Sports

Tracy Wolfson Has Mastered The Art Of Getting There

It’s a swarm of people. A throng, is actually the best way to put it, and Tom Brady is at its kinetic center, a magnetic force yanking everyone toward him. But in that roiling, roving press of people is one person whose job it is to wait out the swarm and who has patiently affixed herself to Brady by taking some of his jersey in a clenched fist, to use him like a slipstream in the chaos.

Tracy Wolfson will wait for just over three minutes to be the first person to ask Brady what it felt to win his sixth Super Bowl, no time in the bigger picture but almost eons there in the thick of it.

“Everyone was like, ‘Is she okay?’,” Wolfson recalls over the phone. “For me, I was right there. I was ready. I was prepared. And I just had to show some patience. Patience and trying to make sure that I stood there and was able to get the interview when it actually mattered.”

To be the one standing there you also have to get there, and three years before, at Super Bowl 50, Wolfson nearly didn’t. As the orange confetti fell for the Broncos the scrum closed in around Peyton Manning and Wolfson, who had made the last minute decision to interview Manning when the realization loomed large that it could be his last game, angled and elbowed her way past football players, security and camera operators to pop up right beside him. Manning slowly pulls a cap down on his head and with the same kind of calm, on pro sport’s biggest stage, Wolfson asks him the question on everyone’s mind.

But before that answer, to even arrive there, are years worth of experience and trust built up with players like Manning and Brady. Seasons of standing on football fields in the freezing cold or driving rain, on weeknights and countless Sundays, so that the recognition is there in these bright moments. Since her time as a broadcaster with CBS began in 2004, Wolfson has made a career of getting there. Of understanding intuitively all the roads and pathways to competition for an athlete from sports ranging from car racing to rodeo, tennis to track, so that she can speak to them and their fans in the language they know best.

“My first event for CBS, one of my first events, was rodeo. I grew up basically 20 minutes outside Manhattan. I don’t know the first thing about rodeo,” Wolfson recalls. “I learned it though. I learned the lingo. I did the research. I spoke to the right people. And when I went out there, they thought I was doing this for years.”

It was a pattern that continued early on in Wolfson’s career, whether traveling to Nagano, Japan, as a runner for ice skating events with CBS in the network’s coverage of the 1998 Winter Olympics or as a stint as a pit reporter for live auto racing, she made it a point to get and stay immersed in whatever she was covering.

“And you wind up loving it,” Wolfson says. “You’re not faking it.”

Wolfson’s knack for immersion is a holdover from her days as a researcher for CBS. It was an internship she credits to the University of Michigan, a school she says she loves but “didn’t teach me anything.” From there, Wolfson spent a year working as an agent, eventually putting together an audition tape with her announcing ad-libbed games and sending it out across the country. She was hired by a small, local network in Trenton, New Jersey.

“I basically did everything in my first job,” Wolfson says. “Editing, putting stuff together, storylines. The researching side, I love it. I always have. Even in high school studying for tests, I love studying — didn’t necessarily like taking the test — but I like learning. I like taking notes. I liked uncovering different, like, what’s the most important thing here?”

After some time with MSG Network and covering college and arena football for ESPN, Wolfson returned to CBS in 2004. She’s worked as an anchor on CBS Sportsdesk, has covered every U.S. Open and NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four since 2004, was sideline reporting for TNT during the NBA postseason from 2011-2016, but it’s her ubiquitous presence on football fields as an NFL sideline reporter that’s shaped her daily life since 2014.

Something you come to learn when spending time around sports, whether the pulse and swell of a game day or the contained microcosm of a team, is that they exist within a rhythm. Think of the familiar beats of a season, the tidy timed quarters of a game, the routines of athletes, all of it combines to make a melodic or discordant score but underneath it there’s a continual flow. Something you also come to learn is that different games or days, for reasons sometimes not at all apparent, have different feels to them. Tension or energy might be straining or sparking the air, players pick up on it, a game can feed off of it, and a good sideline reporter can spin a mental dial to tune into it, too.

Sideline reporting relies on the rhythm of a game as much as it’s occasionally made or derailed by the disruptions to it, more than any other media gig. It’s a balance struck between an ingrained sense of spontaneity and pace plus 110% preparedness for whatever curves are inevitably coming. It’s a zone. How does someone like Wolfson, who has held her own in the space for so long she can read games like sheet music, know when she’s in it?

