Sports Business Journal: On the air, on the rise

Originally posted on February 19, 2018 in the Sports Business Journal, this article discusses NBA’s women broadcasters who are breaking down barriers as they break down the action.

SBJ

The text message was short and simple: “Keep grinding. You will get there.”

By “there,” the sender meant the next level. For the recipient — Allie Clifton, Fox Sports Ohio’s Cleveland Cavaliers sideline reporter — the message hit home, in large part, because it came from Doris Burke.

Clifton, in her sixth year covering the Cavs, hopes her career will lead, ultimately, to national broadcasting jobs. Burke is the first full-time national NBA TV analyst, a role she added to her previous ESPN duties as a sideline reporter to start the current season.

Burke texted Clifton in January, soon after both women reported from courtside during a Cavs-Celtics game. Clifton said Burke sent the message as motivation, reminding her to keep pushing and to challenge herself.

“She’s always kept an eye on me, she has taken the time to mentor me and to encourage me,” Clifton said. “That’s someone that I have looked up to before I even knew I wanted to be in the profession.”

Breaking into broadcasting jobs in the major, male-dominated sports leagues — the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball — is difficult for anyone. Despite significant progress in recent decades, sports media remains very male and very white.

Combine those factors, throw in more than a few vestiges of gender bias, and it’s easy to see why female broadcasters and reporters, in particular, have had to overcome long odds to break into the ranks of TV play-by-play and analyst jobs. Women have made their biggest gains in the big three sports leagues as courtside and sideline reporters, yet even those advances have been criticized by some as afterthoughts because of the comparatively brief screen time allotted to reporters.

Burke, and a small but growing number of women working as full-time analysts for NBA regional cable rights holders, are knocking down decades of sports TV precedent by earning respect and kudos in roles previously held almost exclusively by men.

   

Examples of breakthroughs can be found in other sports — Jessica Mendoza became baseball’s first female analyst in 2016 when ESPN put her in the “Sunday Night Baseball” booth while Suzyn Waldman has spent more than a decade as the New York Yankees’ radio color commentator — but pro basketball and its TV partners seem most willing to consider and hire highly qualified women.

 

Want to make the case for the NBA? Consider the month of September 2017 alone. Over the course of two weeks, ESPN promoted Burke to national NBA analyst, Kara Lawson took over as analyst for Washington Wizards games on NBC Sports Washington, and Sarah Kustok did the same for the Brooklyn Nets on the YES Network.

“The key is all of these women know basketball,” said NFL Network and HBO correspondent Andrea Kremer. “The other thing I think is important is these women were not hired because they are women. They were hired because they are really good broadcasters and they are really knowledgeable about the game and, oh, by the way, they happen to be women.”

The growing basketball roster includes the pioneer for women analysts on NBA games, Ann Meyers Drysdale, who continues as a part-time color commentator on Phoenix Suns games after first shattering the gender barrier as a broadcaster for the Indiana Pacers in 1979.

In January 2016, Meyers Drysdale was part of another NBA TV first, working as an analyst on Fox Sports Arizona when the Suns played the Charlotte Hornets. What made the night notable was both teams’ regional cable network crews featured female analysts. Opposite of Meyers Drysdale on Fox Sports Southeast — Charlotte’s RSN partner — sat Stephanie Ready, herself an outlier during the 2015-16 season as the first woman in the NBA promoted to full-time TV analyst.

Ready remains part of the Hornets’ announcer lineup, but switched to a courtside reporting-analyst hybrid role this season at the behest of her Fox bosses. ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, among many others, called the move a mistake, saying Ready’s reduced on-air presence hurt the Hornets’ telecasts. Fox said it needed a reporter on the floor and cited the logistics of trying to send Ready to the floor for interviews when she was sitting with the main announcing team as an analyst. However, floor reporters have much-reduced roles on the air.

Ready remains a co-analyst with Dell Curry, who kept the traditional half-court location for a TV analyst, seated next to the Hornets’ play-by-play voice, Eric Collins. Curry, before a recent Hornets game, said Ready understands and breaks down basketball as well as anyone he has ever met. This is the same Dell Curry who played 16 NBA seasons and who has two sons in the league now, including two-time MVP Stephen Curry.

Dell Curry attributed a simple factor — talent — as the reason for women getting more opportunities in the NBA.

“They’re all qualified to do it,” he said. “Gender shouldn’t play a part. If you’re qualified, you know the game and it’s something you want to do, you should have a fair shake in doing that.”

   

Burke credited former ESPN President John Skipper for putting her and other women into higher-profile roles during his six-year tenure leading the company.

She and other female broadcasters interviewed for this story said they view the continuing rise of women’s basketball, and the arrival of the NBA-backed WNBA 20 years ago, as crucial steps toward greater acceptance of women as analysts, studio hosts and other expanded roles in TV coverage. Broadly speaking, most said they felt much more challenged to convince viewers and fans of their legitimacy than players, coaches and executives.

