Michele Tafoya remembers making an important realization early on in her career: she would often be the only woman in the room. It was 1993, and Tafoya was covering a Hornets press conference for WAQS-AM radio in Charlotte.
“I remember thinking to myself, you better be ready because you’re going to be scrutinized because you’re the only woman here,” Tafoya recalled.
She also remembers thoughtfully selecting her clothing — avoiding anything that would appear too feminine. Tafoya wanted people to recognize her work, not her gender.
Now, it’s commonplace to see a woman on the sideline of a game, but then, it was somewhat unchartered territory. She recalls a conversation with Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts, who at the time was with ESPN.
“We talked about how in the beginning of your career, you’re afraid to wear makeup, you wanted to be taken seriously so you didn’t want play up your femininity too much,” Tafoya said.
Throughout her career, some have labeled Tafoya as a woman in a man’s world. However, she’s never thought of it that way.
“The fact that you’re a woman, doesn’t matter — it matters if you want it to, but I’ve never looked at myself as a woman in a man’s world,” Tafoya said. “I’ve always looked at myself as a journalist in the world of journalism and it happens to be sports journalism.”
Perhaps that mentality is what has driven her success in a male-dominated industry. The Emmy-award winning reporter is in her seventh season working alongside renowned play-by-play announcer Al Michaels and color commentator Cris Collinsworth on Sunday Night Football, the most-watched show on primetime television during the NFL season.
Tafoya joins us in this week’s Ball Like a Girl podcast to share her thoughts on the Super Bowl matchup, offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse inside the SNF broadcast, and discuss balancing her roles as broadcaster, wife and mom. A new Ball Like a Girl episode will go live every Wednesday, featuring an in-depth conversation with a prominent woman in the sports world.
Tafoya has been a staple of primetime football broadcasts for more than a decade, having worked as the sideline reporter on ABC and ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcasts before moving in 2011 to NBC.
As Tafoya prepares for her fourth Super Bowl broadcast, she will also be featured in a campaign called “Female Firsts.” Secret partnered with the NFL to celebrate the women in the organization who are challenging cultural norms and breaking down gender barriers.
“It focuses on the notion, and really the fact that women can survive, and thrive and excel in any industry they want to, and I think when you’re doing it in the world of football, which has traditionally been looked at as a man’s world, and predominantly is, it’s just a great combination,” Tafoya said.
“If there is any young person out there, male or female who wants to be in that industry, I just want to let them know that hard work is what gets you there,” Tafoya said. “Perseverance of excellence — really sacrificing a lot of your time and energy, being prepared and doing it the right way, can get you as far as you want to go.”
What follows is an abbreviated version of our conversation with Tafoya who delves into what it takes to reach success in the sports industry. You can listen to the full interview at the bottom of this post, or on iTunes. If you like what you hear, subscribe on iTunes, leave a review, and tell your friends. You can also follow Ball Like a Girl on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Ball Like a Girl: Your colleague, Al Michaels said recently, I can’t think of anyone, man or woman, who could do your job as perfectly. The role of a sideline reporter has evolved throughout the years, but what is your approach to that role and how have you been able to reach such a high level of success, regardless of gender?
Tafoya: You know, it’s funny he uses the word perfect because we all strive for it, you’re never going to reach it. I adore Al, and it’s a huge compliment for him to say that. But we do try for perfect, we really do. I have such great support from my producer Fred Gaudelli and my sideline producer Michelle Froman. We’re a team, and we approach it like a team and we push each other really, really hard every day.
