Four sports broadcasters whose names have been celebrated everywhere from the sidelines to the studio have a few things in common when it comes to their rise through the ranks of sports journalism and what they have learned along the way.
Pam Oliver, Lisa Salters and Maria Taylor joined ESPN “SportsCenter” host Sage Steele for ABC News’ Black History Month speaker series to discuss of how each has navigated the intricacies of the sports broadcasting landscape and honed their craft.
Oliver, a Fox NFL sideline reporter who is widely considered to be a trailblazer in sports media, started as a reporter covering agriculture and science before tackling football.
“I just wanted to be a reporter; not necessarily a sports reporter,” Oliver said. “Plus I took the jobs that came along — for the first nine years of my career — and I wouldn’t change anything about that.”
Oliver remembered a former news director who told her the move from news to sports would be “the biggest mistake” of her career. Looking back now, she said, “it worked out perfectly for me.”
Similarly, Salters said that after she made it to the network for ABC News before turning 30 years old, people would tell her that a switch to sports would be “career suicide.”
“ESPN kept calling saying, ‘Hey we’d like you to come here,’ and I kept saying ‘no,'” she said. “Two years go by and I thought, ‘OK I’ll give it a try. If I don’t like it I’ll go right back to ABC’ — I kick myself now for waiting those two years to not make the move sooner.”
Salters continued, “It was the best decision that I ever made and I have never, for a second, regretted it,” Salters continued, adding that she’d only wished she’d done it sooner.
Taylor, who was a dual sport Division 1 athlete at University of Georgia, rose through the ranks to become an analyst and host for ESPN and the SEC Network rather quickly. She said, in part, that women like Oliver and Salters had paved her path to success by creating a “tangible” blueprint.
“Growing up saying I wanted to be a sideline reporter wasn’t out of the ordinary,” she said.
Taylor said she “really felt like it was possible” despite the fact that professors would tell her she’d “nevre make money in sports. It’ll never work out.”
All three broadcasters spoke about how they’ve learned to stay grounded, especially given the current atmosphere in which both positive and negative feedback fill social media feeds almost constantly.
Taylor, who started with ESPNU calling college football games, admitted that she failed in her first on-camera report due to a mishap with a button on the microphone.
“I just have to leave them thinking, ‘Yeah, she messed up, but she bounced back really well,'” Taylor said. “The biggest thing was just not letting that one mistake define the rest of the entire game.”
Steele and Salters both added that they always have to think about the next game and bounce back.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect broadcast or perfect report,” Steele said, adding that it’s about staying ready and level for what’s to come.
“We don’t have time to think that we’re cute,” Salters said. “Because if I’m thinking about what the last game was like — ‘Oh, I rocked that game’ — I would be humbled in a heartbeat.”
Oliver explained that she doesn’t rely on outside influences to keep her humble.
“I’m grateful to be in this position to do something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said.
Taylor shared an inspirational quote that she said has stuck with her through her grind: “If you live for the sound of applause then you’ll die from the lack of it.”
“When that stops happening, we won’t be good at our job or we might get depressed or fall into a place that we don’t want to be in,” Taylor added. “We’re so internally motivated and the external factors can’t affect you that much. But we are black women on TV and people are looking at us, so there is a level of responsibility.”
Salters, who has been on some of the most memorable football and basketball game sidelines throughout her career, also said that what they do “is not unlike what the athletes do” and that “the preparation is always the same.”
“One motto that I’ve always had is ‘don’t believe the hype.’ You’re never as good as they say you are and you’re never as horrible as they say you are,” Salters explained. “You know who you are. There’s no need for me to read Twitter or Instagram.”
And while there will always be circumstances beyond their control — such as inclement weather — Oliver said it has never deterred her from appreciating her love for the job.
“It’s kind of ‘do what you love and the rest will follow,’ but we’re very, very lucky women,” she said.
Success and game faces aside, Steele also explained how the human aspects of their world can have a heavy impact on their reporting, such as the death of Kobe Bryant.
Salters spent the formative years of her career covering, working with and watching the Los Angeles Lakers legend from the sidelines. She admitted that when she heard the tragic news 15 minutes before her Pro Bowl broadcast, she couldn’t handle it well.
Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, were among nine who died in a helicopter crash in California on Jan. 26.
Although Salters went on-air, she said “it was really hard.”
“I’ve never been on television in tears before,” she said. “I’ve never had to have an athlete console me before and after an interview before like Drew Brees had to do. It was just really difficult.”
Salters said Bryant was one of the first to congratulate her after she’d gotten assigned to work from the NBA sidelines. Before a Miami Heat vs. Lakers Christmas Day game, she said she’d gone to the Lakers practice-turned-holiday party to “get the lay of the land.” Bryant, who was dressed as Santa Clause, had asked to speak to her.
“I went over and he said, ‘I’m really happy that they picked you for this job. I mean…they could’ve picked a lot of people and they did the right thing. You’re gonna be great at it.'”
Taylor, who wrote a personal essay on Bryant’s involvement with the Mamba women’s and youth basketball teams, fondly remembered that Bryant “always came to women’s basketball events. He was like the guy who validated our game.”
“Just the outpouring of love and support, she added, “you can’t make up how much this man was loved.”