ESPN reporter and host Laura Rutledge wears many hats year-round as host of NFL Live and SEC Network’s SEC Nation, sideline reporter for select Monday Night Football and college football games and many other things in between.
This past Monday night, the St. Petersburg native took her many hats – but not these gloves! – to her hometown area for ESPN’s broadcast of the Super Wild Card Weekend finale that saw the host Buccaneers defeat the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-9, in a game that drew 29.2 million viewers, ESPN’s second most-watched NFL playoff game ever.
“It is really amazing being able to come back to Tampa and to be on the sidelines – reporting on the Buccaneers – and host NFL Live,” said Rutledge. “It is beyond a dream come true.”
It’s a dream she began fancying while a student at the University of Florida in 2011 when Rutledge worked as a pre- and post-game reporter for the Tampa Bay Rays’ telecasts. For every home game, she would make the two hour and fifteen-minute drive from Gainesville to St. Petersburg.
“My ties to this area are really important to me,” said Rutledge. “Tampa was where I officially started my career.”
It’s a career that has blossomed into one of the most demanding — and distinguished — in all of sports television for the mother of two children under four-years-old. She credits colleague and Emmy-award-winning Monday Night Football reporter Lisa Salters for helping her grow.
“To even see my name next to Lisa Salters, is an honor,” said Rutledge. “For years now, she has been such a wonderful mentor and friend to me.”
On Monday, while Rutledge reported on her hometown Buccaneers, Salters, MNF’s longest-standing reporter, handled her own hometown team – the Eagles.
“I am so lucky to be able to learn from Lisa,” said Rutledge. “She is the standard in our profession.”
Prior to her reporting duties on Monday, Rutledge – often called the “captain” by her colleagues – hosted a special two-hour edition of NFL Live, alongside Dan Orlovsky, Ryan Clark, Marcus Spears and Mina Kimes, who were reunited in person for the first time since the 2023 NFL Draft.
“We have seen this year that even though everyone’s schedules have been crazy, NFL Live has proven to be our core,” said Rutledge. “This show is what keeps us going, it’s what we all look forward to. Being all together, in-person, leading into a Wild Card playoff game of this magnitude, on our air, [was] an opportunity we [didn’t] take lightly.”
The special Super Wild Card edition of NFL Live drew 937,000 viewers from 3-4 p.m. ET, a record audience for the critically acclaimed show.
Almost all of Rutledge’s vast skills were on display Monday – the way she seamlessly guides discussion with a panel of ex-players and elite analysts or how she knows just the right in-game question to ask to elicit thoughtful answers. What wasn’t on display, but is always near and dear to her, was her background on the Florida pageant circuit, where she went from Miss St. Petersburg (2011) to Miss Pinellas County (2012) and ultimately was named Miss Florida in 2013 when she placed in the Top 15 of the Miss America competition.
“One of the things that means so much to me about this area is that people were so encouraging and kind,” said Rutledge. “During those early years in my career, there were a lot of kind people who helped me, who encouraged me and mentored me.”
While competing in pageants became a hobby, Rutledge’s true aspirations always remained in sports reporting and hosting.
“Sometimes, when you end up back where you started, it forces you to think about how far you’ve come and the people who’ve lifted you along the way,” said Rutledge. “This [past] Monday [gave] me the perfect opportunity to do that.”
On Saturday, Rutledge will again join Salters, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman for ESPN’s first-ever Divisional round playoff game. Salters will handle the Ravens sideline, while Rutledge takes the Texans.
But Rutledge, a Sunshine State success story, will never be far from her Florida roots.