I always rely on a John Wooden saying, the great old UCLA basketball coach said, failing to prepare is preparing to fail and every time I’m doing the most tedious preparation that I have do, that I hold myself accountable for doing every day I keep repeating to myself, “okay — if you fail to prepare, you’re preparing to fail, so just keep preparing and just keep working.” And it kind of gets you through that. You think in terms of wanting to be the best and on this crew, with Al Michaels — there’s nobody better, he set the standard for so many years and Chris Collinsworth, he’s just a phenomenal analyst, we all work so hard. We push each other and we don’t leave any stone unturned. We prepare for every potential circumstance that could come up during a game and if we find one that we didn’t prepare for, we certainly learn from that and we build it into the following week. We say, we missed that one, we can’t miss it again, how do we change our approach? So, it’s just a lot of hard work, a lot of which does not show up during a television broadcast, but believe me, the work is there and we are ready.
BLAG: Now, I want to talk to you a little more about working alongside Al and Chris because they are such legends in the industry and it seems that there’s such a strong rapport and chemistry between the three of you — which really makes it fun to watch. What is it like working alongside the two of them?
Tafoya: Well, sometimes you pinch yourself and say, am I really part of this crew? Because to me, they are Hall of Fame, but I think the reason the rapport is there is because you spend a lot of time together every week during the football season and you go out to dinner a lot and you just hang out.
You drive to meetings together, you drive to games together and there’s so much casual conversation. You get to know each other’s families. You know, you find out that someone’s grandson scored a goal in hockey, or Chris’s daughter raced a really good race at Harvard or I tell them about my kid’s baseball game or my daughter’s soccer game and it’s all of those things and you become really invested friends and I think that’s true for the whole crew. There’s a lot of mutual respect, there’s a lot of hard work together. There are a lot of late nights, and early mornings and long days and fortunately, we do — we genuinely like each other so it makes it really easy.
BLAG: Sunday Night Football remains the most-watched program in primetime, and your broadcast team does an exceptional job. But overall, TV ratings in the NFL have declined. What do you make of the changes in viewership and as a reporter, how do try to pull the audience back in?
Well, I think the changes have a lot to do with the way that we view anything these days. You know, there are all these different platforms — digital platforms. I watch my own kids, who are 12 and nine and the way that they watch things. A lot of times, it’s spending 10 minutes on YouTube or they’re flying through Instagram and finding out their news that way or finding out that a wide receiver did this because they were on Instagram or Twitter or whatever. So there are a lot of ways to get your dietary needs of television. Ratings of television in general have come down, I’ve noticed that in all kinds of facets and there are a million more channels than there used to be too, so all of those things have to be taken into account. It really is a remarkable thing and it is satisfying to know that we keep the ratings high and we’re up there.
As far as me trying to keep people in, I think what we try to do is reach out on those other platforms. We do Facebook Live interviews during the week, we tweet stuff out during the broadcast, we’ve got a social media person on the sideline who’s taking a bunch of photos and sending those out. My job remains the same. My job is to keep my stories succinct, and interesting and informative and updated. And you just hope that that matters enough to the audience.
BLAG: You’ve become a trusted, reliable source for football fans, and you’ve really been a trailblazer for women in sports broadcasting. As a result of your work in the industry, a few days before the Super Bowl, you’ll be featured in a Secret commercial celebrating “Female Firsts.” Why was it important for you to take part in this campaign?
Tafoya: Well first of all, it was a huge honor to be asked, it really was, I thought of all the people they could’ve talked to, I really was honored to be asked. It’s important to me — Secret is such a strong brand, and I don’t mean just an effective deodorant. I mean, their brand is really strong. I mean, I can remember my mom using Secret when I was a little kid and I remember the phrase was “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” And that just started to show them as a supporter of strong women, it was really cool and I still can remember that phrase. So now, here we are and I have a little girl who is probably observing me using Secret deodorant. It’s just a cool campaign because it focuses on the notion, and really the fact that women can survive, and thrive and excel in any industry they want to, and I think when you’re doing it in the world of football, which has traditionally been looked at as a man’s world, and predominantly is, it’s just a great combination. Like I said, It’s just been such an honor to be part of it and I think they do great work and I think they champion women — strong women and hopefully encourage other women to find their strength and to reach deep down and find what makes them unique and find what makes them championship strong.