It’s still not easy being a girl in the boys’ club of sports broadcasting

Women in sports broadcasting, from left: Amanda Stein (TSN 690), Andie Bennett (CBC), Jessica Rusnak (TSN 690), Kelly Greig (Sportsnet), Robyn Flynn (TSN 690)

Women in sports broadcasting, from left: Amanda Stein (TSN 690), Andie Bennett (CBC), Jessica Rusnak (TSN 690), Kelly Greig (Sportsnet), Robyn Flynn (TSN 690)

As we mark International Women’s Day on Sunday, we can choose to think of the injustices that still exist, of the women around the world who face injustice merely because of their gender in direct and indirect ways. We can choose to think of how far we’ve come as a society, ending some of those injustices and actively encouraging more women to come forward and become leaders and role models. Or better yet, we can do both.

In the media, we like to think of ourselves as more progressive than other industries. Look in most journalism classes and you’ll find more women than men. There are plenty of women working in print, radio, television and digital media, particularly in positions that expose them to the public.

But when we narrow that view to the sports department and dedicated sports media, a different picture appears, one where if there are women at all, they’re kept on the sidelines (literally).

On Thursday, as part of a week of activities at Vanier College, five women who work in sports broadcasting in Montreal were invited to talk about their experiences trying to find their place in this man’s world. It was eye-opening.

Here’s what I learned:

It’s not always because of daddy

Maybe it was sexist of me to have this impression, but the default assumption for women who like sports is that it’s because of their fathers, or their brothers, that some strong male influence in their lives pushed them in this direction. But for some of these panellists, that wasn’t a factor at all. “I didn’t really grow up in a sports family,” said Amanda Stein, who co-hosts the weekend morning show on TSN 690. Kelly Greig, a contributor to Sportsnet Central Montreal who grew up in Ormstown, also said her family had little connection to sports and probably couldn’t name a Canadiens player other than P.K. Subban.

It’s interesting to see their career paths, too. Not all of them went straight for sports reporting. Before working at Sportsnet, Greig was a producer with CBC Radio. Andie Bennett said she studied to be a sound engineer and fell into an internship at what was then The Team 990, which is what turned her into a sports reporter on the radio.

Your haters make it personal

Anyone who becomes a public figure becomes the target for hate. It happens to politicians, to broadcasters, to business leaders. When talking about something as important as sports, that hate becomes more intense. And when it’s directed at women, hate takes on a scary tone. Robyn Flynn, a TSN 690 contributor who is active on social media, talked about getting rape threats as if they’re a simple occupational hazard. It’s an example of the type of crap that women have to deal with that I rarely have to worry about.

“My haters are my motivators. I try to prove them wrong,” Flynn said, which is a nice sentiment. As was Bennett relating advice she’d received from TSN’s Pierre McGuire, that the only people whose opinion you should worry about are people you respect.

But even people with thick skins can be hurt by words, particularly if they’re repeated from multiple sources, and if you never know for sure if someone is willing to act on them.

On social media, not only do people not like you, Bennett said, but they tell you why they don’t like you. Sometimes it’s for rational reasons, like the opinions you have or your skills as a broadcaster. Sometimes it’s for superficial or irrelevant things like the clothes you wear, what your face looks like or the sound of your voice. Greig said she tried to work on bringing down the pitch of her voice before realizing that it’s just part of what she is and she shouldn’t be trying to sound like someone else.

You should assert yourself, and do whatever they say

Near the beginning of the discussion, Bennett pointed out that women are less likely to ask for a raise or otherwise take charge or make themselves stand out in a work environment. It’s something sociologists have studied extensively. But then later in the discussion, everyone seemed to agree that you have to work for free at the beginning of your career, and accept anything that’s offered to you.

Actually, it’s not entirely a contradiction. Accepting any job offered to you means accepting things you might not think you’re qualified for. Women tend to underestimate their qualifications and men tend to overestimate them, and assuming you’re ready for something you’ve never tried before is kind of a guy thing to do. It shouldn’t be.

