The boys’ club of sports broadcasting: How female reporters are breaking gender barriers in sports media
Women in sports broadcasting have consistently faced discrimination and biases in the field, and even with considerable advances by their predecessors the industry still does not promote gender equality.
There are female journalists who have pioneered the field and who have fought to amplify the voices of all women. But, there is still pushback.
In 1977, Melissa Ludkte, backed by Time Inc., sued the MLB among others for denying her access to the clubhouses at Yankees Stadium. The judge ruled that denying Ludkte the same access as male journalists was a violation of the 14th Amendment.
Nearly six decades later, women in sports journalism have begun to see major change. This year the NBA and MLB announced and produced their first all female broadcast team.
Willow Bay, former co-host of NBA Inside Stuff, began her career in sports media in the 90s.
“It was a very different era in sports… There were very few women in sports anchoring, hosting journalism at the time. And, that only reflected a reluctance to hire women,” she said.
At that time, gender disparities were largely evident, “extra scrutiny was placed on women because there were so few of them. There was an expectation that women would work harder to prove themselves; it was a subtle expectation.”
The gender wage gap has not improved much since the 90s. Today, women earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. In sports reporting, on average, women make an annual salary of $48,605; whereas men make an annual salary of $50,169. And, the wage gap only increases with women of color.
Bay added, “we put an enormous amount of pressure on ourselves as pioneers to really prove that we belong there, and for many of us, myself included, that did mean working harder, working longer, working smarter, and always feeling like you had to do that in order to prove you belonged.”
Working with her co-anchor at the time, Ahmad Rashād, and a dominantly male-led production team, she did believe her abilities were often questioned.
Rob Parker, sports analyst and anchor, does believe men have more opportunities in the field because “it is the last all boys’ club.”
There is a “lack of equal access to jobs, and women have often been given the worst beats to cover throughout my 35 year career,” he said.
Only 11 percent of the sports media industry is made up of women. According to Zippia’s sports broadcaster demographics and statistics report, 78 percent are men and 17 percent are women, with 5 percent unaccounted for. The gender disparities seen within most fields not only extend to the sports reporting industry but rather dominate it.
Intersection of race and gender
Of the women in sports reporting, 74 percent are white, 13 percent are latino, and 8 percent are Black. White women hold more positions than all other ethnicities of women combined. The underrepresentation of women of color in the industry shows the intersection of gender and race, both being driving factors of this substantial bias.
Chrissy Grierson, a production assistant for NBC Olympics, is a young, Black woman trying to find her place in sports broadcasting.
“Being the only Black woman in a room full of white men in itself was challenging,” she said, and at times “felt very isolating.” Grierson believed her presence was “a culture shock.”
“Being a trailblazer is not all what it’s cracked up to be,” she said, shaking her head.
Grierson fiercely believes that she has a responsibility to the women who look like her, to the women of color who will one day face the same obstacles she has faced. She believes it is her job to create room in this space for women like herself because she knows, “there are certain things women can offer that men can’t.”
Like Grierson, Emily Wirtz, a digital video producer and editor for NFL Media, expressed her reasoning behind her commitment to the sports industry, which is, to become a role model for other women and specifically women of color who want to be in sports.
Having diversity in sports, “will produce the best sports product,” Wirtz said. And, this diversity does not mean white women; it must extend to all women, so that all women are represented in the content created and produced.
Former sports journalist, Mayra Azanza, echoed Grierson and Wirtz in her emphasis of the lack of opportunities for women in journalism, and even more so women of color.
“We are always fighting each other because there are so very few opportunities,” said Azanza.
In July of 2020, Rachel Nichols, a white sports anchor for ESPN, made a comment regarding fellow ESPN reporter Maria Taylor. Nichols claimed Taylor was awarded a position based solely on her race and ESPN’s attempt to fulfill diversity numbers; this comment was only recently made public when the New York Times wrote a story outing Nichols and ESPN on the 4th of July.
Taylor announced her departure from ESPN exactly a year later.
Writz spoke about this issue, claiming, Maria Taylor “is still questioned, even by other women, not [only] men saying is she qualified.”
Harassment: On and offline
Though sports broadcasting is no different from any other work environment where some women are victims of harassment, female journalists often face harassment from multiple people, including players, coaches and agents of the sports teams they have to cover as part of their job.
A few of them come forward and report the incidents, knowing that their career will suffer repercussions. Those who hope to advance in their career often choose to remain silent.
The latter decision contributes to harassment normalization. Unwanted advancements and offensive remarks, specifically, can affect how they do their job.
April Aguilar, a digital host and sideline reporter for the NBA G-League, said she was once told by a man in a position of power that she “didn’t have what it takes to be in front of a camera.” As a result of this comment, she put her hope of being a sports reporter aside for two years.
Later, when walking into an interview, Aguilar heard one of the male interviewers say, “I didn’t know this was an interview for the front desk secretary,” in which she swiftly responded, “I am here to be the statistician for the women’s basketball team.”
Amber Theoharis, an Emmy-award winning sports journalist, explained that women in the industry are often seen as ungrateful, something not commonly heard to describe their male counterparts.
Women choose not to fight back because “they want to continue to work in the profession they love and deserve to be in,” Theoharis said. “They want their women quiet and not opinionated.”
But Theoharis explained that “most of the discrimination and the poor decision making based on gender comes from the executives in the C-suite level at networks.”
Harassment toward female reporters comes in many different forms. Social media has become a tool for many women in sports media, but it has also become another outlet for gender discrimination.
Wirtz and Aguilar both agreed that there are times where they consciously think about posting something before doing so in fear of the possible backlash from viewers.
Aguilar said there have been times when people use her social media posts to question her position as a reporter.
The creator, producer and host of After Orange Slices, Bridget Case, raved about the opportunities social media has created for journalists. Case has worked in traditional media, but found herself moving toward her own platform.
“I love being in control of the stories I tell that I am never giving that to anybody else again,” Case said.
“I feel like it is my place to make change in the world and to be able to make change, I need to use my voice however I want to and not be afraid of being fired,” she added.
In addition to sports, Case now centers her podcast and platform on issues like mental health and female empowerment, while being geared toward an active relationship with her audience.
Jessica Lucero, sports and entertainment host, is just beginning her career. She is already facing the challenges of being a woman in the sports media industry.
As “women in sports, we get judged so much,” she said.
Lucero hopes, “more and more people start to treat women equally,” she added, “it has been really cool to see how [women] are expanding and going beyond what people thought they would.”
The field is evolving, but it is not happening as quickly as the women within it expect it to be. A common thread when speaking with these women has been about the necessity of support, but also the necessity of more women actively attempting to find success in sports reporting.
“If we want the disparity to stop we need more women in the industry,” Azanza said. And “we need men to be allies.”