The sideline reporter was young and attractive and more or less an open appeal to the lower enthusiasms of sports fans. The year was 1974. Jim Lampley was here to tell America about mascots and homecoming queens.
Lampley was the first officially designated sideline reporter, along with Don Tollefson. Both were discovered in a national talent hunt through which ABC Sports hoped to find a new broadcaster to "represent the face and voice of the American college student," in Lampley's words, which is to say that, from the very beginning, the sideline reporter was foremost a matter of cosmetics. It was about market share. It was someone with nice hair and a bright smile, delivering 24 seconds of cheerful inanities into a microphone. A full three decades before Erin Andrews first walked a sideline, the job was very explicitly about, to borrow Christine Brennan's phrase, playing to the frat house.
And now, 35 years later, the first sideline reporter is wondering why the job he pioneered still exists.
"I'd get rid of it entirely," says Lampley, ABC's former "golden boy," in the words of Sports Illustrated, who was once regarded as the presumptive heir to Jim McKay. Lampley is now known mainly for his work on the Olympics and HBO's boxing broadcasts. "All the injury-related information, all the other sideline stuff, you can do that just by having somebody on the sideline who's not on the air, reporting directly to the truck. I just don't see what it adds. Unless I felt my viewership was going to go up because somebody was really good-looking, so dramatically, amazingly, dynamically good-looking. But that doesn't make any sense at all to me."
This may slowly be dawning on the lords of television sports. CBS and the NFL Network recently did away with sideline reporters, with no discernible cost to their coverage. That's a major development. If there's a symbol of sports television's unruly growth in the latter half of the 20th century, it's the sideline reporter, whose birth predates that of ESPN by just a few years. In Lampley's telling, the job grew out of the wreckage of the 1972 Munich Olympics, where new wireless technology was put to such vital use in ABC's quicksilver coverage of the Israeli hostage crisis and the subsequent massacre. Says Lampley: "Months later, they asked, 'What else could we do? Would it work in a football stadium? Could we put someone on the sidelines?'"
In 1974, Lampley was in graduate school at North Carolina, and Tollefson was an undergrad at Stanford. Both found themselves among 432 contestants for some vague ABC Sports job that lay enticingly at the other end of a gimmicky talent search, led by Dick Ebersol himself. "The idea," Lampley says, "was to have a new person on a college football telecast, someone who'd provide program material that would help differentiate college football from pro football, illuminate the unique lore and social interaction of college football."
At the time, Lampley was studying mass communications in Chapel Hill and had worked radio broadcasts of UNC football and basketball games. "I was screened out at first," he says. "They were looking for someone with zero on-air experience, someone who was definitely not a broadcast type."
Lampley nevertheless got the job, and that fall he and Tollefson were thrown immediately into the mix. "Sept. 7, 1974," Lampley says. "Tennessee-UCLA in Knoxville. "Don was all over the telecast. I was on 11 times. I think he was on even more."
He goes on: "I can tell you exactly the first time they threw to me during action. It was early in the game." The day before, he'd had a lengthy interview with Tennessee quarterback Condredge Holloway. Afterward, Holloway pulled Lampley aside and guaranteed that, the following day, he would throw for a touchdown on the Volunteers' first play from scrimmage. Says Lampley: "I'm like, 'Pardon me?' He said, 'Trust me. We spent all summer studying film. We know exactly how they bit. This is play-action to Stanley Morgan, and we'll score on the first play from scrimmage.'" On Saturday, Tennessee won the coin toss. Got the ball on the 20. Play-action to Stanley Morgan. Eighty yards. Touchdown.
"I had told the producer about it," Lampley says, "and he remembered, and amid all the hoopla, Keith [Jackson] threw to me on the sideline. I said, 'Keith, at our sitdown interview, Condredge told me he'd throw a touchdown pass on the first play of the game, etc., etc.' That was the first thing I did on camera. You don't get lucky that often.
[Update, Sept, 3, 2014: Video's online now. Turns out Tennessee scored on its second play from scrimmage, not its first, on a 74-yarder. And as Classic TV Sports points out, play-by-play man Keith Jackson doesn't actually throw to Lampley on the sideline after the touchdown. It isn't until the 47:43 mark in the video below that Lampley delivers his first in-game report. It's an injury update.]
"That game, we were all over the place. If you wanted to liberally use a sideline reporter, let them really play a role, that telecast might show how it could work. That was the height of ambition for the broadcast. Two nights later, we did Georgia Tech vs. Notre Dame in Atlanta. I think I was on three times."
From the start, the notion of sideline reporters met with resistance from all points on the compass. Coaches hated them, for obvious reasons. Sports information directors, too. "And sportswriters went berserk," Lampley recalls. "What we were doing, in effect, was threatening their sidebar stories." The issue came before the American Football Coaches Association, says Lampley, who was friendly in those days with one former AFCA president (Paul Bryant) and one future president (Darrell Royal). "The subject came up and Bryant said, 'Fuck it. I like him.' And that was the end of that."
Lampley never had any illusions about the job. "I never thought for a second that what we did was vital," he says. "What had been envisioned was that, several times during the telecast, they'd throw to the sideline, where a college-aged reporter would do something, within 24 seconds, on Herbie the mascot buffalo or the cheerleader who won homecoming queen or whatever. And Keith is a no-nonsense guy of the highest order. You can put that in bold print. Pretty early on, I realized that despite everything that had been billed about this job, if I did it as they'd originally conceived it, I was gonna be a pariah, persona non grata — to Keith, to the truck, to the viewers. Because all of this was just nonsense."
We pause here to note that Lisa Guerrero was still a quarter-century away. If, for some, she represents the nadir of sideline reporting, she was also a natural step in the evolution of a position that was defiantly stupid from its very conception. (Remember that, initially, ABC didn't want someone with actual experience.) More than anyone, more than seasoned reporters like Andrea Kremer and Armen Keteyian, Guerrero was exactly what the job had called for, from the first: a smiling, pleasantly daft cheerleader.
ABC asked Lampley to work the 1977 season, but he "screamed bloody murder" and begged off. "The next person who worked the sidelines for ABC — how shocking is this — was a young, beautiful woman," he says. It was Anne Simon, last seen around these parts getting slowly consumed by Bear Bryant's hat. "From that point forward, the bulk of what you see are young, attractive woman. Obviously, 90 percent of them are very bright, eager to become legitimate sports reporters, but it puts them immediately into an awkward position.
"When something is not utterly vital, when something is totally insignificant, it's very easy to go to the next consideration, which is the cosmetics," Lampley continues. "There's no question [producers] think the cosmetic value means something. Obviously, they think it filters into the mix that prompts more people to stay and watch a telecast. I just doubt that's the case. If my goal today was to look at a beautiful woman, I don't have to turn on the Notre Dame-USC telecast. I've got 147 channels to choose from, and I can get a better look than through a peephole darkly, in a hotel room."