Jessica Rusnak said she hates the expression “Good things come to those who wait”. She prefers to say “Good things come to those who work.” Stein said a good way to get ahead in this business is to get your hand in everything, even if it means volunteering to work at the front desk when the secretary is on vacation.

Mitch Melnick is a feminist

It’s no coincidence that four of the five members of this panel are young women who at some point worked at the same station, interning or otherwise working with TSN 690 afternoon host Mitch Melnick. I’ve come to referring to it as the Mitch Melnick School of Female Sports Journalism. When Bennett got hired away from the station to work at CBC, he expressed frustration, not that Bennett was making a move to further her career, but that he had just lost a talented broadcaster who brought an intelligent female voice to the show. He said he wanted to find another one like her, and fortunately for him there were others out there.

That’s not to say that there isn’t room to make things better at TSN 690. Look at their list of shows and you don’t see any female headshots. The station doesn’t have a single local show with a woman in the driver’s seat.

And other local media aren’t doing any better. Since Chantal Desjardins got her job with Sportsnet, CTV Montreal’s sports department hasn’t had any female voices. Since Brenda Branswell went back to the city department, the Montreal Gazette’s sports section has been all-male.

The challenges are psychological as well as practical

In the high-pressure zone of a dressing room, it can be intimidating for a young rookie reporter trying to fit in. And if you’re a woman on top of that, you have the added pressure that if you screw up, everyone will think it’s because you’re a woman.

“A man in the business doesn’t mind saying he doesn’t know something, I agonize over not knowing an answer,” Bennett said. That’s part of the reason she spends so much more time preparing, because she’s afraid of looking stupid. “People are surprised that I like sports, surprised that I work in sports,” she said, and the last thing she wants to do is reinforce the impression that women don’t know what they’re talking about.

Even the most innocuous-seeming thing can have a serious effect on a young female journalist. Stein told the story of her first dressing room scrum, where she wanted to ask a question to a player about music. As she prefaced her question by saying she wanted to ask about something more personal, a journalist cracked that this wasn’t the place to ask for a player’s phone number. What might seem like a silly, forgettable joke to the wisecracking journalist stuck in the mind of his victim.

Bennett said having a sense of humour is “very important in this business” and can help tackle those psychological hurdles.

And then there’s the more practical problems. “We’re short, compared to men,” Bennett pointed out, a fact reinforced by the panel whose members were all about the same height. Heels can help that problem a bit, she said, and they’re also useful for stabbing the foot of a colleague getting in your way during a scrum. She said that part jokingly. I think.

Women rely on each other

Being the only woman in a dressing-room scrum can make one feel alone, but the women who work in sports broadcasting have developed a camaraderie. Stein described conversations with Bennett or RDS’s Chantal Machabée as a “safe space to ask questions that are dumb” even though the questions she’d ask her more experienced colleagues didn’t sound particularly dumb at all.

Nobody is asking women’s opinions on sports TV

TSN, Sportsnet, RDS and TVA Sports have women on their broadcast teams. But very few of them. And when they are used, it’s often as news anchors partnered with men (Jennifer Hedger, Kate Beirness, Carly Agro, Evanka Osmak), as straight reporters (Cassie Campbell, Chantal Machabée, Christine Simpson), or as hosts and panel moderators (Chantal Desjardins, Leah Hextall). They’re never doing play-by-play, and they’re never on the analyst panels for NHL games.

“I don’t want to say they’re there to wear pretty dresses, but that’s what it feels like,” Bennett said.

Now, I’m well aware that there’s an inherent bias when it comes to the gender of sports commentators. Often they’re former major-league players, and that means guys. And even those who come from the journalism or broadcasting side are more likely to be men, both because men tend to be more interested in these sports and because men are more inclined to think their opinion about these things matter. So I totally understand that panels of analysts are going to be very male-heavy, no matter how feminist-minded the broadcaster is.

But to never have women calling games or even offering colour commentary? To never ask a woman during intermission what she thinks of a referee’s call or a goaltender’s performance?

