In this episode, we discuss how Amanda got started with broadcasting, joining the Callaway and CBS Sports teams, challenges she’s faced, the fun, excitement and innovation she has been apart of in her career and wraps up with a round of 5 questions in 50 seconds.
Hello everyone, Tom Brassell here. Thanks so much for joining us. Glad you’re with us. First time or long time. Doesn’t matter. We are just so happy that you joined us and especially so today. Our guest joins us from out in sunny California. You know her as the host of Callaway Live and also the interviewer of Post-Round Play for CBS Golf! And she joins us today courtesy of our friends at Callaway Golf, Ms. Amanda Balionis. Amanda, thanks so much for joining us. It’s great to have you with us.
Amanda Balionis: Hi. Thank you so much for having me!
Tom Brassell: Amanda, if you don’t mind, could you share with our audience a little bit about how you got started. How you fell in love with broadcast journalism and the sports side and how everything came to fruition.
Amanda Balionis: Yeah, you know, it’s funny because I never in a million years thought I would end up in the golf industry. I grew up on a golf course. My parents are golf fanatics. My grandparents met on a golf course, so it’s been in my life forever. And I think because of that I always pushed it away a little bit. As most kids do when your parents try to push something on you. So I actually, I knew I always wanted to be in journalism of some sort. I thought for a long, long time that I wanted to be a news reporter and change the world, you know. Really get down and dirty with things happening in our country. And I quickly learned that I was not built for that. The things would upset me. I couldn’t leave really hard news stories at work and come home and still be okay.
So I decided maybe sports is something that I’ve always been passionate about. I played sports my whole life. Junior golf, growing up. I was on swim team in middle school and then picked up volleyball and played that through college. So I actually did a couple internships with the New York Jets and the New York Islanders. And then also with CBS in New York. And that is when I realized I definitely had a passion for television. I definitely had a passion for sports. And I think fusing those two, hopefully, somehow down the road, would work enough where I could support myself. ‘Cause it’s a very challenging industry to try to break into.
I started out, actually, I got a really lucky break. I was working for a newspaper at home part-time. And they, my deal with them was I could do the news, or I could do some sports online, which nobody really had an online presence yet at that point. It was about 2008, and they would let me have free reign of the sports videos that they did online if I would work part-time as a news reporter for them, as a hard-news reporter. So that’s what I did for them, and then I got laid off about six months into it and the day after I got laid off I got a phone call from a Hofstra alumni asking if I’d be interested in coming up and auditioning for a sideline position with Verizon Fios Channel 1, at the time it was called. And my audition was actually a live Princeton football game, as their sideline reporter. And it was kind of a sink-or-swim situation. And it was great.
They hired me for the rest of the season. And from there, I got picked up at MSG network in New York and did every sport, pretty much, except for golf. And then in 2011, the PGA tour called and said “We’ve seen your demo. Would you be interested in coming down to Florida and maybe auditioning for us?” And at that time, I think it was January in New York, so it was about three feet of snow on the ground. I flew down to Florida, it was 75 and sunny, and I said “You know, I don’t know a ton about the PGA tour, but I am in.”
They hired me, they taught me everything I really needed to know about the game. I was just completely inundated and I just fell in love with it. I fell in love with covering it, with talking about it, being at the courses, watching it on TV. I really couldn’t get enough. I still can’t get enough. And things just kind of escalated from there in this golf industry. So it’s been kind of an interesting journey. I think anyone that’s in broadcast journalism will tell you if you have a plan, it will pretty much never happen the way you think it’s going to. But everything’s worked out really really well in the end.
Tom Brassell: Yeah, the digital side on PGA tour, you had what, Buy a Mulligan and trending on tour? And some of the other things you were doing, and then Callaway came along, right?
Amanda Balionis: Yeah, it was interesting. When I joined the Tour in 2011, the role they hired me for was pretty small and pretty limited. And I was lucky enough to work with a group of people who really saw, they had a vision for expanding this role and expanding to digital presence of the PGA Tour in general. So I was kind of there at the right time to help grow those franchises that you mentioned. ‘Buy a Mulligan’ was an idea I had from watching another ridiculous show on Bravo, that airs at like 11:00 at night. And I said, “You know, I think this could work for golfers, to get to know them in a way that maybe we don’t really see otherwise.” And it caught on, which I thought was really cool.
