Jillian Sakovits begins her first season as a host for the Atlanta United LIVE pre- and post-game shows, and as an in-game reporter for Atlanta United telecasts on FOX Sports South and FOX Sports Southeast on Saturday. In addition to Atlanta United, Jillian is a host/reporter for MLS and for the Big Ten Network. You can find her on Twitter @JillianSakovits.
Jillian, along with Kevin Egan and Dan Gargan, will be calling the game on Saturday as Atlanta take on Vancouver Whitecaps FC - coverage starts at 7:00 p.m. ET with Atlanta United LIVE on FOX Sports South. Before that, though, she made the stunning lapse in judgment of sitting down with our own J. Sam Jones.
J. Sam Jones: How did you get started in sports journalism?
Jillian Sakovits: It really all started because I was a senior in college and I wanted to go down the path of journalism but didn’t think I could break into sports. I had sent emails and email and calls and calls and calls. I had no connections and I just didn’t think it would go anywhere. There was a tv station called News 12 about an hour south from where I lived and I called them up. I just called up the sports director and said: “Do you take interns?” He was great, he ended up being like the father figure mentor during this whole thing and it came from a phone call. He said, “Yes, we take interns,” and I worked as an intern in the spring.
I stayed on as a production assistant and I worked my way up to being an editor to a producer. Over the course of years, they let me be on the air a little bit. I supplemented my income by working overnight for MLB.com, as an editor/producer there. I kind of got my foot in the door at a lot of places.
News 12 was great. They were really like my home base and I’m still there as a fill-in anchor. It’s very very hard to get your first on-air job and I have to owe it all to them because they let me be green in a market that’s only ten miles north of New York City.
So where did soccer come in?
Being an editor for MLB.com, a bunch of those editors went over to a new digital show that the NHL was launching and said “We know a girl whos an editor and who covers the Rangers.” I got a hosting job with the NHL out of that. And it’s just kind of moved on from there. The NHL job folded after a year. I knew MLS was doing a ton of stuff and MLS picked me up after the NHL thing ended and recently I’ve done a little bit for the Big Ten Network. It’s just kind of worked out.
Then last year I got the chance to do a series I kind of created and host for MLS called Beyond the Stands that highlights the good that our supporters, players, and coaches do. Last year we focused on supporters. I got a chance to do Terminus Legion and I was like ‘Everyone is so nice here.’
They’re like, “Jill you have to come back. There are two dollar hot dogs and it’s really packed and this and that.” That was really the first taste that I got of Atlanta. It wasn’t the players or the coaches it was the supporters. I worked with a lot of supporters and it’s rare that you find ones that across the board that are so welcoming and friendly and nice.
The other side of being supporters is being loud and in your face and us against them. I was totally blown away by how nice everyone was in Atlanta. Not that they’re not nice everywhere else, they just had I guess what you’d explain as Southern Hospitality. I had never really experienced that before.
Is that one of your favorite parts of the South? That hospitality?
That’s nothing I had ever really seen before. In MLS when I go to quote, “The South” I go to Dallas or Houston, and they have their own way about them which also kind of falls under friendly.
But Atlanta was so welcoming and so unbelievably nice. And it was the same thing back when Atlanta United made the announcement [that I’d be joining the broadcasts]. You have no idea what to expect when the team announces you and it was just so unbelievably positive.
People always take the time on Twitter to say what they don’t like. But honestly, it was 99.9% like “Oh yeah welcome Jill”. They’d even throw in something they’d seen that I had done that they liked when I’m sure there’s plenty of things that I’ve done that they don’t like, but they took the time to find something positive. That’s something that’s so rare on social media. That has really made the fans stand out to me so far.
I noticed when you mentioned “Southern Hospitality” you mentioned Houston and Dallas but you didn’t mention Orlando. Are you saying Orlando is not the South?
[laughs] (writer’s note: No really, she did, I promise.)
I’m absolutely not saying Orlando is not the South. But you know I don’t think of Florida when you think of Southern hospitality. But I will say the people in Orlando are very nice.
