Maria Taylor is one of ESPN's brightest on-air talents and is currently hosting the NBA Finals.
The 34-year-old broadcaster spoke to Insider about her rise at ESPN and prioritizing versatility.
Taylor also discussed the "tremendous responsibility" she carries as a Black woman in her position.
Maria Taylor is the Swiss Army knife of sports reporting.
She does it all. The 34-year-old megawatt on-air talent for ESPN is currently hosting coverage of the NBA Finals alongside her "NBA Countdown" colleagues, but she's balanced a host of additional responsibilities for the network throughout the NBA season.
Taylor reported for ABC's "Saturday Night Football" and the Heisman Trophy Presentation in addition to the College Football Playoff Semifinals and National Championship games. She worked as an analyst on "College GameDay" while also acting as the studio host of the NCAA Women's Basketball Selection Special, NCAA Women's Basketball Championship, Women's Final Four, and NFL Draft.
All in all, she's covered men's and women's college basketball, college football, college volleyball, NBA, and NFL events across ESPN and ABC. Needless to say, she's become a known entity across the sports world - one who is widely beloved by fans.
Insider spoke to Taylor about her meteoric rise in the sports media space and prioritizing versatility as a reporter and broadcaster. She also discussed the "tremendous responsibility" of being "a Black woman in my position," a topic that became all the more relevant after The New York Times reported that Rachel Nichols - host of ESPN NBA show "The Jump" - was caught on video suggesting that Taylor hosted last year's NBA Finals coverage because the network was "feeling pressure" on diversity.
This interview took place prior to the Times' article release and has been slightly edited for clarity.
You've become one of the leading voices at ESPN and one of its most recognizable on-air talents. How did your career develop into what it is today?
It's funny because I never - like this wasn't the dream. The biggest dream I could have lived was being at the women's volleyball Final Four doing sidelines or something for that. And then working the women's basketball tournament. I was like, if I could get an opportunity to host the tournament or be at the final four in some way, that's the dream.
But that's what I grew up watching; as a former student-athlete and playing college sports, that was it. And the reason I got into broadcasting is because our volleyball matches would be on TV every now and then. I was able to meet the broadcasters, and I was like, "Oh, someone gets paid to just like, talk about the games and sit up there and have a conversation about the team and talk to us. That's what I want to do!"
So it evolved into getting to talk about football, too, and allowed me to work on the NBA. I never imagined all of these things happening, and it's been a really big blessing, but it's always - it's bigger than anything that I could have imagined coming into the situation when I was working for ESPNU or doing my first like Iowa state volleyball match on ESPNU.
How did you transition from your early days on the volleyball sidelines at ESPNU to working your way up the ranks at the network?
I think a big part of it was I also had a chance to do women's volleyball analyst work. So then that kind of transitioned into being able to do the sidelines for women's volleyball games. And I had done some work with Comcast Sports South and the SEC Game of the Week, but it was like the last game on the schedule. So it might be Vanderbilt and Buffalo.
And the year before me, Allison Williams was actually on that game. She went over to ESPN, and then, literally the next year, I took her game, and then I got brought on. So I think that they all maybe looked at it a little bit as a feeder.
And so I was already working a little bit with ESPN but in a different division. And then I was doing a little bit of SEC football, and they were like, "You know what? We can get you a package!" And that's when really honestly getting on the platform that college football is and the attention to detail and emphasis that ESPN puts on college football is what took my career to the next level. I'll always be appreciative of the sport.
A lot of the on-air talent at ESPN specializes in a single sport. You cover a whole array of different sports and still do a bunch of different events. How do you transition between sports and leagues, and what is the appeal of doing so?
The big thing for me is I've always wanted to be versatile in the same way that as an athlete, you know, you don't want to be pigeonholed into one thing. So it started out with the goal of just being able to be a reporter, but also be a host, you know, just in case.
And early in my career at SEC Network, we really had to do it all - there was no host. We were doing women's basketball, men's basketball - it just absolutely did not matter. And to me, sport is sport, and I'm passionate about it in general.
I know the impact it had on my life. I know the impact it can have on everyone else's, and I think that every sport deserves to be covered in a way that is respectful to the game. So I'm excited to do the women's basketball tournament just as much as I am at the NBA finals as much as I am to be at the national championship for football.
All of those things bring me joy, and I enjoy all of them. So I definitely never wanted to be pigeonholed. I always thought that one thing I wanted to be versatile. I wanted my bosses to believe they could put me in any situation in any sport, and I would be able to at least hold it down.
What influence did going to school at Georgia - a prominent football school - have on your journey to this point?
