We talked to Sam Ponder about her career from ESPN Zone hostess to ESPN TV host.
Sam Ponder is the newest face of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, but technically, her first job with the network came as a teenager, when she took a hostessing job at the ESPN Zone in Times Square. A restaurant job is not a typical stepping-stone for someone hoping to break into sports broadcasting, but Ponder made some connections—and made the most out of every one. Her first sports job was at ABC, working as a research assistant with the network’s college football coverage team. She loved it, but the cost of living in Manhattan was weighing on her. So the Arizona native moved back to Phoenix and during the college football season, flew to New York every Thursday to work the weekend.
I recently sat down with Ponder at her home in New York City to talk about her career path, credit card debt, and making it in the sports journalism industry.
You’re the first woman to host Sunday NFL Countdown. What’s the reaction been like so far from fans?
Honestly, the response that I get in person is usually a lot different than it is on social media, and I think that’s true for most things. But people have been overwhelmingly positive. There are always going to be some people who are uncomfortable with a woman in that position, because either there are issues with sexism, or they’re just not used to it. People have to get used to seeing different kinds of faces and different perspectives in different roles. So much [backlash] is just about exposure, rather than hatred. I think a lot of it is about ignorance and people getting to the place where they’re comfortable with a variety of perspectives. But I have gotten so much support. So many coaches, and fans, and people that have watched my journey over the years have reached out, so it’s been a good experience so far.
You were recently a part of the video congratulating Beth Mowins on being the first woman to broadcast an NFL game in 30 years. How important is it to have that visibility for women working in and around the league?
It’s huge. I mean, exposure is everything. When you see someone who looks like you doing a job that is normally done by a different type of person, even just the visual of that is powerful. Even before she says a word, just flipping on Monday Night Football and seeing Beth Mowins in the booth, even before she says anything, it’s opening minds to be like, “Wait a second, okay. Maybe I can do that. Maybe there are more opportunities than what I initially thought.” Now on top of that, Beth is also great at her job. That’s the responsibility of us as women, to not just get the opportunities, but to do something with it. And once we’re given those opportunities, to be capable and competent in those positions. I think the great thing about the position that I’m in now, in terms of women in this industry, is if you’re qualified, you’re able. We’re finally getting to that place. Before, it was such a difficult thing because there weren’t women that were qualified yet because we hadn’t had opportunities. How are you going to be qualified for a position if you have no experience? Now, enough years have gone by where women have been in positions from the bottom to the top that we’re qualified to be at the table. We’re qualified to be on Monday Night Football. All those things come from decades of other women putting in work, and now, we’re kind of reaping the benefits of that.
You’ve said before that part of why you took this new role at ESPN was to be a bigger part of the conversation. How has that adjustment been so far this season?
That was a huge thing for me. I’ve had offers to be in positions over the years where it was probably a better job in terms of pay and exposure on television, but what I was always looking for was a voice. I didn’t want to just facilitate the conversation; I wanted to be a part of the conversation. Because I do have a unique perspective, and that doesn’t necessarily make it better than anyone else’s—it’s just different. We need people [on TV] that represent fans and women and people who played sports growing up and people who didn’t play sports growing up. We need to show all different perspectives on television in order for viewers to relate to who they see on TV.
You first flew from Phoenix to New York 13 years ago to start hostessing at ESPN Zone and to try to break into the industry. What was going through your head when you flew back to New York, this time to host Sunday NFL Countdown?
It was weird. It was emotional for me, just because I remember that girl. And I do mean girl. I was so naive and so clueless about how all this was going to work out. I didn’t know a soul in New York City. Getting on those first flights to come out here, I just remember all of those fears and doubts, the insecurity. And, yet [when I] look back, I wish I could tell that young girl it’s all going to work out. Not because I have the job that I have now, but because what I've enjoyed the most in the process [of getting] where I am now is that adventure in the beginning.
When you were taking those big risks, like flying out to New York from Arizona every weekend, was there ever any fear that it wouldn’t pay off in the long run?
I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pay my credit card bill. I had people thinking I was crazy, which I was. At that age, I think every credit card that I had had a $250 limit, and so I used every credit card I could get, and got flights for those four months, from Phoenix to JFK every Thursday night and back on Sundays, on those credit cards. I didn’t have any money. And I remember thinking, “If this doesn’t work out, this is the dumbest investment ever!” Because I'm going to be paying off flights for the rest of my life. But it was an investment in me, in my career. It was my version of more schooling. We all invest in what we hope our future career is going to be in different ways. I think that’s what you have to do to make it in this industry, in my opinion. You’ve gotta step outside the box. You can’t do things the way they've always been done, because this industry has changed so much. I mean it’s changed in the last year, much less the last 12 years, since I’ve been doing this. So I just realized really early on, I want to be around the people who are doing this job. I want to develop relationships, I want to see what the job is actually like. I want to be there. So I was going to make whatever sacrifice I could to be a part of the action. And that ended up paying off in the long run. But yeah, I was super happy I was able to pay those flights off because that would have been rough.
You had such an unusual path to becoming a big name in sports, it would be hard for anyone to mimic. Regardless, what takeaways can aspiring journalists find in your story?
To be honest, I think the blueprint is that there is no blueprint, especially these days. Yes, school is important, your professors know a lot of things, but you can [break into the industry] a million different ways now. If you feel passionately about something, go with that. I wasn’t afraid to take that risk, so that’s what I would say to anybody coming up now: take the risk, but be okay if it doesn’t work out. It was definitely a weird journey—not one that I would tell someone to replicate—but I would encourage someone to do whatever way they think works for them.
What other things helped you get where you are today?
I think a huge help for me has been embracing fear. Let’s not try to pretend like we don’t get scared. We do get scared. We’re humans. Do you know who else gets scared? Nick Saban. And Dabo Swinney. And Bill Belichick. People that we see as almost god-like—it’s really creepy, in a way—they’re insecure, and they get nervous under pressure. Instead of pretending like that stuff doesn’t exist, let’s see all of us as human and flawed, insecure and a little unsure of ourselves, and kind of press into that. And that frees you up when you interview one of those really important people, or you go on a job where you have six million people watching. That frees you up to be yourself. You know don’t have to be perfect, because nobody is. Even in sports broadcasting, I think it’s important to be authentic, and part of that authenticity comes from realizing that the audience at home, the Super Bowl champion, the cheerleaders on the side of the field, and the executives watching me in Bristol—we’re all a mess. And it’s okay that we’re a mess. I think especially if young women can see that early on, it takes away some of that desire for unattainable perfection that is so crippling in our culture, especially in the TV industry.
Game On is a collaboration between Secret and the NFL featuring powerful women at the top of their professions in the male-dominated football industry. About her involvement, Ponder says, "To see how much Secret cares about championing women who do difficult things is really important to me, because that’s the message I’m trying to get my daughter to understand, that it’s good to do hard things."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Illustrations by Alexandra Citrin.