Imagine doing a full week of preparation for a televised soccer match – reading articles, calling sources, interviewing players and coaches, listening to podcasts and attending meetings.
Then, after putting in all that work, getting around two or three minutes of airtime on the broadcast.
Welcome to the life of a sideline reporter, an often thankless job which nevertheless can produce some of a broadcast’s most impactful moments.
Though American viewers may take them for granted, it’s worth noting how rare it is in world soccer to have a television reporter stationed directly between the benches, interacting with players and coaches, and delivering real-time updates during a broadcast.
“The access we get with MLS is unparalleled,” ESPN sideline reporter Julie Stewart-Binks told Goal.
That access grants sideline reporters a mandate. Though their screen time may be brief, they are tasked with observing and reporting on some of the most important in-game developments and adding crucial information to a broadcast.
“Sideline reporters see things that no one else has the opportunity to see or hear – that’s why you’re down there,” Stewart-Binks said. “You have to prove why you’re useful. No one else has your vantage point, so show them what they can’t see and hear from TV.”
To prove their usefulness, a sideline reporter must fully capitalize on both elements of their two-word title.
Sideline: Stewart-Binks and her counterpart Katie Witham at Fox have to keep an eye on the game, of course, but they’re on the sideline because they can watch both teams’ benches, listen to interactions between players and coaches, and speak to relevant parties during the course of the game.
“Sideline [reporting] is incredibly difficult because you have to be the ultimate multi-tasker and you have to be able to compartmentalize,” Witham told Goal.
“I’m always looking at the action and the reaction of both the players on the field and on the bench. I’m also listening to what’s being said both on the field and on the bench. With all of that going on I’m focusing on what John (Strong) is saying, what Alexi (Lalas) is saying on the broadcast. I’m also communicating with my producers and you have to be able to juggle all of that.”
Stewart-Binks recounted a piece of advice sideline reporter Jennifer Hale provided during a shadowing session a few years back: “You keep an eye on the game and you watch the sideline. Everyone’s watching the game but not everyone is watching the sideline.”
Reporter: This element is oftentimes overlooked but like any other journalist, a sideline reporter develops a network of sources and relies on their ability to extract information from parties that sometimes are unwilling to offer it up.
“I have a very good relationship with an assistant on each bench and I’ve cultivated that over the last three years and I’ll go to them for information,” Stewart-Binks said. “If someone’s coming off, we’re not necessarily sure if it’s an injury sub or it’s tactical so I’ll go to them and ask: ‘Who’s coming on, who’s coming off, why?’”
“I’d say the majority of teams have a good comfort level with me,” Witham said. “Depending on the situation of the game, they are comfortable with me saying ‘Hey, what’s going on with this right now?’ I can actually get information from the coaching staff in the middle of the game and then relay that to the broadcast.”
That sort of real-time information provides a unique differentiator for MLS broadcasts when compared with European matches. When a substitution or tactical switch happens, a sideline reporter can provide the justification directly from the coaching staff. When a key injury occurs, a sideline reporter – like Stewart-Binks did during an MLS Week 1 broadcast when Kaka went down – can follow the player and the training staff all the way off the field and provide instantaneous updates from team doctors.
“It’s instant information that in a European match you’re not going to get until either after the game or even days later,” Stewart-Binks said.
The access a sideline reporter has is not without its pitfalls, however. As one would imagine, not everyone on the sideline is comfortable with a reporter hovering over their every move.
“It’s unnatural to have a reporter standing right next to your bench or your technical area while you have an important game going on,” Witham said.
“It’s something that as a reporter and as a female I’ve have to deal with people not necessarily liking you where you are, wanting you to be where you are. You have to be so strong,” Stewart-Binks said.
This is where the “reporter” in “sideline reporter” becomes the instinct that Witham, Stewart-Binks and many others have to be guided by.
“I’m feisty, I definitely consider myself a pitbull,” Stewart-Binks said. “I’m going to go for information and I’m not going to back down if someone tells me no. Because that’s my job. My job isn’t just to be a PR mouthpiece, my job isn’t to hide an injury because a team wants me to, my job is to tell people what’s going on.”
The importance of the sideline reporter role was emphasized this offseason, when ESPN committed to putting one on the field for every televised MLS game for the first time. Stewart-Binks was brought in from Fox to fill the role, while Witham was named as her replacement.
Pay close attention to any broadcast and it’s not hard to see why both networks make such a commitment to sideline reporters. Witham estimates that 90 percent of her work goes unnoticed, but sometimes even when a viewer doesn’t see or hear from her, the information she’s gathered makes its way into the broadcast
“[If] you don’t hear me do a report on it, it’s because I’ve gotten something and I pass it to the producers to pass to the guys in the booth,” Witham said.
As Stewart-Binks says: “I think people don’t realize how much goes into the scenes that you don’t see on TV. What we end up getting on TV is the tip of the iceberg.”
So while they may not be seen or heard from nearly as much as the rest of the broadcast team, a sideline reporter is no less vital to the success of a televised soccer game.
“You get moments throughout the game to have a voice and when you get that moment, make sure it’s important, make sure it adds to the broadcast, and make sure you say what you need to say in the most concise manner,” Witham said.
“It’s a bit of a thankless job in the way that you put so much into it and you might only be on TV for a total of a minute in an entire game, so you have to be OK with that,” Stewart-Binks said.
“But if you are someone that loves news and loves reporting and really loves hustling for something that no one knows, then it’s an awesome job.”