball: Some of the differences seem obvious, but what has the transition been like reporting from the field versus courtside?
I’m settled back into my hoops schedule now, but the first few weeks after the national championship I was still partially in football mode. Fortunately for me, I had some amazing basketball games early on. The Big Ten has been really fun this year, so it was easy to get excited about the transition.
Another notable transition from football to hoops — flats to heels! I love the excuse of “I’m outside on a football field” for wearing really comfortable clothes; that doesn’t fly indoors!
Do you see your role and responsibilities different between the two sports?
Yes, they’re different in a lot of ways but primarily the access I get to timeout or huddle conversations in basketball. On the football field, I can’t get close enough to hear what the head coach is saying most of the time. In basketball, I either hear every word, or get a synopsis from an assistant at the end of timeouts.
I love that about basketball. I feel like I can genuinely give the viewer information they couldn’t get any other way.
What is it like working with different game telecast teams?
Meeting new people is by far the best part of my job. In my first year with ESPN, I worked with a different football crew every week so I got to meet a ton of people. For basketball, I was assigned to Mike and Dan’s team each week.
Like any industry, who you work with is often more important that what you’re working on. I’m on the road five or six days a week so if I’m not working with people I enjoy or learn from, no job would be worth it.
What advice would you give someone else looking to have a career as a TV sports reporter?
Figure out who you want to be first. If who you aren’t built on a firm foundation, this job in the social media/Internet age will destroy your confidence and make you insecure in ways you never imagined.
It’s been a learning process for me, but at the core of my interest in this industry is a desire to connect to the feelings I had as a little girl pretending to be Al McCoy (Shazam!) while I make a running one-hander on my home hoop at the buzzer. It’s about developing relationships and experiencing things that only the sports world could provide. Once you figure out why you want to do something, you can weigh the cost. If it’s all about me, it’s not worth it.
Also, be nice to people. The people in suits, yes. But also the people running with the cable wires. Those men and women work as hard, if not harder, than anyone and they have the best stories.