And then Callaway called and said, you know, I’ve had a great relationship with them for so many years. Not only through social media, but always really respected everything Callaway did in such a short period of time to turn themselves from a company that most people affiliated with an older demographic, to now a really cool forward-thinking company that was dominating the digital side in every aspect, and really targeting these demographics that we talk about hitting now. The Millennials, and those that come in and get most of their news from online, from Twitter, from Instagram, from Facebook. So I jus thought that was amazing, what Harry and Chad and this whole team was able to do in such a short period of time.
They called me and said “We’re thinking about bringing on someone full-time to host the things that we need to host for on-air, not only for the TV and digital side, but also for Sirius XM radio, and for podcasts, and other things that come up.” And I’ve always wanted to live in San Diego. I knew I was going to love working with this team before I even stepped into the office, so it was pretty much a no-brainer to make that life change and see what could happen.
Tom Brassell: And if your life can’t get any crazier, CBS comes involved. They come knocking and, I’ll tell you honestly, if you look up the words ‘classy golf broadcasting’ in the dictionary, you’ll go straight to the CBS page. You couldn’t be with a more first-class organization.
Amanda Balionis: It honestly, truly is the best team in golf. And I think what is most amazing about that team, not just the Jim Nantzes and the Gary McCords, and the Nick Faldos, and Peter Kostis, those guys have been there forever. And those are the forward facing sides of CBS Golf, but when you meet the producers and the directors and the cameramen and the spotters. They’ve all been there for 30+ years. And they’ve all been working together for that length of time, and it really speaks volumes about, not only the quality of the broadcast, but the better and longer teams can work together, obviously the better than products gonna be, but also it speaks to the amazing culture of how everybody loves their job and they feel valued. It’s really a special team to be a part of, for sure.
Tom Brassell: Yeah, you hit the nail right on the head, Amanda, as far as the longevity of these guys. You don’t see any balls lost in flight, or any really foul-ups in production. These guys are all over it. Even the shots coming out of the blimp are just amazing.
Amanda Balionis: Yeah, you know, and that really … It’s great that you say that, because in live TV, things are always going wrong behind the scenes, but the goal is to make sure the viewer never sees that. You know? So I know a couple weeks ago, we had a bunch of our cameras all go down for about 30-35 minutes while we were live on air. And no one noticed except for the guys that were scrambling and working their butts off to get those cameras back up. But everyone behind the scenes and up front as well, they’re so good at their jobs that they’re able to work around the things that, for me at least, I would think “Man, this could really demolish this broadcast.” But they’re so good and they’ve been there for so long and there’s really nothing that you can throw at these guys that they can’t handle and handle seamlessly.
Tom Brassell: Well you’re doing something for CBS that they’ve never done before. Take us a little bit behind the scene what you hit the ground at a tournament site that week.
Amanda Balionis: Yeah, so it depends on what’s happening early week, but generally I fly in on Thursdays or Fridays if we don’t have anything that we need to pre-record early in the week. Memorial, for example, we had an hour-long shoot with Jack Nicklaus on Wednesday, I believe, of the tournament. So I flew in a little bit earlier and had the chance to meet him and talk through, basically, his whole back nine on the Smartcart and Jack Nicklaus is learning how to tell it straight, like John Madden, and it was just the coolest thing in the world. And at the end of it he said to me, “Amanda, do you want to play me the game of Tic-Tac-Toe?” And I said “Uh, sure Mr. Nicklaus!” And we played a game of Tic-Tac-Toe right on the Smartcart with the telestrator and it was amazing.
But when those kinds of things aren’t happening, generally I try to walk the entire course on Friday, after I fly in. And then we meet with the shot-length guys and read over our own notes, the research that we’ve all done. And I meet with one or two producers and we kind of just go over the storylines of the week. Really, to me, the goal of the Smartcart is not to provide the storyline. If there is a story that needs to be told, it’s generally a story that Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo will always be able to tell better than I can in a two-minute hit. To me, the goal is to be able to highlight a certain bullet-point in a story that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be told. So when we talk about difficult courses, and what makes courses so challenging, I’m able to hone in on one aspect of that that hopefully then will play a part in the broadcast that people can say “Oh, well now I know why that’s happening.”