“I just think more people overall are being evaluated on their merit,” said Nichols, host of ESPN’s weekday NBA show “The Jump.” “And when that’s women, that’s sort of different and a new thing because we haven’t seen that all the time in sports.”

Tim Corrigan, senior coordinating producer for the NBA on ESPN, said Burke’s success is likely to inspire other women to seek similar roles. He said Burke kept pushing herself to get better and proved to producers and directors that she was not only capable, but also hardworking, as demonstrated by her many years of covering college games, the WNBA and the NBA, often with overlapping schedules.

Lawson, the first-year, full-time NBA analyst at NBC Sports Washington, met with a SportsBusiness Journal reporter at courtside during a Wizards shootaround. Her presence that morning, she said, showed how perception and attitudes have changed in a short amount of time.

Early in her WNBA playing career, while playing for the Sacramento Monarchs, Lawson began working as a studio analyst on NBA Kings games during the offseason. The Kings refused to allow Lawson to attend shootaround sessions because, she said, they told her she would be a distraction, the clear implication being because of her gender. She said the move hindered her from knowing more about the team.

That said, Lawson and others still see the NBA as a league more open to diversity of all kinds, including women broadcasters. Among other milestones, the NBA was the first major league to have an openly gay player, in 2014, and has consistently set the pace among the most popular U.S. leagues for gender and racial hiring, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

“The WNBA is aligned with the NBA, so there’s this healthy respect from [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver, from team presidents and coaches for women’s basketball,” Lawson said.

Mike Connelly, Fox Sports Networks senior vice president and executive producer, sees more opportunities ahead for women, especially as more finish playing careers in college and the WNBA. “The only way to be an expert is you have to have experience,” he said. “And we have more female athletes at the college level [and beyond] than ever.”

Recent examples include Lindsay Whalen, who still plays for the Minnesota Lynx and who has been on four WNBA championship teams in her career. In December, Whalen started an eight-game commitment as the second analyst on Fox’s NBA Timberwolves telecasts. In January, Fox added three-time WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie as pregame and postgame analyst on Orlando Magic games. Women are finding more opportunities in other broadcast work as well. For example, Vanessa Lambert (Timberwolves) and Jil Gossard-Cook (Hawks) are full-time TV producers of NBA teams for Fox-owned networks.

   

Sacramento Kings sideline reporter Kayte Christensen, a former WNBA player, echoed others when she said winning over fans remains the hardest part of her job.

“I would say 75 percent of the comments I get are about my appearance first,” Christensen said. “As a woman in this business, in all media, you don’t ever want to be looked at as a pretty face. And, unfortunately, that’s part of the business. We also age out of our jobs way faster than men do.”

Christensen, at 37, said the prospect of being 40 when her current contract ends is scary. She hopes to stay in sports TV beyond then, if possible.

Meyers Drysdale continues to call Suns games as a part-time analyst and also is part of the WNBA Phoenix Mercury broadcast crew. Though she is grateful to be around the game she loves, Meyers Drysdale acknowledged some double standards.

Women who analyze NBA games or take on other broadcast roles are, as Sacramento’s Christensen said, held to a higher standard. Mistakes are costlier, too.

“When we started out, you couldn’t be a Dick Vitale, you couldn’t be a Charles Barkley,” Meyers Drysdale said. “You had to know what you were talking about. You couldn’t clown around.”

ESPN’s Burke predicted that the rise of female coaches will further increase women’s opportunities calling NBA games and other male-dominated sports.

Becky Hammon, an assistant under Gregg Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs since 2014, could become the NBA’s first female head coach in the next several years, Burke said. If that happens, more women are likely to be hired as assistants and, as with their male counterparts, those future ex-coaches will become TV and radio analysts, offering a much-coveted perspective.

Such breakthroughs give hope to Meghan McPeak, the lone female play-by-play voice in the NBA G League. McPeak calls games for Raptors 905 in Toronto. The NBA Raptors own the Toronto G League team.

McPeak said her goal is to do play by play for an NBA team. Inspired by Burke and Meyers Drysdale, McPeak said the next generation must keep pushing to break down misguided stereotypes.

“The disappointing factor is that we still see pushback, we still see resistance,” she said. “It’s not necessarily from the NBA or, in my case, the G League. It’s more from a fan standpoint. It’s disappointing because fans will get on these women because they don’t like the way they look or they don’t like the way that their voices are. They don’t put that aside and listen and look at what these women are talking about and the fact that they break down the game.”

In fact, McPeak is more than ready to move past gender discussions of any kind.

“I hate that term female broadcaster or female color commentator or female play-by-play voice,” she said. “I look at myself as a play-by-play voice.”

When stories like this one become redundant, McPeak and Cleveland’s Clifton and others will be able to turn a determined promise — You will get there — into a simple conclusion: We are here.

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.