How Allie LaForce Became The Next Great Sideline Reporter

Managing Editor, DIME + Deputy Editor, Sports
03.24.17 8 Comments

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NEW YORK – There’s a set change in the midst of filming a November episode of We Need To Talk, the hour-long CBS Sports Network show featuring a rotating cast of women discussing the biggest issues in sports. It’s taking everything in her power to keep Allie LaForce from moving furniture around. She’s not used to standing still, and especially not used to anything other than being responsible for multiple things at once. It comes down to a legal issue, though, something about the union and insurance, so she’s passes the time with conversation.

Not that conversation is any sort of chore for LaForce. The word that gets thrown around the most about her is “natural,” and it takes all of two minutes to see why. She’s been in front of cameras her whole life to the point where anytime she’d have a new outfit growing up, her mother – who runs a modeling agency in Atlanta and commuted weekly between Northeast Ohio and Georgia – would announce her to the room and have her show it off. When her mom was away for work, her aunt Connie Rummell, who coached Medina High School’s girls basketball team, would look after her and bring her to practice.

Even without her knowing it, LaForce was developing the skills that would later lead to her catapulting on the scene a couple years ago during the NCAA Tournament.

LaForce’s nontraditional path saw her make her way from Miss Teen USA and walking on the Ohio University basketball team to a regional job at SportsTime Ohio (now Fox Sports Ohio) before landing at CBS. And it was those early years in OU’s broadcasting school and in Athens, Ohio that set the foundation for why even now – nervously tapping her foot because she can’t help the production assistants – she still plans on outworking everyone around her.

“My favorite part about working with Allie on We Need To Talk is her ability to make everyone around her feel comfortable and confident,” says Laila Ali, who appears on the show with LaForce. “Her work ethic and preparation are second to none.”

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LaForce’s basketball playing career ended in college, but her career in basketball was only beginning. She spent time learning from the radio voice of the women’s team, who had her join the broadcast as a color commentator. From there it was producing the coach’s show during football season, lugging cameras around and filming on the sideline, producing a 5 a.m. radio show, and finally interning at SportsTime.

Fast-forward to now, and she’s working the NCAA Tournament with close friend Verne Lundquist once again, set to take in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight from Madison Square Garden, not far from the studio where they shoot We Need To Talk.

“To me she’s always had a sense of self confidence and purpose,” Lundquist says, “and I’m one of those who believes she can go anywhere she wants in this business.”

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CBS didn’t take long to realize they had something in LaForce. But there were still questions when she was thrown in the fire to cover her first NCAA Tournament in 2013 at the age of 24. She was tasked with filling a role once occupied by pros like Rachel Nichols, and she was teamed up with Bill Raftery and Lundquist, who had the combined experience of about a dozen typical broadcasters. The production unit even leaned into the situation, offering up meta graphics that showed how many games both Lundquist and Raftery had covered, with LaForce below clocking in at a whopping “1.”

She took to it immediately. Despite her age, she had plenty of experience whether it was covering the Southern Ohio Copperheads (a collegiate summer league baseball team), high school championships in Cleveland, or Mid-American Conference games. Her familiarity with the sport came through to the viewer, and she was the furthest thing from camera shy thanks to her experience with the Miss Teen USA process.

It didn’t hurt that she bonded with both Lundquist and Raftery from the get-go.

“She’s so respectful of the experience these guys have and their history,” director Suzanne Smith says. “She knew she was new to the game, but she didn’t act like a rookie. She was able to blend working with them, doing her thing, and still having fun with it. They were able to bridge the generation gap, partly because Verne and Raftery are so good, but largely because she brought her own experience and personality to it. She’s tweeting, taking selfies, and the two of them didn’t even know what selfies were at the time. She brought what she knew to the Dance, and did it in a way that was so respectful to the two of them.”

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LaForce was going toe-to-toe with legends like Coach K, and she never hid from the moment. That’d prepare her for dealing with Nick Saban and the rest of the SEC when she took over for Tracy Wolfson as sideline reporter for the SEC on CBS broadcasts after Wolfson moved into the NFL role. There were still growing pains, and she turned to the person best suited to help her: Wolfson.

Tracy had a playbook for how to navigate the SEC, and it included critical details like reaching out to every sports information director in the conference, knowing which coaches will elaborate on everything they say, which coaches won’t elaborate at all so there’d be a need for followup questions, which coaches won’t elaborate no matter what you ask them, and how to approach her co-workers.

Wolfson also detailed things that she had to learn for herself when there wasn’t someone to show her the way, like which shoes are really comfortable, which hotels have room service and which would call for a bring your own snacks scenario. There was also the always important lesson anyone in this business needs: keep a few Kind bars handy.

“A lot of young women don’t necessarily reach out to you or ask for help,” Wolfson says. “They’re nervous or they come in overly confident. But she immediately came up to me and asked me for advice and called me and would follow up, especially in the first few years working for CBS. She always asked about how to handle certain situations or issues she got into. It was really difficult for me to leave the SEC and go to the NFL because of the relationships, my crew, and how much I respected everyone I worked with. I felt like I was letting them down, but I knew Allie would fit in perfectly. She was young, eager, and willing to learn. I knew it would take time, but that she’d slide in there very well. It helped me make the move to NFL less difficult.”

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Balancing the SEC on CBS, the NCAA Tournament, and We Need To Talk allowed LaForce to get the always valuable live reps, but it also gave her more time working with Lundquist, who she formed a unique friendship with. Lundquist admits his wife Nancy loves Allie as much as he does, and the pair always look forward to the time they get to spend with LaForce and her husband Joe Smith, a relief pitcher who recently signed with the Blue Jays.

“We have a terrific relationship as friends but also as colleagues,” Lundquist says. “When she’s down, and she doesn’t get down very often, she’ll seek me out and we’ll chat, and usually she leaves those conversations with a positive outlook. I just admire her so much.”

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Lundquist observes that the best thing LaForce has improved on in her time with CBS is her relationships. She was never unsure of herself, but Lundquist knows as well as anybody in his storied career that it takes time to develop lasting bonds. The longer she’s been in the business, the more trust she builds with not just those she works with, but the coaches and players she works with in the SEC and in NCAA Tournament broadcasts.The irony that Uncle Verne and Allie couldn’t seem like an odder pairing for a friendship isn’t lost on either of them. LaForce went on a hunting trip with Smith last fall, and Lundquist couldn’t help but get one of his friendly barbs in.

“While you were out there,” Lundquist told her, “I was at the symphony listening to classical music sipping on a glass of Pinot Grigio. But isn’t it amazing how we come together to call a game?”

While Lundquist has done his last SEC on CBS game, he’s still on the call again in Madison Square Garden for this year’s NCAA Tournament, and Allie isn’t taking any opportunity to do a game with Verne for granted. Verne, Allie, analyst Jim Spanarkel, and the production crew had the chance to go to New York together on Saturday evening after calling the first weekend’s games in Buffalo, and Verne remarks that he’ll “always be Uncle Verne to them” and that he’ll remember that dinner long after he’s retired.

“Verne’s been my guy,” LaForce says. “Someday I’m going to have to find a different way to motivate myself in the morning because working with him sure does the trick.”

It won’t be hard for LaForce to find that motivation. It never has been. And while she stars on the sideline for yet another year of the NCAA Tournament and turns her attention back to the SEC in the fall, she’ll be using her natural ability and respect for those around her to keep pushing her further.

“The greatest people in the business never stop learning,” LaForce says. “And they’ll tell you that. I’m always trying to do that too.”

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