Melissa Stark clearly knows the value of staying in touch.
The veteran sportscaster served as the sideline reporter for “Monday Night Football” between 2000 and 2002, when she was just 26 and the game — then one of TV’s biggest weekly events — was still broadcast on ABC. She worked with everyone from the legendary TV executive Don Ohlmeyer to “MNF” announcers like John Madden and Dennis Miller — and with Fred Gaudelli, the producer who would move on to work for NBC Sports and oversee “Sunday Night Football,” then all of NBC’s NFL coverage. With four young children at home, and having logged stints at ABC, NBC News’ “Today” and MSNBC, Stark in 2008 eventually chose to cut back on TV duties and focus on family. In 2011, she had the chance to take up new duties at NFL Network, and asked Gaudelli for his counsel on the move. “He has always been a mentor and a sounding board,” Stark tells Variety in an interview.
And more. A few weeks ago, Gaudelli called her: Why not join NBC Sports as the sideline reporter for “Sunday Night Football”?
And with that, Stark is working to make sense of a surreal moment: She will succeed Michele Tafoya in a critical role in one of TV’s most-watched programs, and in doing so, will make a unique career circle that many don’t get the chance to complete. “I was sort of just stunned” when the offer came through, says Stark, whose hire had been reported previously by The New York Post but not confirmed by NBC Sports until now. When she stepped down to take care of four kids, she says, “I didn’t know if I’d ever come back.”
Stark’s jump to NBC Sports is the latest in a parade of big sportscaster switches taking place as media companies work to draw bigger audiences to football broadcasts, which represent some of TV’s most prized — and most expensive — properties. All the TV networks with NFL rights recently agreed to substantial hikes in the licensing fees they will pay the league National Football League under a new 11-year pact that keeps the bulk of professional-football telecasts under the purview of the big traditional TV broadcasters. ESPN recently raided Fox Sports for its long-standing team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. Amazon lured Al Michaels away from NBC for its “Thursday Night Football” streamcasts, and wooed Kirk Herbstreit to work with him, though he will maintain duties at his current employer, ESPN. Meanwhile, NBC filled in the gap at “Sunday Night Football” by moving Mike Tirico into the booth with Cris Collinsworth.
Stark’s arrival means that two of the most prominent elements of “SNF” will be different when the program launches a new season Thursday, August 4, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, where the trio will work their first game together. On Thursday, Sept. 8, Tirico, Collinsworth and Stark will open the fall season by covering the NFL Kickoff Game on NBC and Peacock. Some building blocks are already in place. Tirico and Collinsworth have called 21 games together over recent seasons.
“’Sunday Night Football’ is destination viewing and we are thrilled to have Mike, Cris and Melissa call the action and tell the stories that football fans have come to expect from primetime TV’s #1 show,” says Pete Bevacqua, chairman of NBC Sports, in a statement.
“The motto for ‘Sunday Night Football is already, I know, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,'” says Stark. The industry’s increasing emphasis on sports “raises the stakes even more,” she adds, noting that the sentiment comes from someone who “at the time, didn’t think ‘Monday Night Football’ could get much bigger.” Still, the Sunday-night games have “a lot more resources, a lot more cameras” than broadcasts did when she held the similar job about two decades ago.
Stark may be tackling a job she’s done before, but she has hard-won perspective. “I wish I knew then what I know now. I was so young and a woman in a man’s world,” she says. “Back then, there were so few women.”
She wishes Madden, the legendary coach and broadcaster who passed away late last year, could have seen her get the NBC job. “He was one of my biggest supporters. He was everything: a co-worker, a mentor. He believed in me, and that was incredible for me as a 27-year-old female in this business,” she says.
Stark will continue to work for NFL Network as well, a job that lets her work other muscles. She has anchoring duties on that outlet’s newsmagazine, “NFL 360,” where stories can last as long as eight to 12 minutes. “I love that I get to tell the 25-second stories on live TV in between plays on ‘Sunday Night Football,’ and get to tell these really quality, deep-dive, Emmy-award winning stories at the same time. It is without a doubt the best of both worlds.” And while she once needed to watch four children at a very young age, these days she might be able to bring them with her to the games. All four, she says, are in high school.
She knows she had a lot of work ahead of her. She expects to meet with Tirico and Collinsworth well before the Sunday-night games start. The trio should make an appearance at NBCUniversal’s upfront presentation in a few weeks, and then start studying the teams. “Some people might think we just show up for the games. We really go in and start Thursday nights and then come home on Monday mornings. You really become a family on the road.”
That dynamic, says Stark, is what helped her stay in touch with both Rob Hyland, coordinating producer of “Sunday Night Football,” and, of course, Gaudelli. “He helped me understand there was a way to figure it all out.” She will likely make new connections later this year when the new NFL season gets underway.