First of all, being a student-athlete in the SEC, the number of opportunities that you get is unreal. I'm sure it's like that at any Power Five school, but I feel like I was given all the tools and opportunities. Not only that, but I was coming up in 2014 when the SEC Network was launching. So to be able to have had the launching pad of college football and the SEC Network. So that means that I got to host full time on a 24-hour network.
That comes from going to Georgia. They wanted to have people that were affiliated with the league, and so I recognize how much those roots have helped me grow throughout my career. Without some of those deep roots in the SEC or at Georgia, maybe it looks different. But it certainly worked out because I'm now able to host the NBA Finals. If I didn't cut my teeth in hosting the SEC Network and host the SEC softball tournament, I wouldn't have been ready or prepared for the rest.
You spoke at Georgia graduation this year. Was that a full-circle moment for you?
That is a high point in my career. To me, nothing can top it. I got to stand in the same place that I was about a decade ago and where my grandmother literally couldn't walk on the campus, and dedicate my entire graduation speech to her. That's why it was even bigger than just being an alumna. It's like the entire legacy of my bloodline was building up to this moment to allow me to stand on that stage and deliver that message.
My mom was in tears. She couldn't stop crying that night. My grandma passed away about nine years ago, and she was like, 'There's nothing else you can do. You can't make me prouder than you just did.' And I feel that way in my heart and soul.
If I did nothing else in my career and I went home, like I would point to that moment as the climax of my career. So that's how much it meant to me, honestly.
You've come up as a young Black woman and become a key force in a space that's still overwhelmingly dominated by white men. What advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps on how to overcome industry obstacles to get there?
I recognize that it's a tremendous responsibility to be a Black woman in my position and, you know, have the roles and the opportunities that I have. I understand that I need to excel, and I need to come prepared and be knowledgeable because it's opening up the door for the next generation.
But what I try to tell women and what I try to tell women of color is to look at your difference as more like ... it's one thing that is going to propel you forward. Yes, you don't look like everyone else, but because of that, you stand out. Not even standing out, but shining; it's a glow for you. And if you take ownership of that, you're going to see things differently.
And your verbiage might be a little bit different. I had to learn that. I remember taking over for Joe Tessitore when he hosted SEC Nation, and I was going back and was trying to watch his show. I remember thinking like, I can't be Joe - that's not my personality. And maybe that means that I'm going to be terrible at this. And you know, I talked to him on the phone, and he told me, he was like, "Just be yourself. You have this job for a reason - just be who you are."
And being who I am is a young Black female, every day. I can't walk away from that. I bring that - my full self - to every single set that I've been on. And I think it's important to have that there. I always really, really stress that what makes you different really sets you apart. And it can just be the one thing that ends up making you special.
I used to compare it to being tall all through high school; as a girl, you hate it. But then I got a scholarship because of it. It's the one thing that propelled me to not have to pay for college. So you just never know what that one thing is for you and just don't feel bad about it being a big difference or standing out.
It's refreshing to see different perspectives on television and in this space. For so long, we've looked at everything in one way because everyone has come from a similar background. And there are things that you're going to bring to the table and reporting that, for example, Jay Williams couldn't or Jalen Rose couldn't.
When I'm on the sidelines, I think the guys think I'm like an aunty or something - and that's fine. Like, no, we're cousins, we're friends. I call moms all the time, and they're texting me and checking in. There's this family feeling that you get, especially when I've done college football. I feel like that's what sets me apart and allows me to really get into smaller spaces because I look like some of the people that I'm covering. I look like their sister, or I look like their aunt or their cousin, and that's really helped me along the way.
You do an excellent job of asking questions that elicit thoughtful responses from players during sideline or postgame interviews. What do you think elicits those responses? Is it the familiarity component you just spoke to?
Everyone always thinks it's the interview, but it's all the moments leading up to that. It's getting to practice and staying after to talk to a couple of players; it's spending time with the assistant coaches or hopping on a call with the assistant coaches and getting to know what that player is really like; it's talking to moms and dads - I talk to everyone's sisters and brothers and get pictures from them.
It's [the players] just knowing that you care. And so that puts them at ease. They know that, okay, this person actually knows where I'm coming from. They know where I've been. And usually, it's in a moment of some kind of celebration, or it's when we're talking about really hard things, they're going to be honest and truthful because they know that I understand what they've been through. And that's really the key.
The key is just doing the work - going back and understanding the history of the player and who they are. And that's what I love to do. I love having conversations. That's why I do this, honestly. And that's one of the best parts of the job.
How do you find the time to do all of that?
*Laughs* During football season, it's a little bit easier, I guess. I don't know. I feel like there's more time during the week.
Usually, it's like Monday, I'm hitting up the sports information department trying to get players on the phone. And then once I talk to players, usually we get to something their mom or dad said, and I get mom and dad's number and talk to them and get into it.
