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She Got Game: ESPN’s Maria Taylor Is Changing The Face Of Sports Broadcasting

"That's the power of being a woman."

BOSS UP

Growing up, Maria Taylor never imagined that she'd be a host for college and professional sports shows. Not because she lacked the desire to, but because with the exception of ESPN sports journalist Lisa Salters, brown-skinned girls weren't the faces flashed on television screens during game days. They were analysts or players, not hosts or commentators, so when the former University of Georgia basketball and All-SEC volleyball player picked her path, she primed herself for a long career climbing the ladder in women's athletics.

"I just figured that I didn't fit the aesthetic and I never even thought that that was an option," she says. "It never crossed my mind until I got my first job in college football."

Call it fate or call it divine purpose, Taylor soon found herself going from a reporter and host for IMG College at the University of Georgia to a host of traveling pregame show SEC Nation and ESPN's first African-American woman host on pregame show College GameDay. In addition, she's served as a reporter for college football and basketball, a host for the NCAA Women's Final Four, and more recently added the co-host of NBA Countdown to her roster. But while she's collecting her trophies, she's still facing challenges along the way as she breaks down barriers of the boys' club and paves the way for black girls aspiring to follow in her footsteps. She's the representation that matters, and a voice that's needed.

Proof that the unimaginable is possible, we chatted with the sports broadcasting pioneer about her journey from student-athlete to being watched by millions of sports fanatics every week, overcoming feelings of not belonging in a male-dominated industry, and why she's motivated to stay on top of her game as a black woman in sports.

*Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

xoNecole: What did your parents teach you about being a black woman, and how did that shape how you moved throughout the rest of your career?

Maria Taylor: My dad faced a lot of adversity at work and he understood what it was like to go through feeling like there was a job you should have received, but there might've been some unrelated circumstances holding him back. But as far as my mom was concerned, she always held down a full-time job and took care of all of us. They're still married to this day. She worked full-time as the CFO for the Paper Institute of Technology, which was affiliated with Georgia Tech. So I knew and watched what a strong black woman looks like.

My grandmother, too, played a big role in raising us because she lived in Atlanta and owned a dump truck business. Although she couldn't go to the University of Georgia because at the time they weren't accepting black students, she still found a way to get her associate's degree; she still found a way to own her own business. I've always been taught that what's not going to be an excuse is your gender or your race because I come from this strong lineage of black women that have always done it by themselves. So, it's never been an excuse for me.

Joe Faraoni/ ESPN Images

"I've always been taught that what's not going to be an excuse is your gender or your race because I come from this strong lineage of black women that have always done it by themselves. So, it's never been an excuse for me."

xoNecole: At what point did you realize that you could take your sports broadcasting career to the next level?

Maria Taylor: I worked at Comcast Sports South, and the very first game I did was a Vanderbilt game. They had a black coach at the time— his name was James Franklin. I think there was a reason why that was the very first game that I worked on. One, because it's Vanderbilt football and so we always got the game that not as many people cared about. But he just made me feel so welcomed and my crew was great that first year. And I was like, "Oh, I can totally do this."

I also realized that I had this unique advantage of being around a team where most of the majority of the team are African-Americans. They look at me as a sister or a cousin or an auntie, so there's a different kinship and bond that I can have with them when I'm asking them questions and trying to make them feel comfortable. And I do feel like it's a bit of my responsibility to be a "strong black woman" that shows up in their space, because if you go to division one or FBS schools, there's just not a lot of that around period. No one's really hired in those roles. Obviously their coaches aren't going to be black women. It's cool that I get to pop in every now and then and be a representation of them when I can.

xoNecole: When you're walking into these [male-dominated] rooms, are there things that you have to keep in mind being both a woman and a black woman?

Maria Taylor: I don't voice concerns in the same way that maybe one of my counterparts could because, and this might be women in general, but it would be seen as negative or derogatory or having an attitude. So, I have come at it from a different respect, you know what I mean? I have to come up with, "OK, this is why I would like to be treated this way or this is why I would like to work on this or have you thought about that?" These are conversations I've had time and time again.

And I always tell people, sometimes it's just about being recognized because I always think that being a black woman in this world is like you have an invisible struggle; like you're barely seen. Yeah, you're a woman, but you're black, that's different. So race doesn't recognize it. Gender doesn't fully recognize it because you're a black woman. So, who's really fighting your fight? And it's just us, you know. But sometimes it's just the recognition of someone coming up to you and being like, "Hey, I recognize this can't always be easy for you or that this could possibly be draining for you. And I see that and I recognize it and just keep going."