I guess that’s ok. Did you get to go to the game Sunday?
My game Saturday will be my first time at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. [laughs] I’m kind of scared.
It’s intimidating. Not only from the outside but once you get in it looks even more like a spaceship.
Well, when I watched the game on ESPN this weekend I thought “That place looks packed” but I was like “There’s no way they’re beating their postseason record.” But then around the middle of the game Atlanta United put out their final attendance numbers at 72,000. That actually made me feel better because I was like, “Oh, ok, this place is so crazy because it is packed to the max.”
Are you ready for that kind of noise?
Yes, I’m ready.
You know what I really want to say? Everyone talks about the noise at Centurylink Field. Before even my time at MLS you always heard about that in the NFL. But then I covered the Sounders when I first started a lot last season. The soccer noise is exactly the same as you get from the NFL.
I’ve had to go live with our MLS studios from there 20 minutes before the whistle and it’s loud. That’s going to be my barometer. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it matches up with Centurylink.
It sounds like you have a varied background as far as the number of sports you’ve covered. Did you have a soccer background before covering MLS?
MLS really rekindled my love for soccer as a game. It’s the sport I played the best. I played it all through high school. Leading scorer one year. In a class of 85 people per grade but still. I played it from when I was five years old every weekend through high school, but then I played socially in college.
Then it was time to go to work and soccer was not on my radar. At the New York station in 2010, we knew Tommy McNamara was a local kid so we would check in on him once in a while with NYCFC. But other than that I had done nothing professionally with soccer.
What do you think the biggest difference is as in-game reporter going from MLS to say an NHL or Big Ten Network?
When I was at News 12 it was Knicks, Rangers, Iona College and then high school sports. If I was going up to the Knicks or Rangers training facility and I would do 20 minutes of research beforehand and be able to look up facts on facts because everyone was covering it and people were at the training center every day. But if I was going to a high school game I would really start to have to comb through the schedule and have to do a lot of research.
When I started with MLS it wasn’t at that level but it was a lot more preparation. You really had to go look through things because there’s not 20 beat writers for every team in MLS. There’s not game previews done by 7 different sites. There’s more than there was three years ago but it’s not on that scale, so you have to do that work ahead of time.
On the flip side, while you have to do that extra work, there are untold stories which you would never find covering the Knicks. Everyone was going to tell the same story with the same quotes. While there’s a little more work on the front end there’s a lot more opportunity for storytelling. You look at these stories and the paths are so diverse in MLS.
For me, it’s always been easier if I’m sitting down with someone or if I’m in a locker room setting to get quality answers. In sideline reporting it feels very difficult -- especially with pro athletes and coaches -- to get a quality answer out of someone who may be trying to just get to the locker room. What’s your approach to getting a decent answer out of these people?
That can be very tough. I think a lot of what I’ve done in the past is more than just sideline reporting. For MLS we’re doing reporting, we’re doing hits all pre-game and then you take a step back and then come back post-game. You’re still looking for the same kind of answers.
I think the key is sounding confident for one. When you act confident or assertive, very often people can pick up on that.
Second, in MLS it’s a small world. As soon as I got a season under my belt and I had seen this coach three times and I’ve seen this player and I wasn’t just walking up to them, that helped immensely. As much as I want to act like I can say something differently than what I said a year ago, it really was the face time that made a difference.
It was people saying, “Oh, ok, you’re not just showing up once. You really care about our league.” It’s them knowing they can trust you. They’re going to give you a much better answer if they feel like they can trust you.
The best advice I’ve gotten is that sometimes the best question *is* how do you feel you guys played in that half. Other times you do go more in depth and say you guys really changed your formation in that half and that allowed you to do X, Y, Z. The key is knowing when do you ask the simple question and when do you really dive into the tactics.
Have you gotten the face time with Atlanta United yet where you feel like you have that trust?
I feel like that will come. I feel like I already have it with the supporters. I probably know Darlington Nagbe the best of the players and he probably knows Atlanta the least.
