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Michelle Tafoya on Sports Broadcasting and Working on Christmas

Michelle Tafoya was the first woman to call an NCAA Tournament game. Now she's roaming NFL sidelines on Sunday nights for NBC.

by Larry Burnett
23 December 2016, 9:35pm

Courtesy NBC

When Michele Tafoya isn't roaming the sidelines for NBC's Sunday Night Football, you might find her reporting on the swimming events at the Olympics, talking sports on NBCSportsRadio.com, or being a mom to her two children at home in Minneapolis.

Tafoya has worked for NBC, ABC, and ESPN, and back in 1997, she made history at CBS by becoming the first woman to call television play-by-play for an NCAA Tournament basketball game.

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When VICE Sports recently caught up with Tafoya, we started by asking her how she has managed to survive and thrive in such a male-oriented business.

Michele Tafoya: First of all, I grew up with a big brother who was constantly challenging me, so I got some training there and my dad raised me to watch sports and understand sports. When I was leaving for my first broadcasting job, I told my dad, "I'm not going to look at myself as a female sports reporter in a male-dominated environment. I am going to look at myself as a sports reporter and I am going to do my job."

When I began there was a lot of skepticism. If a woman showed up at a press conference or a game it was like, " Oooh. Who is she? What does she know?" The assumption was that you couldn't possibly know as much about sports as a guy could. I knew I was probably going to have to prepare eighty times harder than the average guy.

I think those days are behind us, for the most part. You are seeing far more women in sports TV and radio than when I was coming up. I think a lot of the stigma has been removed and the feeling is more, "Let's hear her and see what she has to say."

[Sports broadcaster and sideline reporter] Doris Burke is a good friend that I worked with for a long time. She has broken down so many boundaries in covering basketball, both in the NBA and college. I think a lot of the resistance is starting to dissolve.

I think sometimes people look at your work on Sunday Night football and say, "Michele's got this great job. She only works one night a week."

Tafoya: Yeah. It's funny. People think we show up Sunday, go to the stadium and do the game and that is really not how it works. We usually get to the game city on the Thursday night ahead of the game. We spend Friday night with the home team, go to their practice and have meetings with different players and coaches. Then Saturday, we meet with the visiting team once they've landed in town. On Sunday, we get up and have meetings all day long and then it's off to do the game and then we fly home on Monday. So it's an extensive bit of preparation.

How do you make that Sunday Night Football reporter gig "yours"? How do you make it more than just being an ambulance chaser on the sidelines, Michele?

We prepare for a lot of different scenarios. We prepare the stories we want to tell the audience and, believe me, every week I prepare a ton of them and so do [booth announcers] Al [Michaels] and Chris [Collinsworth]. About 90 percent of our stuff, and I know you can you can relate to this, never sees the light of day. That can be really frustrating. You may have this great bit of information or a great story and then you don't have the time to tell it, or the game gets in the way. Let's face it. The game is the thing. I think you really have to be patient in the reporter role and you have to find your spot and remember that the broadcast is about the game. You want to add to it what you can. Sometimes we get a blowout game and there are more opportunities from the sideline.

The coaches are important. I talk with them at halftime and try to fashion a report that really speaks to the audience and gives them the information they want to know. Key stuff and not just babble. We try really hard to do that. We try to make our pregame "hits" count and we try to make our post-game interviews the best that we can. So, there is a lot of preparation and stuff that the audience will never know about, but when something happens and we are ready for it, it feels like we just hit a home run.

Tafoya at work in her adopted hometown of Minneapolis. Photo: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports.

You and I haven't seen each other since our days with the WNBA, but I've watched your career for years. You do so many different things and, most of the time, you have very little time to accomplish what you need to do you. You talked about the halftime interviews with the coaches on Sunday Night Football. I saw you working the swimming events at the Olympics. How do you make the most of those opportunities and make them significant in such a short amount of time?

I think it has taken a long time to cultivate that ability. You really do want to cram a lot into a small space, but you can't. You really have to decide what is the most important question to ask. Believe me. I don't always do it perfectly. I have regrets almost every single broadcast, but you try to cull it down. I think it's just something that comes with experience. You start to learn that less really can be more.

I think the best play-by-play announcers, and I would put Al Michaels right there at the very top, aren't telling you sixteen different things on a play. They are giving you what you need to know and they are waiting for the right spot to put in the other stuff. You learn that and you learn how to craft questions and, again, it comes down to a lot of preparation so that when you are interviewing that swimmer or that football player, you're not thinking about nine hundred subjects. You are thinking about three or four because you have done your preparation. Honestly, it has taken years to get that, even close, to right.

So. You've got Sunday Night Football and your radio work and your social media responsibilities. What do you do in your spare time, if you have any?

Well. What keeps me most busy are my kids. I have two young kids. They are eleven and eight. I hate being away from them and so, when I'm home, I'm trying to get everything done while they're at school so that I can be present when they are home. For any parent out there reading this, you know that doesn't always work that well. It's busy, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

You were born in Manhattan Beach, California. You attended Cal Berkeley and got your masters degree at the University of Southern California. After all that California living, how did you become a Minnesota mom?

Great question. People still ask me that. "You 're from Manhattan Beach and you live in Minneapolis? What happened?"

I usually say that I got really, really bored with all that perfect weather out there in California, so I decided to move somewhere more challenging, but in this business, as you know, you bounce around. You find that next big market and that's kind of what I did. Along my climb I wound up in Minneapolis covering the Vikings and that's when I got hired for my first network job, which was CBS. I met my husband here in Minnesota and it's a great place to raise our family, so here we stay. I really do like it here, but there are a couple weeks each winter where I want to stab my eye out. But other than that, it's pretty good.

You mentioned the family and trying to juggle all that with your career. I looked at your NBC Sunday Night Football schedule and you've got a game on Christmas Day. You've got the [Denver] Broncos at the [Kansas City] Chiefs. How do you juggle that?

I think what I'll probably do is wake up Christmas morning and cry for a while and feel sorry for myself, but my kids will love it. They'll have two different Christmases, one with their dad and their cousins and then one with their dad and me. It will all be good, but it hurts. I hate missing Thanksgiving, which we do every year. We have a game every Thanksgiving and I hate missing Christmas, but NBC will have Christmas games for the next two years, so. When your kids are right at that perfect stage for Christmas, it makes it especially hard, but this is the business we have chosen. We do what we do.

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