Allen Kee / ESPN Images

"Being a black woman in this world is like you have an invisible struggle; like you're barely seen. Yeah, you're a woman, but you're black, that's different. So race doesn't recognize it. Gender doesn't fully recognize it because you're a black woman. So, who's really fighting your fight? And it's just us."

xoNecole: Do you have a sister circle that you kind of keep around you, whether they're other black women in your industry or friends from different backgrounds?

Maria Taylor: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Taylor Rooks, she is an amazing talent. I feel like Carrie Champion is someone who I've always loved and adored. Amina Hussein, she actually is my coordinating producer on NBA Countdown. I've worked with one other black female producer and this is the first coordinating producer I've ever worked with, so it means a lot to be working one-on-one with someone on a project that has power. Every now and then, when you find that person, you just latch onto them. And I will say that at every step of the way I've had someone that I've been able to work with or just have a common bond with.

And then Robin Roberts has been kind of like my go-to person. Every single time I have to make a big decision, "Let me call her and see if she thinks this is right," or "Should I make a big deal about this?" Or, "What direction do you think would be the best direction?" You know, that type of thing.

xoNecole: Speaking of Robin Roberts, you've mentioned that she's one of your role models. Was there any specific advice that she gave you that inspired your journey?

Maria Taylor: One of the things that really stuck with me is that she said no matter what job or direction you decide to go, every day that you show up for work, you need to act as though there's no place in the world you'd rather be and that this is the only job you could see yourself having. When people walk in the room, they should feel better after having spoken to you. And she just reminded me that our world is so small, that if you upset one person, it could come back to bite you in 10 years and you won't even know it happened.

She also said you're going to see some things that won't sit well with you and you're going to see that it takes you a little bit longer to run your race, but you can't get frustrated or get down about it because it will pay off in the long run. And I think part of that is just speaking to the struggle that women have, the struggle a Black woman might have, that there's going to be more hurdles in your race and it's going to be longer, but do you have the diligence or do you have the persistence and the endurance to make it through?

Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images

"Every day that you show up for work, you need to act as though there's no place in the world you'd rather be and that this is the only job you could see yourself having. When people walk in the room, they should feel better after having spoken to you."

xoNecole: Recently Gabrielle Union was in the news for her hair being “too Black” for ‘America's Got Talent’. Being in the industry you're in, do you feel a pressure to conform or wear your hair a certain way?

Maria Taylor: The question for me always is, do I want to be that change or am I being enough of a change? No one else has to ask themselves this question, you know what I mean? No one else's hair is a statement on all of society, but my hair is. If I choose to change my hair, it's going to be a story on E!. That's something that I have to internally battle. It's something where maybe if I have a daughter and I see her hair and I want her to know that she's beautiful just the way she is, then I may just start wearing my hair out. And so those are all the things that I'm constantly thinking of.

But I do think financially that would have some implications, and I don't know that every single sponsor or every single show that I've been put on will see the same cause. I used to always say that at the end of the day I'm a product of my target market. In college football, it might be a 50-year-old white man. Keeping that in mind, if I'm a product being sold to that target market, then I have to go with what their tastes would align with. It's small decisions we make all the time.

xoNecole: What are some lessons you've learned from sports that translate into other areas of your life? 

Maria Taylor: Shoot, everything. I've learned the whole practice makes perfect thing. Not only that, but attention to detail could change everything for you. Because there are people that have all of the natural talent in the world and they never turned it into anything. And there's a reason for that. Also the fact that your talent can only take you so far, height can only take you so far, beauty can only take you so far. People who have sustained success are the ones who are students of any game. So, whether that's researching every day how to make your shot better or rehabbing or staying ahead of the curve on what helps your body.

And then just juggling a bunch of different things. As an athlete, when I played volleyball and basketball at [University of] Georgia, there was never time. Being productive was a big part of being successful, so it taught me how to be productive under stressful situations. It teaches you how to lower your heart rate, know how to handle stress, and to know how to channel it into something different.

Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

"Height can only take you so far, beauty can only take you so far. People who have sustained success are the ones who are students of any game. So, whether that's researching every day how to make your shot better or rehabbing or staying ahead of the curve on what helps your body. And then just juggling a bunch of different things."

xoNecole: So for young women coming into the sports broadcasting industry, where would you say they should start? And what attributes should they start working on now?