“I love that question actually,” Wolfson says. “It doesn’t happen every week, because it really depends on the game. It depends on what’s happening, the pace of the game, the rhythm of the game. And then of course, how you’re interacting with the crew.”

For Wolfson, that’s everyone from her colleagues up in the booth to the producer and director in the truck at the game.

“Things happen so quickly in football that you could be prepared for something and all of a sudden everything changes. Or you have to do a report, and your 30 seconds is now 15 seconds, and you have to adjust,” she says.

“For me, I’m the eyes and the ears down there, and I’m really trying to get what’s important down there and make sure it gets in, because I think if I’m thinking it, then the viewers are thinking it,” Wolfson stresses. “You prepare, really, for the open. That’s what you prepare for, you know what you’re going to say, you know what the storyline is, you go and you do your first hit and that’s all planned out.”

Talk to an athlete and they’ll tell you whatever nerves or preoccupations they had coming into a game all goes out the window when the ball goes up and instinct takes over. It’s the same for Wolfson.

“I mean, once they kick the ball, it’s all read and react,” she says, listing out beat by beat what she’s looking and listening to. “Watch the game, listen to the broadcasters, what’s the theme? What are you looking for? What injuries? What is the line coach saying? There’s a lot that goes into a game. I always want people to just sit in a truck for a day and really hear what happens behind the scenes, because it’s incredible how it all comes together. And I’m just one part of it.”

Because broadcasting is storytelling in real-time, there’s also a skill in knowing when to edit. One of Wolfson’s toughest lessons came early in her career, at the 2005 U.S. Open. She recalls that she’d “dreamed of” covering the tournament, as a tennis player growing up she’d gone to watch it every year. Australian player Lleyton Hewitt took an uncharacteristic five sets to beat Taylor Dent and in her postgame interview, Wolfson asked Hewitt in front of an entire stadium whether the win exposed his weaknesses. She was trying to be serious, she remembers, viewing it as a moment to prove herself as an informed reporter.

“They booed me. I mean, literally I got booed off center court at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Who else can say that?” She says. “I was miserable. I was so down. I was like, am I ever going to be able to recover from this?”

She did, obviously, going on to eventually ask the topical and oftentimes most difficult questions a sports reporter can, like whether Super Bowl 50 was Manning’s last game. What’s happening in the whirlwind minutes before Wolfson directly asks Manning, “So Peyton, is this your final game for your career?” is a reporter anchoring someone calmly in the present so that they can get them to look beyond it.

“I’m in the center of this circle and you have to ask these questions of, ‘is this your final game?’,” Wolfson recalls. “You’ve got to ask it in the right way and make sure it doesn’t just come out like that. And you have to prepare, how do you lead them into it? What’s the order of these questions? And this happens a lot. You have to ask a really tough question and when do you ask it? And I find you’ve got to kind of soften them up a little bit before you give them the big blow.”

Of all the surprising, or difficult interviews Wolfson has had to do, she still finds the losing team interview the toughest, especially in the emotional highs and lows brought on by college basketball’s March Madness. There, Wolfson tries to make room for all of the eventual emotions that will come to crowd the floor with the players while not losing sight of the need to ask the clarifying questions.

“You have to ask the hard question, like, ‘Why didn’t you call a timeout at the end?’ Right. But you have to find the right way to ask it, where they’re not going to be frustrated by it,” she says. “Maybe you say to them, what was your thought process down the stretch there in those final seconds? And if they don’t mention anything about the timeout, then you say,” her voice takes on the cadence of a comedian delivering the punchline, “did you think of calling a time out?”

Something she advises to younger reporters is that there are times when “you’re going to get on twice and sometimes you’re going to get on 10 times” and that pushing for air time isn’t always what ends up being best for the broadcast. There’s a balance, Wolfson says, and part of it is managing your own frustrations and knowing when “the moment’s passed,” or else when to mentally dog-ear something and find a way to work it in later.

Some of Wolfson’s skill as a walking game compendium is instinct and some goes back to her holdover habits as a researcher.

“People make fun of me,” she chuckles. “I have these blue cards. That’s how I prepare. I take a notebook and then I transfer to these blue cards, like they’re big index cards, and that’s what I walk around on the field with. I just have all these blue cards with all these different stories and notes and important information.”

