The Secret Life of Sideline Reporters
Behind every bench in college football is a white dotted line that only members of the team may cross. It sits about eight feet behind the bench. Stadium security watches it. Student managers watch it. This line is the reason Eamon McAnaney has developed the lean.
It's the posture perfected by snooping neighbors and old ladies who want to get just a little closer to a conversation of which they are not a part. For McAnaney and the stable of ESPN sideline reporters working the station's coverage of this year's bowl season (ESPN is broadcasting 32 games), tiptoeing around these quirky obstacles is an integral part of their job. And it's a job that most fans don't even come close to understanding.
"It's a lot of work," said Erin Andrews, probably the most well-known of the sideline reporters ESPN employs.
Most football fans consider the sideline reporter as just a pretty face or former player who generates light pieces to kill time during slow games. O.J. Simpson, for instance, was a sideline reporter. Suzy Kolber was famously hit on by Joe Namath during one of her sideline reports. Even Andrews, who will work the sidelines for the BCS National Championship on Jan. 10 (8:30 p.m., ESPN), took her role as a sideline reporter and translated it into a third-place finish on "Dancing With the Stars."
But to suggest that a sideline reporter is just there for filler is probably as far off base as one can get. Maybe it's because they only pop into the telecast intermittently, to relay quick information or give an update, then disappear again, leaving viewers without any idea of what they actually do during the rest of the game. But the truth is this: outside of players and coaches, sideline reporters have a case for being declared the hardest workers at a football game.
"I study more for football than I ever studied in college," Andrews said.
After she receives a game assignment, she'll immediately do work that would make historians blush, diving in to mountains of articles about the teams she'll be covering.
"It's just a ton of prep work because there are so many people on a football team, there are so many coaches and so many storylines. It's just reading non stop."
McAnaney has a similar routine. He begins by Googling every player's name in hopes of picking up insightful stories. He then attends press conferences, pesters sports information directors for human interest angles and talks up coaches before the games.
McAneny keeps brief notes on players on his BlackBerry for quick reference during games. "I'll write something like 'Jenkins-tuba player' and that reminds me, 'Oh yeah I got a story that in high school he was a tuba player in the band.' And then I hopefully will remember the rest of the story to put into complete sentences."
Andrews squeezes all of her notes onto two large pieces of paper that she carries around with her during the games. "It's funny," she said, "People look at my notebook and see all the notes I take. And they say, 'Do people write that for you?' And I'm like, 'Are you kidding?' I just don't think people understand how much we prep."
The kicker, of course, is that after all of the studying and preparation, McAnaney and Andrews say they use just a fraction of the notes they take.
"Probably not even a fourth of it," Andrews said . "All my stuff ends up having to do with what goes on in the field."
And a lot, according to McAnaney and Andrews, happens on the field. Everything from injuries to substitutions to coaches yelling at players. While McAnaney tends to stay behind the white line and employ his leaning skills, he admits that it sometimes doesn't matter, as coaches speak a different language that even he finds hard to understand.
"You try to eavesdrop and decipher in English what they're saying, but it's tough," he said.
Andrews, meanwhile, has a slightly different approach. "I've had officials tell me to get off the field," she said. "Unless I'm told to get out, I pretty much try to get everywhere I can." And when a coach looks up from a huddle and sees ESPN's Erin Andrews listening in as intently as his offensive line? "I try to look the other way, or something like that," she said. "But I feel like I've perfected the art of lipreading."
During this season's Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, McAnaney raced across the field following big plays to gauge reaction from both sidelines, got quick analysis from coaches before and after halftime, interviewed Syracuse's Rob Long (who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor), gladhanded with assistants, introduced himself to referees, caught up with fellow roaming sideline reporters and constantly relayed any observations of the game that he caught from the sideline up to the booth.
Fans at the Pinstripe Bowl who saw McAnaney talking to into his microphone may have thought that he was on the air a lot. He wasn't. Most of the time, he was simply providing information through the microphone to the announcing team -- little nuggets that they wouldn't be able to see from the press box, like noting that, "the Kansas State team is jumping up and down in unison on the sidelines," or telling the booth that the Syracuse placekicker couldn't find the field goal sticks to practice his craft on the sideline.
McAnaney and Andrews chased a couple footwear-related stories in their bowl games. McAnaney observed and reported on the lack of cleat changes he saw on the slick, icy field at Yankee Stadium, while at the Rose Bowl, Andrews followed up on Kirk Herbstreit's observations about TCU's wide receivers not being able to make cuts because they were slipping. She spoke with a member of the Horned Frogs' equipment staff, who told her that the players were wearing new cleats and they couldn't switch to their old ones because they had brought just the one pair.
"I want the guys in the booth to know what's going on down on the field," Andrews said. "I feel like I'm the messenger."
When the cameras aren't rolling, the sideline reporters aren't just sitting back in a chair sipping hot cocoa; they're on the move. The only rest really comes at halftime, and even then, it has to be carefully plotted.
During the Pinstripe Bowl, after asking Syracuse coach Doug Marrone some questions on air as he went to the locker room, McAnaney ignored the "Rock of Ages" halftime show to wait inside the tunnel that led to Kansas State's locker room, so he could ask Bill Snyder some questions about the game as he left. Even while resting, McAnaney, a former Notre Dame lacrosse player, was still standing. From about noon until the post-game wrapups about nine hours later, McAnaney didn't sit down, eat or even have a drink of water. The man was a machine.
Andrews can relate. "Everybody who watches me on the sidelines," she said, "they're like, 'What a workout.' I am moving myself from one side of the field so fast to the other. It's my cardio for the day. I am everywhere because there's only one of me."
So next time you turn on a game and see the sideline reporter offering insight into an injury or talking about cleats, know that this wasn't just some bit of information that was flashing on the scoreboard at the stadium, or a tip handed to them on a printout by an assistant athletic director. Chances are the reporter had to run the length of a football field, badger a trainer or staff member for the information, wait until they were given the go-ahead to report it and then quickly fire off the information before the next play was called.
"People think it's all fluff," Andrews said. "And it's not."