SVG Sit-Down: Fox Sports North’s Vanessa Lambert on Her First Season as Minnesota Timberwolves Lead Producer
It was an exciting season, extending coverage five games into the NBA playoffs
Last month, the Minnesota Timberwolves made the NBA Playoffs for the first time since the 2003-04 season, with an overtime win against the Denver Nuggets in the final game of the regular season. That game was Fox Sports North’s most-watched Timberwolves game ever, in a season that netted ratings that were up 78% year over year. Despite the Timberwolves’ falling to the Houston Rockets in five games during the first round, the 2017-18 season was undoubtedly a success for both the team and Fox Sports North.
The 2017-18 season was also Vanessa Lambert’s first full season as lead producer. One of only two female lead producers in the NBA (Jil Gossard-Cook covers the Atlanta Hawks for Fox Sports Southeast), Lambert rose through the ranks at Fox Sports North and has excelled in her new position at the helm of its Timberwolves coverage.
SVG caught up with the Michigan State alum (and Spartans superfan) to discuss her career path in TV production, her experiences this season as lead producer, and the advice she would give young women looking to break into the industry.Tell me about yourself and your career path. How did you become lead producer? Was this something you always wanted to do?
I always knew that I wanted to be in TV, on the production side of things. My uncle is a director for ESPN — and has been for 20-plus years. When I was growing up outside of Detroit, ESPN/ABC had the National Hockey League, and the Red Wings were one of the best teams in hockey. They were always on national TV, always in the playoffs, so my uncle was in town a lot, and I would go down and hang out in the truck during games. Sometimes, my mom would let me skip school and go hang out for the day. So I got exposed to the sports-production world and the live-production world in the truck in middle school and high school. I decided that’s what I want to do.
I went to Michigan State and majored in journalism and then got an internship one summer with Fox Sports Detroit. Once I finished school, I was hired as a production assistant there, and I’ve essentially been in the Fox family ever since. My boss that hired me in Detroit took a promotion and moved to Minnesota about nine months after I officially started working there as a production assistant. He called me a few months later and said, The job is yours if you want it out in Minnesota. I decided to make the move. I figured I’d be there maybe three or four years and then I’d have to move to somewhere else to take the next steps in my career. Luckily, I’ve run into situations where people have left, which has created opportunities for me to go from production assistant to associate producer to producer. That’s how I got to where I am now.
This past season was your first full season as lead producer. How was that experience, and was it what you expected?
The biggest adjustment for me was doing it every day. I was the fill-in person before, so I would probably do 20-25 games a year. This year, I ended up doing around 65, so it was a little bit of an adjustment. I think the big thing for me is traveling, or feeling like I’m packing my suitcase all the time. But, from a working perspective, it was really good.
I think it was everything I expected and more. Our Timberwolves group is very close-knit; we joke around, but it’s true: we are a family. We spend a lot of time together, especially over the winter. I mean, you spend more time with your crew when you’re traveling than with your own family — probably for a good six months out of the season. It was an easy adjustment to me. I’d obviously worked with that group before, so they made it pretty comfortable for me to jump in and take over and were very helpful with whatever I needed.
Were you able to put your own spin on the production or change anything up?
Nothing too crazy. The NBA changed its format this year, just as far as commercial breaks and all that, so we [had] two fewer commercial breaks than we normally did. We do so many sales [elements] out of break, so we didn’t really change [anything this season]. My boss decided to keep it this way for now, and we’ll see how it goes and whether we need to change anything.
This season, you even got a few playoff games. How did that experience differ from the regular season?
It was definitely different. It was almost a little baseball-esque in that you’re covering the same team for five games. In basketball, you’re so used to playing a different team every single day; [in the playoffs,] you’re cultivating storylines throughout the series. It was crazy. I kind of wish I was in the arena for some of it just to get that atmosphere. Honestly, we kind of had a playoff game to get into the playoffs, because, in that game against Denver on the last night of the season, whatever team won was making the playoffs. and the other team was going home. And then, of course, it goes to overtime. That game was crazy; it was pretty intense.
From a national perspective, it’s good seeing other people there covering your team, so the playoffs were fun, that’s for sure. It would have been nice beating the Rockets, but good luck beating the Rockets!
What is it about producing that you most enjoy? Find most challenging?
I think what I enjoy the most is, it’s not a normal 9-5 job. You’re doing something different every single day. My role on the broadcast is the same. That doesn’t really change, but you’re covering different storylines, different teams — especially in the winter, when it’s changing all the time. You’re covering your team that you know well, and you’re also covering the opposition that you don’t necessarily see on a daily basis, so you get a little more opportunity to talk the game and things like that. And then, there’s only so much you can actually prepare for; the rest is just reacting to what’s happening in front of you. I appreciate that it’s constantly changing and, every day, it’s something different, and you just have to be willing to react quickly and hope that you made the right decision. Sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t, but I think what I enjoy the most is that it’s so different every single day. There’s a little bit [that’s the same when preparing for each game,] but, once the game starts, anything goes.
What advice would you give to young women — and men — who might be looking to pursue a similar career path in TV production?
It’s not a surprise to anyone or breaking news that sports is very male-dominated, which is OK, but don’t let anyone intimidate you. A lot of the pressure that I felt going into it, I put on myself. Luckily, I never have really encountered anyone who questioned my ability or my knowledge in this business because I am a male. But I also knew that, if I wanted to do what I’m doing now, I was going to have to put work first and make it a priority because I didn’t want to slip up and I didn’t want anyone to question what I was doing.
It’s not something that women can’t do, and I don’t necessarily think a lot of people [think that, because] a woman didn’t play, she doesn’t know enough about it. You can learn the game at any point in time. Do I see the game as well as other people [who have played basketball] might? No, but neither do the men in our truck that didn’t play at a professional level. I think you might run into some people along the way that question your knowledge and your ability, and sometimes, especially for me being on the road, people on the crew or around in the truck [might be surprised when I say that] I’m the producer. Sometimes, it takes them aback a little bit, but there are other female producers out there, which is good.
If women want to get into sports, do it. It’s great. Don’t feel the pressure from anyone, because it’s so male-dominated, that you can’t do it. You have to be a headstrong person in TV anyway, so, if you can do that, you can work in sports.
This interview has been condensed and edited.