The 2020 NFL season will be without some of the signature faces of the sport on the field.
Sideline reporters will be stuck in the stands, as the league is not allowing them on the field due to COVID-19 concerns.
But the trademark of a star sideline reporter is a keen sense of observation that comes from being embedded in the game, listening and looking for cues that can be relayed to eager audiences. So how will they job get done?
“We love challenges on ‘Sunday Night Football,’” NBC’s Michele Tafoya said on a recent conference call. “I’m eager to see how it all works out.”
While Tafoya would usually spend her time pregame out on the field gleaning information from players, coaches and staff, she’ll have to do her reporting and research in advance this year.
“I said to [NBC’s ‘Sunday Night Football’ Executive Producer] Fred [Gaudelli] the other day, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to show up to a stadium and not walk onto the field.’ It’s going to feel strange,” she said. “I’m going to do a lot of my information gathering leading up to the game, obviously, and some of the things I normally do on the field I won’t be able to do.”
Tafoya will work out of the first row of the stands, dubbed “the moat.” While she usually moves around the field to catch as many angles of the game as possible, working from the stands, where there are various obstacles, will make that harder.
Thus, according to The Athletic, NBC will place Mike Ryan — a former NFL athletic trainer who has served as a sports medicine consultant on broadcasts for years — on the opposite side of the field as another set of eyes.
“I’m going to need much more comfortable shoes, I think, because I’ll be running around that first row quite a bit,” Tafoya said.
Tafoya will also be bringing binoculars to games for the first time in her 16 years on the job. “I want to be able to see things up close like I usually can,” she added.
At halftime, when she would usually interview a coach on-field, she now expects in some cases to do the conversation on the phone. In others, if she’s near a tunnel in the stands, she and the coach can talk from an appropriate social distance.
“We have some really creative communications set up for halftime interviews and postgame interviews and the like,” Tafoya added. So the restrictions might lead to some innovations, too.
Tafoya said that postgame, she expects there to be an on-field camera with a monitor for players to watch highlights. The players will be able to hear a reporter through a headset, or a similar mechanism, and could respond to the highlights in real time.
“So we’re looking at it as an opportunity,” Tafoya said.
The sentiment appears similar over at competitors ESPN and Fox Sports.
“Honestly, I think the sideline reporter role could be more valuable than ever this season,” NFL on Fox insider and sideline reporter Peter Schrager said. “They’re going to be the eyes and ears for everyone at home for what’s being discussed on the field. With no fans, there will be conversations the sideline reporter will overhear — even if not on the actual field — that could illuminate a broadcast.”
Lisa Salters, entering her ninth season as a sideline reporter for “Monday Night Football,” is also embracing the challenge.
“I think change is good, and just thinking outside the box, I can’t do my job lesser,” Salters said on a conference call. “I have to find a way to do my job as good, if not better, under new constraints, and so I’m challenged to do that, and I’m looking forward to stepping up to the challenge.”
Both Tafoya and Salters expressed that they expect conditions this season to be somewhat fluid, however.
“While I’m disappointed that I’m not going to be on the sidelines to do the job the best way I think that I can do it, I think that maybe as the season progresses, maybe things might change,” Salters said. “But having said all that, the number one concern is the health and safety of the players, of the personnel down on the field. So I understand why I’m not going to be on the sidelines to start the season.”