And you know, even when they get into the league, I still hear from them. They'll come and shadow me. The relationship doesn't end after they graduate. And I feel like that's a testament to the work that you put in to build that relationship.
We've talked about how you pay it forward to others - specifically to women and people of color trying to break into the sports media space. Who helped you to break through early on, and who have your mentors been since?
For me growing up, the goalpost was Robin Roberts, Lisa Salters, Pam Oliver. Yeah. Those are like the three Queens that you bow down to and see on everything.
I remember thinking that Robin was a very versatile anchor. You could put her in any situation, and she was great. And then she went to GMA, and everything about her was authentic. I think that's what I took from her: authenticity.
From Lisa Salters, what I took is her ability to dig deep. She always helped you understand the story, her information was on point. She had a news background, and I envied that about her. And then Pam Oliver - just the longevity of her career. The ability to be in the NFL for that long and be the first and withstand any windfall or storm that comes her way is just incredible.
Those are probably the three that I most looked up to. Robin's been great when I needed a conversation or I needed advice. She's always been like, 'My phone is open - text me, call me, anything that you need.' And that's been amazing. And of course, you have like sisters in general. Like Elle Duncan, we talk all the time. You just have a support system that you build as time goes on.
How do you think the industry as a whole can take steps forward on the diversity front, aside from relying upon people like yourself to look over their shoulders and reach a hand back to help the next person?
I think the biggest key to increasing diversity is you have to make it accessible. And to me, that's why whenever I'm on a college campus, I usually have students shadowing me. Usually, it's a woman of color, or it's a former player because I just want them to know that this isn't impossible. This isn't a glass-encased job in which there are no access points, which is what it feels like a lot of times.
There aren't a lot of bridges that are built for people of color; they grow up in a certain neighborhood, their parents are not the GM or the managers of this and that, they don't always work in the industry. So how do they get their foot in the door? And if I can be the foot in the door, then I'm going to do that as much as I can.
If you know Darien Rencher, he plays at Clemson and has one more season, but he shadowed NBA Countdown because I wanted him to see this is accessible. This is what it looks like. If this is what you want to do, you can. I just think that that is so important - and it's not easy, I get it.
It's all about finding the candidate pool and connecting the dots. But I really think that right now is the time to open it up a little bit. It's when we're on campuses, it's sharing our story; it's letting people know what they need to do to gain access it. You know, not everyone can have an internship where they get paid next-to-nothing and live in New York - it's just not possible. So making the opportunity for more [people] is going to be the difference.
And you never know what your impact is going to be. You never know who's going to see you or hear from you or if you're going to change their mind. And now this is something they're interested in. With every person pulling in the same direction, we can go hundreds of miles together.
What's next for you in your career?
I'm certainly very happy about where I am. Doing what I do brings me joy. Talking about sports and at the level that I get to do it at - it's something that I never thought I would be able to. So everyday, I wake up and feel like I'm blessed, and I get to go to work.
But I do want to explore getting more into content creation, telling more stories about women in sports, making sure that our voices are heard for people of color, and what ways can I just make sure that I'm being impactful. And I think that that starts with getting more into production role and trying to figure that out, but that's the only other thing that I know that I have a thirst and a hunger for - just trying to create a little bit more.
Well, where you are right now is hosting the NBA Finals. Do you have any predictions for who will come out on top?
Well, listen, I really enjoy it every step of the way. And every time I've made a prediction, it's completely wrong, so I'm done with them. I leave it to Jay Will and Jalen.
But I will say that one of the best environments that I've been in for NBA basketball, in general, has been this Phoenix team. The 18,000 fans strong, they're there a couple of hours before the game, they're into it the entire game.
And it's just been fun to be back in arenas. We've been in a studio in New York, like cooped up. We didn't go to the bubble. It seems like in two years, this is our first time leaving. So it's just been great that one of the environments we get to see happens to be Phoenix and how excited their fans are to be back in the arena and some of their performances that we've seen. So it's just cool to be back.
I would also definitely just want to say that I love my "NBA Countdown" crew. One thing that I've enjoyed is that I've always thought that "College GameDay" was like a family. I feel like on "NBA Countdown," we too are a family. And that's been something that's also great to have, especially because we've dealt with a lot of turmoil together.
We've dealt with COVID together. We've dealt with Milwaukee deciding not to have a game when Jacob Blake was shot. The number of things that we've had to address - Jalen dealing with, he just lost his mother, and it's his first Mother's Day. There's so many things that we've gone through together that's brought us closer.
I think ultimately that made the show better. It's cool that the way that it's about to end that we get to be on the road. Who cares where we're going to be, but that we're finally back in arenas and getting to take the family show on the road.
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