Like most pro sports, the NFL is seeing a shift in everything from its audience demographics to the way that broadcast are viewed. Wolfson will soon have been alongside the game for two decades but her approach to keeping ahead of how it’s changing is rooted in one of her earliest professional habits: adaptation.

“You go with the flow,” She says, “You’re seeing the trends unfold in front of you and as a broadcaster, because I’ve been doing it so long, and I guess I’m one of those veterans, I can still learn from younger broadcasters and how they formulate things.”

Some of those trends are lighter, like the inclusion of social media in game broadcasts and the recent pressure Wolfson put on her producer to pan to TikTok stars Dixie and Charli D’Amelio when they showed up to a game at SoFi Stadium, while others, like social justice, are overdue for the NFL to align itself with.

In a schedule as rigorous as the one Wolfson keeps during the season, essentially on the road from the end of August to the beginning of April, weekdays and weekends, going with the flow is as important for logistics as it is personal sanity. Still, it’s a long and grueling stretch and oftentimes has her away from her home and family in Tenafly, New Jersey for isolating bouts. Is it possible to guard against burnout when the focus of your job is to be charismatically, intelligently and emotionally “on” so much of the time?

“Yeah,” Wolfson pauses, gives a knowing laugh before first clarifying. “I’m very lucky, because I have three amazing boys and a family at home and a husband that really supports me. And it would be very difficult to do it without him. And I think how I keep myself from getting burned out is number one, I spend a lot of family time at home with my boys when I am home. So I’m a normal mom. I’m doing all that mom stuff.”

That stuff includes taking her kids to their respective sports, helping with homework, and not doing any work until they’re in school or in bed for the night. Once she’s gone, Wolfson says her kids know their dad is in charge, but that her kids being older now has helped.

“You do have the mommy guilt,” Wolfson acknowledges. “You do miss a lot of fun times, whether it’s with friends or family and birthdays and you know, Thanksgiving and a lot of that kind of stuff. I’m used to it now. It doesn’t mean I don’t feel crappy sometimes about it, but I am used to it.”

Besides running and golf, a new practice Wolfson’s added to keep burnout at bay, at the urging of her husband, is to get out and find something interesting or unique to one of the many towns she’ll find herself in for the eight months or so she’s on the road.

“So I think those three things: surround myself with family, get out while I’m on the road, and make sure I have some me time,” she lists her working trifecta. “You have to really find that balance still but I do think it gets easier. I don’t think it’s ever going to be perfect, but I always said, if it was ever going to be an issue, then I’m done. Like, then I’m out, my family comes first to me.”

Still, Wolfson says that when she’s ready to spend less time on the sidelines or on-air, she’s not ready to stop working. As someone who’s had a less linear path in terms of career, she knows that there’s a lot of avenues she can look to when it comes to the direction she’ll take next.

“You have to really learn that kind of stride, climbing the ladder, this business, as you know, is really gruelling. You got to start at the bottom and you’ve got to find a way to get to the top.” Wolfson says. “I loved every job. So if I didn’t wind up getting on the air, maybe I would be an agent. Maybe I would have been a producer for CBS.”

“I knew I wanted to be in sports, and if I didn’t get on the air, at least I knew I loved every step I took,” she continues. “So I will tell you, all of that is going to help me when I’m done on the air, too. Because I’m not done working when I’m ready to give up, like when I’m ready to stop traveling and being on air. I’m not going to be done working, I’m going to want to do something else in the business. And maybe I go back to some of the stuff I learned along the way.”

For Wolfson, mastering the art of getting there, either to the exact roaring middle of hundreds of people converging on a football field or to the point in her career where she’s the one that millions of people watching want to see there in the thick of it, has been a joy. It’s as apparent in her bright and matter-of-fact voice as it is the generosity that she speaks of her experiences with.

Asked if there was a through-line she was ever able to find in all of the sports and events she’s covered and besides the preparation, it came down to people — the fans and athletes whose intimate worlds she was entering.

“You want to make sure they feel comfortable with you, first of all. That you know their sport, you know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re doing.” She says.

For most of us, so typically centered in the thick of our own lives, we could stand to learn from Wolfson’s work at the sidelines, and the range of things — triumph, loss, humiliation, resolve — she’s seen there. To come out from ourselves and see more of what’s out there.

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