Girls Sports Month: ESPN's Maria Taylor on the invaluable role of athletics

March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.

Maria Taylor on the set of SEC Nation (Photo: Phil Ellsworth, ESPN Images)

Maria Taylor has seen the sports world up close as a two-sport athlete at the University of Georgia and now as a studio host and sideline reporter for ESPN. 

Taylor is the host of ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA Women’s Tournament and the Women’s Final Four. She also has been a studio host and sideline reporter for college football on the SEC Network and was the main sideline reporter for ESPN2’s prime-time Saturday football broadcasts in 2013. 

She was a two-sport athlete at the University of Georgia and was named All-SEC three times in volleyball. 

MORE: Elite athletes share Girls Sports Month thoughts

Q: How did sports become a part of your life?

A: I had a brother who was four years older than me. He played soccer, baseball and absolutely everything. A lot of times I was following him around and trying to play with the boys. My first actual sport was tennis. I loved it. It was individual lessons. I remember being out on the tennis court at 4 or 5 and loving my coach and loving being around other little girls playing tennis. The next thing was softball. I started playing basketball in fifth grade.

We lived in Chicago for 10 years and then moved to Georgia going into sixth grade. I used it as a way to make friends when we moved. My next door neighbor asked me to play in a church league with her. In volleyball, I started playing in ninth grade. I wanted to get out of some of the conditioning for basketball and a lot of my friends that played basketball with me in high school were going to play so we all just went out for the team despite having never played before. We ended up loving that, too.

Q: Given that you played two sports in college, I am going to guess that you are in favor of playing multiple sports.

A: I think it’s important that you play everything as long as you can because you don’t know what your body is going to be like when you’re 13. I was still growing when I got to college. I was going to be super lean and long. By the time, I was in high school I was in more average height before I shot up.

The same thing could have happen in basketball. You could spend your middle school years into ninth grade to be a post, but then by high school you end up the same height as everyone else. Maybe you might have been better off as a libero in volleyball or playing soccer or field hockey. If you shut it down too soon, that’s not going to be possible.

I’m really glad I did both. You meet a whole new group of people, too. You have to learn to get along with a bunch of different crowds and how do you blend into different groups while still being a leader and standing out. It’s good way to get out of your comfort zone. It’s a good way to keep pushing and challenging yourself. It’s a good way to work different muscle groups. Volleyball made me more explosive for basketball and basketball helped my endurance for basketball. They cross-train each other a lot.

Maria Taylor and Andy Landers take a selfie on the set of ESPN Big Monday (Photo: Melissa Rawlins, ESPN Images)

Q: How do think athletics can empower young women?

A: I’ll do the negative and then the positives.

The problem, especially in elite Division I sports, is that the athletes are coddled and hands are held a lot. When they get into the real world, they’ve never had a job.  … A lot of times I see women who finish up school, were an athlete and were super independent, strong and confident in that sport but as soon as it’s taken away by injury or it’s time to move on, they are not sure what to do. I think sports can hinder women in that way when they go in to start a corporate career or figure out what they want to do next. You don’t have enough time, you’re constantly training. You end up only talking to the people in athletics so you don’t have that exposure that other college students have.

On the positive side, it also teaches you how to deal with adversity. I’ve seen other people have their worlds rocked when something goes wrong. But if you’re an athlete, you’ve dealt with a losing streak or a shooting slump, to a certain extent you have a confidence about yourself. You don’t always need to be told, “Good job,” because you see the results from the hard work and effort you’ve put in. Your work ethic is already there.  … I know that a lot of student-athletes will work really hard wherever they go because they want to be successful. They want that same feeling they got when they broke a record or score 30 in a game. That is instilled in them.

Q: How did you end up in broadcasting?

A: My teammate came in majoring in broadcasting. She came to school knowing what she wanted to do. I didn’t come in knowing what I wanted to do. … I took a journalism class and loved it. I interned my senior year. (Women’s basketball coach Andy Landers) called and asked if I was interested in playing my senior year and I couldn’t because I had an internship that spring for Fox Sports Atlanta. The opportunity opened at the time to work for Georgia on IMG College. They were launching a website and it was going to be a lot of videos and practice reports and women’s basketball shows and they wanted me to do radio for women’s basketball.

I had a chance to go overseas to play volleyball after graduation and I went back and forth on it. Coach Landers ended up seeing the video and I went to talk to him. He always just tells you the truth, just like it is. “You can go overseas and play around for a couple of years to avoid the inevitable or you can start doing what you’re meant to be doing right now. I think that’s what you should do.”

I stayed in Georgia and worked in Athens. Now I was covering my teammates and that was a little difficult, but it ended up working out and getting some jobs with Comcast Sport South. ESPNU one of the producers I met at media days for football in Birmingham, he saw my tape and put my on five volleyball games and gave me one horrible football game, like Arkansas vs. Central Arkansas, and every year I’ve been doing a little more since then. Better games, different packages, more women’s basketball or more hosting.

Q: What are your broadcasting goals?

A: I want to get to being at the highest level of every sport, the Super Bowl or Wimbledon. Doing women’s basketball and working the Final Four is like, “Yes, I’ve made it to the highest level of women’s basketball coverage and being at the national championship game and hosting halftime.” I want the same thing for football.

My goal is to be hosting a prime-time ESPN road show, whether it’s College GameDay or something similar. I don’t necessarily want to do news and information like SportsCenter.  I like to where a crowd is behind you, an event is going on, maybe doing halftime of the event.

I’d also like to potentially do morning shows. I love sports but if one day, I wanted to do more than sports than I want to get into a morning show either on a network or even if it’s more local like in Atlanta or Charlotte.

Maria Taylor reviews her notes during a break (Photo: Melissa Rawlins, ESPN Images)

Q: How has your athletic background helped you as a broadcaster?

A: It’s huge. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I didn’t play volleyball. The reason I got my first on-air job is because Comcast SportsSouth needed a volleyball analyst. …  Women’s basketball is on TV so much and they need an analyst for all of them, which means they would like to have a former player. I always say to athletes that there are so many opportunities out there, especially with the dawn of all the SEC and ACC Networks.

If you want to do is be in sports broadcasting, use your background to help you. It’s your resume, it’s your credentials, it’s your foot in the door.

It also helps me when I walk into a room of men’s basketball coaches or players to say, yeah, I played at Georgia, and so on. It helps build some instant credibility. Maybe for somebody who didn’t play, it would take another second to build that bond. I’ve had so many conversations with coaches and players that have centered around, “What did you do?” because I’m 6-2. It created a bond.

Q: What message would you share with young girls about the value of sport?

A: Athletics are invaluable. As you go through it, you don’t realize the number of lessons you are learning or the way playing that sport is changing your life. It is teaching you how to be confident. It is teaching you how hard work does pay off. It is teaching you how you get out of life what you put in it. If you set a goal, go to the gym and practice and hold yourself accountable, you will have success.

You will learn you’re more valuable than your looks or whether you have a boyfriend. I can be good with or without anybody. If I have a daughter, she has to play a sport. I don’t care what it is. I want her to find her value in something other than just her body or the way she is portrayed in the media. I want her to go out and physically accomplish something and feel good about that.

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