In Memphis, for instance, on the PGA Tour, it’s the number one course where most balls are in the water. And we did a hit on that, I think on Sunday afternoon as the final groups in contention are coming down that stretch. And it was right before the 12th hole, I think, and we did our hit and we talked about all the balls that have gone in the water and how over-par guys usually play on that hole, and right when they cut back to the next shot on 12, it was a ball in the water from someone in contention. So those things, they don’t always work out that beautifully, but to be able to explain to a viewer “Hey, keep an eye out for something like this. It happens a lot and this is usually the challenges players face.” Then when that does happen, for them to see it then and understand it a little better, it’s kind of the goal of what we do with the Smartcart.
Tom Brassell: When you get the player coming off the course, is it right after the 18th hole or do they go check the cart first?
Amanda Balionis: Yeah, so they always have to go to scoring immediately after finishing their round, but then the great thing is CBS is obviously the main rights-holder, so we get our first pick of players first, which really does make a difference. When I was with the PGA Tour, we would get guys after they had done five, six, or even seven interviews. And by then they’re just worn out. There’s only so many questions you can ask a guy after his round, whether he played well or not-well or whatever it is. And you start to get really generic answers, short answers.
But what’s awesome is we kind of get first pick with these players, so we’re the first people they talk to. A lot times their emotions are still high. Their honesty is still up there. They’re a little bit not as protected, I would say. Their guard tends to be a little bit lower when you’re the first one that gets to talk to them about whatever you want to break down. And then being able to show them their highlights with that cart as well, and have them talk through what they were thinking or what they were feeling during certain shots and showing them their emotions on their face that maybe they weren’t aware that they were showing is a pretty cool aspect too.
Tom Brassell: Hey, let’s shift gears to your employer, the ones that brought you here, Callaway Golf. You mentioned earlier about turning the brand from a, kind of a older, “Let me hit my Divine-Nine-Wood to a Cool-Cool brand.” I think a lot of this starts at the top, and Chip came in a few years back and had to make some tough calls, but boy, Callaway has it going on, now. Talk about, it’s a trendy brand. Talk about how it is to work there.
Amanda Balionis: Yeah, I mean you hit the nail on the head with the ‘starts from the top.’ I think the culture and anyone who works in any industry can relate to this. The culture always starts from the top and trickles down, and that is, I say this all the time. People ask me what it’s like to work at Callaway, it’s the best culture that I’ve ever worked in, hands-down. It starts absolutely with Chip and with Harry. These are guys that truly believe that golf is cool and that golf deserves to have people that want to push the game forward even more. And I think that’s something that’s kind of lacking in golf in general. I think a lot of people get a little bit nervous to try things that are new and different. Or they get so caught up in the tradition, or what they perceive as the traditions of the game and what makes it great, and nothing ever changes. And I think Callaway looks at that completely differently and they say, “You know we all love the game here, but we want to continue to progress. We want to continue to innovate and be the first people to try things.”
And the great thing about that is they know, everyone at the top knows, not everything we try is going to work. But they’d rather have us try new things and have it not work than not try anything at all, because what ends up happening is something cool comes from it, no matter what the idea is. It may not be the initial idea, maybe it was like “Ew, that didn’t really work so well.” But the whole team is always ready to pivot at a moment’s notice and take the good from the failure and turn that into something that’s a huge success. And I think that’s what you see every single day from these guys. They’re on the ground trying to communicate with the entire Callaway community. Out there pushing products in a new way.
Everything that happens here on a day-to-day basis is just no one is working because they’re scared to lose their job. No one’s scared to make a mistake here. Everybody here understands we’re in this together. We’re a team. Let’s try to make the coolest stuff that we can. If it doesn’t work, that’s okay, we’ll move on to the next thing. And I just think that’s an amazing culture to work in that I don’t think a lot of people really get, no matter what industry they’re in.
Tom Brassell: Well, Amanda, before I let you go, I’ve gotta put you on the clock, okay? Five questions fifty seconds. We ask you five irrelevant questions. You give us five irrelevant or relevant answers, whichever you prefer. You ready to go?
