When Chris Berman stepped down from his hosting roles at ESPN, the questions immediately turned to who would be stepping in to his fairly large shoes. Love him or not, Berman has been an institution at ESPN for decades and arguably the biggest personality at the network for the majority of ESPN’s existence. For one person to try to replace him would be an almost impossible task.
Perhaps that’s why it’s smart for ESPN to use multiple personalities to each take one of Berman’s NFL hosting roles so that all the pressure isn’t on one person. Suzy Kolber on Mondays and Trey Wingo on the draft were obvious choices given their years of work backing up Berman on NFL coverage. The big surprise though was college football sideline reporter Sam Ponder getting the call to switch over to NFL hosting duties and take over on Sunday NFL Countdown.
Ponder has hosting experience with an hour of College GameDay on ESPNU before Chris Fowler and company took the baton on ESPN. And in an interview with Sports Illustrated she says that time will be vital in helping her in her new role.
My first year with College Gameday I hosted the 9:00 am hour of the show on ESPNU. Sitting in Chris Fowler’s chair was a little (okay, a lot) intimidating and I found myself trying to do the job like he did it. I was terrible and learned really quickly that trying to do a job just like someone else merely makes you a second rate version of who they are. Now that I will sit in another legendary Chris’s seat, I know I can’t fill his shoes. I also know that I’m not being asked to. I’ve been asked to be myself… I don’t have a booming (no pun intended) television voice and I probably can’t rattle off a ton of stats from the 1980s but I’ve loved and known football my entire life. Whether as the daughter of a high school coach, a media member covering it for the last twelve years, the wife of a player or as a fan on the couch, so much of my life and who I am is owed to this game. I’m grateful that my bosses want me to use my various experiences and perspectives to try to facilitate interesting and insightful conversation amongst our analysts and challenge or interject when need be.
Ponder also said that Berman reached out to her to talk about the hosting job on Countdown and all that it entails. It’s an especially interesting choice because she is very much not a Chris Berman clone. So often in television (or in any industry, really) replacing a longtime person in a major role means going in an opposite direction for a replacement to make more of a clean break. There isn’t another Chris Berman out there and the one thing that wouldn’t work for Bristol is to try to find someone who could do the same show with the same nicknames and same mannerisms that Berman had for 30+ years. Countdown will be a very different show with Ponder playing the point guard role and that’s what is needed to truly move into a new era at ESPN.
The addition of Ponder means that ESPN’s NFL Countdown set has been completely changed since just a couple of years ago. And with many longtime veterans out and more recently retired (and younger) players there, it presents a different dynamic for NFL fans. Ponder also mentioned how the relative youth of the set including analysts like Charles Woodson and Matt Hasselbeck can be an asset for the show.
A huge part of why I was excited to take this job is that it’s not about me, nor should it be. The crew we have this year is impressive in resume and personality. I have some prior relationships with a couple of guys, but there’s also going to be a period of chemistry development that we’ll inevitably go through. I’ve seen it when it’s great (in my five years with College Gameday) and I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t believe we have that same potential to gel and connect with the audience. I love that this crew is relatively young and current when it comes to their experiences in the NFL. That’s no disrespect to anyone else, because there’s value in some distance too, but I love hearing from guys who were recently in NFL locker rooms, who can speak to today’s issues and still personally know the guys we are watching on the field as teammates and co-workers. That helps pull the veil back on some of the mystery in the league, and I think it will be really beneficial to people watching at home.
Ponder’s been a very talented sideline reporter for a long time and it was always clear that there were bigger things ahead of her at ESPN. Her assignment on Countdown is a forward thinking move for ESPN in a number of ways. There will surely be an adjustment period as ESPN moves on from the Berman Era, but the role could be hers for many years to come.