The shrinking fraternity of ex-NFL players working in local TV took another hit when a charter member moved to the news desk earlier this year. WCAU Philadelphia’s Vai Sikahema called it, fittingly, a “game changer” when he switched to coanchoring morning news. With NFL alums increasingly aspiring to the networks’ football teams, and sports getting reduced playing time at stations, the former pro footballers toiling in local TV get more rare with each season.
The likes of KCBS Los Angeles’ Jim Hill, WFOR Miami’s Kim Bokamper, WTVJ Miami’s Joe Rose, KTVT Dallas’ Babe Laufenberg and KYW Philadelphia’s Beasley Reece may be wondering why the next generation of NFL vets isn’t following them into the station world. “Sports within the confines of local newscasts has diminished in recent years,” says Ron Turner, VP at Frank N. Magid Associates, “though that’s been more than offset by the explosion of sports-related programming on multiple platforms.”
Turner singles out ESPN, where a relatively telegenic jock can usually find work as an analyst. Emails one talent manager: “Seems they go right to the network these days!”
Picking Up Poynters
Sikahema, a former Eagle, Cardinal and Packer, says he was considering retiring when NBC management approached him about making the switch. He notes the challenge of filling a few hours each day, as opposed to a few minutes, and tackling tougher topics. He spent a week in early August at the Poynter Institute in Florida, working on aspects of his game such as delivery and writing. “Anchoring the news is a whole new deal,” he says. “I love every minute of it.”
It’s a challenging transition for Sikahema, but no more so than making the switch from player to reporter two decades ago—especially when he was covering his old Eagles team. “Some guys did see me as the enemy,” he says. “It took a while for me to realize that we could be friends, but not be buddy-buddy like we used to be.”
After 20-plus years in broadcasting, Bokamper still feels like a fish out of water in his old Dolphins’ clubhouse. “It’s probably my most uncomfortable place to be,” he says. “I knew what that space means to those guys.”
Some wonder if today’s players, earners of massive salaries relative to their predecessors, are less willing to do the hard work of local sports reporting—working a beat, writing, assembling packages—when they can simply speak their minds on the topic of the day as a network pundit. “Not to take anything away from them, but it’s a lot less work than doing all the things you have to do in the local market,” says Bokamper.
It is shaping up to be a particularly newsy NFL season, between Michael Sam, head injuries and Ray Rice’s domestic violence case. As such, Sikahema may still end up talking about sports as a news anchor. “The NFL continues to transcend the sports page and ESPN,” he says. “You’re finding it on the front page, in the first block of news.”
While the likes of Tony Gonzalez (CBS) and Tedy Bruschi (ESPN), among many others, are perfectly happy kicking it around on network TV, some on the local side feel they’re on the right team too. “I know where I can make the best impact on the city where I live,” says KCBS sports director Hill. “I learned a long time ago from my good friend Vin Scully: Once you find out what’s good for you, you stay right where you are.”