The face time will come though. I’m going to training on Friday and I think something as simple as that makes a big difference. That was something that was really important to me before the first game was to see the players before they just see me asking them questions.
Which person associated with the team are you most excited to interact with on a regular basis?
I knew you were going to ask that and I kind of feel like it’s a little bit of everybody. But, I feel like the scope of Tata makes him my pick.
As a coach, he’s changed the landscape. My coworker Calen Carr put it so well. He’s a proven coach who has coached the best. He’s coached Messi, he’s coached all these guys, so if he goes and tells a young South American kid and says “Trust me, this team and this league is a good move for you.” He’s able to do that. He has that on a continent where we in MLS maybe didn’t have that clout before. I’m excited to be around him and see him interact with the guys.
Speaking of Tata, he’s not fluent in English. Are you able to communicate in Spanish?
I’m not Spanish speaking. It’s going to be a learn and tell kind of deal. That’s not new in soccer.
You look at teams across the world and there are teammates that can’t perhaps communicate in the same language and they find a way to get it done and we will too. How that’s going to happen is to be determined. Our plan right now is the goalkeeper’s coach [Aron Hyde] is English speaking and he’s going to be my liaison for what’s going on.
Have you been able to interact with Kevin Egan and Dan Gargan yet?
I have! Kevin actually called me a few hours ago while I was in the lobby waiting to get my taxes done. We have a group chat already. They’re trying to get me to workout and play soccer with them which we are definitely going to do.
We just heard the weather will be bad in Atlanta on Saturday so we may not be playing pick up but we had planned on it.
Dan and I worked together when he had just finished up with the Galaxy when he had just finished playing and he was just kind of getting his feet wet in broadcast., so we’ve already worked together. It was my first season of MLS coverage and his first going from being a player to broadcast. Me, him and Kevin have been chatting a lot and we will all get together on Friday.
What’s been your worst and best moment as a reporter?
I’m not going to say who but -- and this goes back to always triple checking your stuff -- I did ask a coach about winning MLS Cup and the Supporters Shield as a player and as a coach and he was like, “Jill, I never won MLS Cup as a player.” He was very cool about it but I shouldn’t have asked that. I learned that if you’re not completely sure at the time just don’t say it.
My favorite MLS moment *was* my first MLS Cup, but my new favorite moment is going to be Saturday!
We play Vancouver Saturday of course. They’re very very tall. Can you play center back and are you above 6-foot-2, possibly?
[laughs] (writer’s note: No really, she did, stop questioning it.)
I can play center back but I don’t think in this game.
I think we’re going to be fine though. I would worry about them but what I think is cool about this game is it’s two opposite styles coming together. Vancouver is going to sit back and wait for you to mess up and then cash in on it. I’m very interested to see how this one breaks down tactically.
Who is your favorite Atlanta United player and why is it Jeff Larentowicz?
Ummm why is that yours?
I want you to follow up with me on that question. You can call me Saturday at like 9:30 p.m. I can’t make that call yet. I need to see who’s a good quote. I need to see who will talk at training. I can’t say anything yet when I haven’t met them. I’m equal opportunity.
Who’s your favorite musical artist?
The best OutKast song is?
Hey Ya. I’ve done it on karaoke like 12 times.
Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Is a pop tart ravioli?
Describe your perfect Sunday.
It’s nice out. I’m able to get out of bed before any games start. I buy an iced coffee -- no matter what time of year I drink iced coffee and I drink it 365 days a year. I would feel great if I went on a hike. And then, I like cooking so chill out and make some food and watch whatever game is on whatever time of the year it is. If it’s this time of the year, MLS, but in fall I’ll mix a little NFL in. A Minnesota Vikings game is what I would turn on while swapping a little MLS in.
You have to pick three people in MLS to help you survive the zombie apocalypse. Who do you pick?
I think I would pick Clint Dempsey. Whenever you really need him...he’s there. I’m gonna put Tata in there because look what he’s done as a coach. And then I’m gonna go with my bestie Susannah Collins from MLS Digital.
At least I’ll have someone to hang out with if everyone is dead.