Featured Football Girl: ESPN’s Sam Ponder Hopes to Inspire Next Generation of Girls

When Chris Berman announced last year that he was stepping down as host of Sunday NFL Countdown on ESPN after 31 years, rumors immediately swirled about his replacement. Some assumed it would be Trey Wingo who had hosted NFL Live, while others predicted longtime NFL analyst Suzy Kolber would get the coveted spot.

While Kolber and Wingo would land other prominent roles within ESPN’s NFL empire, the network in March announced that Sam Ponder would become the new Countdown host.

“There is no such thing as replacing Chris Berman, but the chance to build on his incredible legacy while simultaneously taking new risks to serve NFL fans is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Ponder said in an ESPN press release.

Ponder would leave the college football scene where she was a widely popular reporter and contributor to College Gameday since 2012.

As the first female host of Countdown, Ponder brings a unique skill at facilitating sharp conversation. She is fresh, energetic and quite frankly a complete bad ass who has no qualms expressing herself both on and off the air.

We chatted with Ponder in conjunction with Secret, which has partnered with the NFL this season to celebrate women who are breaking barriers. Among topics discussed with Ponder are her approach to Countdown, dealing with social media trolls, and the next “female first” in the NFL.

Melissa Jacobs: How did the Countdown gig come about after Boomer announced that he was stepping down? Was it more out of the blue or something you lobbied for?

Sam Ponder: The Countdown offer was completely out of the blue for me. I loved working in college football and probably would have stayed there for a long time if this specific offer never came. It was just a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something challenging and exciting. It also allowed my family to be together, which was huge for me since I had just found out I was pregnant with my second child when I was presented with the idea.

MJ: What was the first thing you did once it was official?

SP: It wasn’t an overnight thing, so I don’t really remember the exact moment I knew, but I do remember getting congratulatory phone calls from [ESPN President] John Skipper and [ESPN Senior VP] Stephanie Druley. I felt really supported by both of them from the very beginning. No doubt they’ve taken a big chance on me, so I feel responsible to do everything I can to make the show as good as it can be.

MJ: Given how synonymous you’ve been with college football, how challenging has it been to be considered an NFL person now? (In other words, a lot of people miss you on Saturdays!)

SP:  My heart will always partially be with college football. It was my first love. There isn’t any replacing that, so I don’t try to. The NFL is just so different. Even though I haven’t been covering the NFL as a host, I’ve been living it every day for the past five years. I’ve learned more about what really goes on in the league by being married to a player [QB Christian Ponder] than I ever could have covering it. Embracing that perspective is something I used to be scared to do. But reality is that it helps me every day as I talk about the NFL. It helps me to know what questions to ask, what life is really like for the players and what fans might be interested in that doesn’t normally get discussed in the media. 

MJ: You’ve talked at length about never being able to replace Boomer and Countdown clearly has a different feel with you at the helm. What are some of the ways you are making Countdown your own?

SP: There isn’t any replacing Chris for obvious reasons and I couldn’t if I tried. I don’t find myself thinking “how can I make the show my own” because I don’t see it as my show. I try to be myself and not emulate anyone else, but the show will only be good if we are all good as a team. Three hours is way too long of a show if you don’t have great chemistry and teamwork. That’s why it works on College Gameday and that’s what we’re working on now. We’re all relatively new, so it’s a process, but so far we get along great and hopefully that will make the show better each week.

MORE TFG: Featured Football Girl: ESPN’s Beth Mowins Breaks Barriers

MJ: I recently tweeted something applauding your outspokenness for standing up for what is right and was pummeled with trolls. Can’t even imagine what it’s like for you. What’s your general advice on dealing with social media?

SP: When I dealt with vile comments early in my career, I used to call my dad to ask what I was doing wrong. He usually responded with “consider the source.” It’s helped me a lot as I navigate the unknown territories of social media. When you think about the hateful comments people make, it’s important to remember that very few happy, secure people reach out to a total stranger to tell them something terrible in print. Criticism is a part of this job, and we can’t only give positive opinions credence. But there’s a difference between “you suck at your job” and “I hope you die.” The first is an opinion. The second is a broken person who doesn’t know how to handle their emotions. That person should be pitied.

MJ: On a different note, you’re here for Secret and their campaign to promote the women who are breaking barriers in the NFL, like your colleague Beth Mowins who became the first women to call a nationally televised Monday Night Football game. Where do you think women currently fall on the respect spectrum in the NFL?

SP: Secret has done such a great job of celebrating women who do difficult things and challenge stereotypes. That’s why I was so grateful to be a small part of their campaign to highlight women in the NFL. I’ve been so encouraged recently by the strides women are making in so many areas of this game. We obviously still have a long way to go, but there are more and more women earning positions of influence. That word earning is so important, because it wasn’t possible for a long time. How do you earn a position without experience? And how do you get experience if no one gives you a chance? It’s taken a while for women to work their way up from the bottom where there weren’t many opportunities for women to begin with. That’s why I was so happy for Beth Mowins. Beth earned her role on MNF. She’s a total pro.

MJ:  Who are some of the women you look up to in NFL circles?

SP: Women like Beth Mowins and Suzy Kolber have been great to me. I have so much respect for the way they work and their passion for the game. I would say the woman I look up to most behind the scenes in the NFL is Stephanie Druley. It’s great for women to be in visible positions but it’s just as important to have women in positions of power and influence behind the scenes. Women who can bring different perspectives, challenge the status quo and present new ideas are so important.

MJ: There have been different media approaches on the advancement of women – Jen Welter continues to do endless interviews and has a book out, while full-time coaches Kathryn Smith last year and Katie Sowers this year have been very quiet. What do you think is the most effectively approach to getting women accepted in key football roles?

SP: Sometimes I get too distracted by acceptance. Of course I want acceptance, but that isn’t always a reality. There are some people who will never want to get football news from a woman. That’s their preference and I’m not gonna win those battles, so why fight them? My goal is to create more opportunities for the next generation of football loving girls like my daughter. So how do we do that? We do great work. We study the game and present new ideas. We don’t get distracted by closed-minded people. We don’t try to force people to agree with us. We just make the most of every opportunity we’re given and pass it on to someone else.

MJ: What’s the next NFL “first” for a woman?

SP: Well since you asked… I’d love to see Condoleezza Rice be the first female commissioner of the NFL. I know she expressed interest at some point. She’s obviously incredibly intelligent, knows the game and has handled a conflict or two in her lifetime. I can’t think of someone male or female who would be more qualified to manage the pressing issues in the NFL right now with more grace and resolve.

For more of Ponder’s story, check out this poignant tribute video created by Secret that showcases Ponder’s gifts as a broadcaster, woman and mother.