ESPN’s New ‘Countdown’ Host Samantha Ponder on Navigating Pay Issues as a Woman in Sports Media

Samantha Ponder ESPN Countdown Host
Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

When the NFL’s new season kicks off next month, ESPN’s flagship football pregame show will have a new look. Gone will be Chris Berman, who hosted “Sunday NFL Countdown” from 1986 through last season. In his place will be 31-year-old Samantha Ponder, a veteran of ESPN’s college-football coverage.

Ponder spoke with Variety about navigating pay issues as a female sports broadcaster. Before she joined “Countdown,” gender-based income disparity had never been an issue for her. “I was always the sideline reporter or something similar to that — which is essentially, but this isn’t always true, the ‘woman’s job,’” she says. As such, there were few men to measure her compensation against. That changed with her deal to join “Countdown,” which puts her in a small but growing group of female sports TV journalists hosting studio shows.

Did it concern you when you got into the business that sideline reporter was considered the woman’s job?
Frankly, I didn’t want that job. My dad was a high school and college coach, and in my house my dad muted sideline reporters because he wasn’t interested in what they had to say. My dad wasn’t sexist. The role, generally speaking, had become about canned stories that you could have read in the newspaper earlier in the week. It wasn’t pertinent information. But that was the first considerable offer that I got. That’s where the opportunity was for me to get my foot in the door, so I took it and tried to put my own spin on it.

There are a lot of women who spend their careers in that role.
And some people love it, and that’s what they want to do. I have friends that are in that position and never want to host or do any other job. For me, it was a multifaceted reasoning behind taking this job. One, it’s a great decision for my family. The other part was I just wanted to feel like I was doing something more substantive. I wanted to feel like I was a part of a conversation instead of just relaying somebody else’s conversation. Especially with all of the social issues that are connected to sports, more than ever now there are a lot of conversations that I felt like I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to have more of a voice. This job allows me to do that.

As you made that transition to “Countdown,” did you talk with your agent about how you would be compensated and how that would stack up against other studio hosts?
Yeah. And look, it’s awkward for me. I got some big breaks early on, and the attitude around it was always “You’re just lucky to be here.” No one came out and said that, but that was the clear message. And I felt that way. So if they said, “Hey, so how about minimum wage?” I’d have been like, “All right, whatever. Just happy to be here.” I feel like a lot of times, that’s where this whole issue gets started. So many women in particular are just uncomfortable talking about this issue and taking some risks, which I did this time around, and saying, “No, I’m not going to do it for that.” But I found it to be really empowering.

Have you faced backlash from people upset about Chris Berman being replaced with a woman?
There are always going to be some people who are uncomfortable getting any football information from a woman. And honestly, I know that’s supposed to bother me, but it doesn’t, really. Is there usually some sexism tied to it? Yes, obviously. But for an older generation, it’s all they’ve ever known. I think this next generation is totally different. The coolest thing for me as a woman in this industry is that it never felt weird for me because there were so many that went before me.