Amanda Balionis: Let’s do it.
Tom Brassell: Question number one for Amanda Balionis: Of all the places you’ve been to, either with CBS or Callaway, favorite course you’ve been to.
Amanda Balionis: Ooh, favorite course I’ve been to. I guess I’d have to say Augusta, right? Nothing tops Augusta.
Tom Brassell: Question number two: The bucket-list course that you haven’t been to that you want to go to?
Amanda Balionis: That’s a really good question. What … I would say Pine Valley.
Tom Brassell: Pine Valley, great choice. Question number three for Amanda Balionis: Who would be more likely to make it as a stand-up comedian, Harry Arnett or Gary McCord?
Amanda Balionis: Oh man. Gary McCord would make it until he got fired or something really inappropriate happened and he was never allowed back on stage again, so I’m gonna go Gary McCord would make it more quickly, but Harry Arnett would have the longevity.
Tom Brassell: Question number four: You’ve got one round of golf left to play here on Earth. Who are your other three partners in your foursome?
Amanda Balionis: Who are my other three partners? Definitely, oh, I have to go with my grandfather. I never got to play golf with him because by the time I started working here, working in golf, he had already passed away and he is the biggest golf fan so that would have been amazing to do. I think I’d also would have loved, obviously, to have played with Arnold Palmer, mainly for the fact that I never actually got to meet him, introduce myself and shake his hand, which was always something that was at the very very top of my bucket list. And my third person, this is always kind of my answer and people make fun of me, but I would like to play golf with Beyoncé, because why not, it’s Beyoncé.
Tom Brassell: And final question, Amanda: In eighteen years, the year 2035, Jim Nantz will have just completed broadcasting his fiftieth Masters. Which of the young guns of today will be on that leaderboard in 2035?
Amanda Balionis: In 2035?!
Tom Brassell: Puts them in their forties.
Amanda Balionis: So which of the young guys out here now?
Tom Brassell: Correct.
Amanda Balionis: That’s a good question. Can I go with a guy that’s just punched his ticket to the PGA Tour?
Tom Brassell: You sure can.
Amanda Balionis: I’m gonna go Aaron Wise. He’s a new guy that we have on staff. We just interviewed him earlier today. And in his first year on tour, in under a year, he’s won on PGA Tour Canada, he just won on the Web.com tour. Wire to wire fashion at 20 years old, and we’ll see him on the PGA Tour next year, and after talking to him, he has the maturity of a 40-year-old. And is showing no signs of stopping. He is ready to go and I think this kid is going to be an unbelievable presence for a very long time for us on the PGA Tour. And did you know, Jim Nantz, that was his goal? To broadcast 50 Masters?
Tom Brassell: That was his goal to start in 1986 and finish in 2035. Yeah.
Amanda Balionis: That was the number!
Tom Brassell: Well you did it Amanda. Five questions in a little over 50 seconds, but we knocked them out. And we’ll write down Aaron’s name to look back. Hey, before we let you go, we’ve got listeners all over the country, actually all over the world on our podcast. Final words from Amanda Balionis to the listeners here at Worldwide Golf Shops.
Amanda Balionis: Oh my gosh. I have to say I’ve gone to a couple of events for Worldwide Golf and every single person I’ve met is very similar to the culture here at Callaway. Everyone seems to love their job, love what they do, and love the game. So to everyone that works at Worldwide Golf, thank you for what you do. We love, love love love being partners with you guys. And to everyone listening, thank you for loving golf as much as we do, ’cause if not for all of you, we wouldn’t get to have our dream jobs, right?
Tom Brassell: Hey Amanda, thanks so much for carving out the time. I know you’re busy. You’re always busy. But thanks for not being too busy for us. Hopefully we can do it again.
Amanda Balionis: Thanks for having me!
Tom Brassell: Well that was fantastic. A little behind the curtain and behind the scenes with Amanda Balionis. You see her on CBS Sports, but more importantly on Callaway live. Brought to us by our friends at Callaway Golf. Special thanks to Amanda for joining us. To Callaway Golf for making it happen. And to you, our listeners. And we’ll do it again next time when we have another episode of ‘Golf Better’ at Worldwidegolfshops.com. So long everyone.