Young, attractive female sideline reporters are as much a part of NFL game days as an officiating crew, coin flip, and video replay. If anything, television networks are going for even younger. Just ask Atlanta’s Pam Oliver, the veteran reporter who lost her prime-time Fox gig to Erin Andrews in 2014.
But one Fox NFL sideline reporter, Laura Okmin, now in her 40s, has found a new niche within the changing landscape. She is taking it upon herself to help prepare the next wave of young women reporters. Okmin hosts a “boot camp” for aspiring female broadcasters. She has held seven two-day events around the country, coaching young hopefuls on everything from preparing for and executing interviews to attire.
“GALvanize” is coming to Atlanta and Falcons camp July 23-24.
“I had an NFL coach tell me how awkward halftime was,” Okmin said. “He said, ‘This is the most stressful time of our careers, and we’re sent these young women at halftime and we’re down two touchdowns and she is saying things I don’t think she knows what she’s talking about. And when I try to give an answer, I can tell she doesn’t know what I’m saying.’”
Okmin said she realized the extent of the problem when networks kept sending her young reporters to mentor or when she met women working at NFL or Olympic events who had never interviewed athletes or coaches at that level before.
“Fifteen years ago, I was really resentful of the women,” Okmin said. “Thinking, ‘What have you done, how in the world are you here without doing the work?’ And at this good motherly age, I got really protective. Instead of complaining about the direction of women in this business, I started thinking ‘What can I do to help them?’”
The result has been a seminar like she hosted last month at the Minnesota Vikings minicamp. Twelve prospective journalists spent one day preparing for interviews and a second day with Okmin coaching them through them.
“One of the things I told them was to be knowledgeable of your facts, and the players and the people will respect you,’” said Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, a former defensive coordinator for the Falcons, Bengals and Cowboys. “All the young women were very professional. I thought they were educated on the questions they were asking.”
One of Okmin’s primary goals is helping young women find their confidence before they’re thrust into live TV situations.
“Their self-worth isn’t shot for a Sunday, it isn’t shot for a postgame, it’s shot,” Okmin said. “I’m just so thankful that our generation got the time to make our mistakes. We were able to make them smaller.”
Okmin started as a sports reporter in Montgomery, Ala. She worked her way up from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Chicago and then Atlanta. She worked for CNN sports, Turner Sports and Fox SportSouth before landing a job with Fox’s NFL coverage and Westwood One radio.
She loves the built-in network of support her boot camps provide in an otherwise competitive climate.
“I’m really lucky now, at this age, going through some adversity, I’m able to call Pam Oliver, I’m able to call Andrea Kremer,” Okmin said. “I can lean on these women who I have watched battle this (issue) gracefully and with such class. I also know I would have killed to have had them 20 years ago.”
The first day of the Atlanta event will take place in a conference room where the women study and prepare. The second day they will interview Falcons coach Dan Quinn, general manager Thomas Dmitroff and a handful of players. The boot campers will also get to meet other women who work in the Falcons’ front office for exposure to other opportunities for women in sports.
Throughout the experience, Okmin preaches professionalism.
“When people say, ‘What’s she like,’ and they say, ‘She’s a pro,’ it means everything,” Okmin said. “That starts with your wardrobe and it continues with your questions, your preparation, your work ethic, building relationships not sources, and how you treat other people.”
Yes, wardrobe is a big part of their conversation, even leading to the boot camp. Okmin said some women will ask what they should wear before the seminar and bring potential outfits to try.
Okmin said she tells her students one of the first things PR directors and players suggest she impart to young women is advice about what to wear in locker rooms.
“What most players say is, ‘When a new woman walks into the locker room, we look to see what she’s wearing and that tells us how she wants us to view her,’” Okmin said. “I’m not telling them cover up, but I’m asking, ‘What message are you sending as you walk in? How do you want to be perceived?’”
She also stresses that the young women be themselves. Okmin prides herself on being the same way on camera and off, during a sideline report, radio broadcast, or sitting beside somebody on an airplane.
“The trick is starting to feel so good about yourself, you’re just able to be who you are,” Okmin said. “I think that’s a great lesson if you’re 22 or you’re 42 or you’re 52.”
She coaches her students on how to be conversational during interviews and how to establish working relationships with players and coaches. That’s one of her greatest accomplishments given the heavy-hitters she’s lined up for her boot camps around the NFL.
But for Okmin, her own takeaway from the boot camp is just as rewarding. She has already checked off so many career goals like becoming a reporter, hosting a show, and executive producing a show (“Profile” about NFL personalities off the field.)
“I’ve always had my passion, and I love this business, because it’s given me so much,” Okmin said. “But not having kids, my purpose has always been about me getting better. Now I feel like I’m on to something (by helping others): when your passion and your purpose are aligned it’s pretty awesome. It’s been wonderful.”