Maria Taylor: The biggest thing is being comfortable on camera. How can you be yourself on camera? Are you comfortable enough in your own skin that you can just show up and talk and no one thinks, "They're trying to be somebody else," or 'They don't know what they're talking about"? Because at the end of the day, the audience has to kind of like you. So, are you likable on camera? And then just being knowledgeable. I'm constantly listening to podcasts and reading articles, and it's the only way that you could bounce from college football to the NBA. You have to be genuinely interested in your subject matter.

So those are kind of the two biggest things. I get a lot of resume tapes and I love to watch them, but it's someone who just seems so natural on camera. It's almost like, oh they belong there versus someone who's almost forcing it. I don't know if it's a natural thing or it's something that can be worked on, but you can see the difference.

xoNecole: Were you always comfortable in your own skin or was that something you had to grow into?

Maria Taylor: It took time to grow into, but I think sports is the reason why I am. Being a 6'2'' black girl in the suburbs, there's nothing comfortable about your skin in that you know there's nothing in common but your hair. But I found my comfort. And at the end of the day, they can call me the Jolly Green Giant, but this is who I am. So I think sports is what made me comfortable in my own skin, and then it started to translate on camera. Without that I'm probably still like a nervous 13-year-old in high water pants and big boots. [The Netflix movie Tall Girl] was me in real life. Literally, my friends came up to my elbows and I was huge.

xoNecole: One thing I love is that you keep your style more feminine. Is that a purposeful decision?

Maria Taylor: Sometimes I wake up and I'm like, 'I want to be a super biker chick.' And so usually when I'm doing football, I want a leather jacket and leather pants, and I want boots and no one [to] talk to me. You know what I mean? I just want to [have] that kind of strong persona. And then sometimes I'm like, 'You know what, I'm in the studio today and I want a bright yellow dress and I just want to look like sunshine.' And I do think that's the power of being a woman. We get to choose which costume we want to put on and which persona we want to fill up a room with. So if one day I want to be really, you know, a turtleneck and a jacket, then I'll be that. The next day if I want to wear a dress with sneakers, then I'll do that. And if the next day I want to put on heels, then I'll do that too.

Allen Kee / ESPN Images

"I do think that's the power of being a woman. We get to choose which costume we want to put on and which persona we want to fill up a room with."

xoNecole: So what's like your go-to Bible verse when you're like encountering life's challenges?

Maria Taylor: Oh, there's so many. What I tend to do is pray to God that He gives me some kind of strength. Like at the end of the day I want wisdom and I need strength because there are so many times when I'm confused about how I should react to someone or what I should say at this moment. But every single time that I pray for strength or wisdom, I get exactly what I need from it.

xoNecole: Between ‘NBA Countdown’, ‘College GameDay’, and more, you’ve got a lot on your plate! What do you do to get yourself back in the right mental and emotional space?

Maria Taylor: It's hard because the job is so time-consuming. Just the other day I was close to breakdown mode where I'm just like, 'I can't do anything. I don't want to get on a plane, blah, blah, blah.' And then my husband was just like, "Just go home." And so that's what I did. I just stopped for 24 hours and waited until the next event, trying not to over-pack myself. Sometimes you think about these 19 things you've got to get crossed off the list, but realize that you don't; it doesn't have to be done in that order.

xoNecole: At one point when you were engaged you realized that while your fiancé was a good guy, he wasn't the one God had for you. In our society there's this whole push for being married by a certain age, and people sometimes settle in their relationships for that reason. How did you get the courage to walk away from a situation that wasn’t serving you?

Maria Taylor: I knew probably when we got engaged that neither of us was ready to be engaged and that he definitely wasn't ready to be a husband. And it was almost a come-to-Jesus moment where I called the pastor that we were doing our couples therapy with and I was like, "I just can't do it. I don't think I want to do it." And he literally told me, "I've actually been praying that you would come to this decision because I knew, but God had to tell you." And so I had all the peace in the world having that conversation with him about it. But I think it's just recognizing that it's OK to be alone. Like that's just totally fine.

Courtesy of The Knot

And the greatest twist to that story is now we are married. We separated for two years, didn't talk at all, and then started talking again February of last year right around Super Bowl. All the changes and whatever growth that was supposed to happen happened, and we got married in May.

Congrats to the happy couple!

You can catch Maria Taylor on this season of NBA Countdown.

Featured image by Joe Faraoni/ ESPN Images

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