We’ll probably get a few exceptions this weekend because of International Women’s Day. But recently the only time I saw a woman in one of these roles was when Cassie Campbell did colour commentary for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League playoffs on Sportsnet. Even there, it was a guy doing play by play.

The problem is exacerbated by a series of minor instances of sexism that pile up. When Hockey Night in Canada started its 60th season announcing the addition of its first woman, everyone got excited until they discovered that Andi Petrillo’s role was reduced to reading tweets and giving score updates between periods. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, she was physically separated from her colleagues, and even though her segment was called the “iDesk”, she was the only person in the studio without a desk. Or a chair, for that matter. And on top of that, someone thought it was a good idea to start her segments with a long moving shot from a camera on a jib that started out pointed at her from behind. Even if the intent was merely to make good television with elegant camera movements and a cool set design, the effect was to reinforce the impression that Petrillo was there to look pretty.

I certainly wasn’t left with the impression that the same camera work would have been done had it been Elliotte Friedman instead of Petrillo in that role.

The struggles of women’s sports are complicated

The panel was asked why women’s sports don’t get more attention. Outside of the Olympics, and some sports like curling and tennis, there’s a big disparity between men’s and women’s sports on TV.

Just this week, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League is holding its Clarkson Cup playoffs. Sportsnet is carrying the final (Montreal vs. Boston, today at 2pm) and aired two of the four semifinal games. But they couldn’t even be bothered to carry the entire playoffs, much less any regular-season games.

This isn’t just a TV problem. The Montreal Stars’ clinching semifinal against Calgary was played in front of mostly empty seats in Markham, Ont. Montreal home games draw a few hundred fans on average, despite dirt-cheap $15 tickets and cheap food.

“You can’t get away from the fact that the men’s sports are more exciting,” Bennett said. “Men are faster, stronger.”

But she also pointed to how the different genders are treated by the media. “I look at the way that female athletes are marketed, and female sports are marketed. You wonder why we get so upset when someone asks Genie Bouchard to twirl. But it’s not just one instance.”

“I think it’s a mentality. It’s changing, but it’s slow.”

Stein pointed to another franchise that could serve as a lesson: “Look at the Impact. They started off small. What’s not to say we can’t do the same with women’s sports?”

There’s hope

Like I wrote at the beginning, we should look back as much as we look forward. It wasn’t so long ago that women weren’t even allowed in dressing rooms. And while it could be much better, TSN and Sportsnet are bringing in more women into their broadcast teams.

I chatted a bit with a few of the panelists after the discussion. Flynn told me she’d love to do play by play for the Canadiens some day. I for one don’t want to tell her that’s not possible just because she’s a woman.

Because that’s a stupid answer.

If you want to get your sports feminist side on, there’s the Clarkson Cup final Saturday at 2pm. On Sunday at 7:30pm, RDS’s Table d’hôte talk show has a discussion with Machabée and three other female sports journalists.

22 thoughts on “It’s still not easy being a girl in the boys’ club of sports broadcasting

  1. Steve W

    What happened to the Amanda Stein hosted TSN 690 Radio program Wednesday nights at 11pm? It kind of disappeared from TSN 690 Radio with absolutely no explanation? I know she was sick for an extended period near the end, that didn’t help.

    Cassie Campbell has done “some” NHL colour commentator work on Canadian TV. Brian Wilde was also part of this Sports Broadcasting Panel discussion at Vanier College(from what I decipher on Twitter)?

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Brian Wilde was also part of this Sports Broadcasting Panel discussion at Vanier College(from what I decipher on Twitter)?

      No, he wasn’t there.

  2. Mario D

    Fitting hommage to the women in sports who are ,if you ask me,of a much higher professionnal quality compared to their masculin co-workers. Not trying to shock or complain for anything or everything wich is good for a change because in the sport broadcasting industry in MTL it looks like it`s needed to be negative and controversial.

    That may be what keeps them out of having their own shows though …(le sigh…)

    I too think that things are ever so slowly changing and that the era of an all exclusive male domaine is behind us but unfortunately there are still dinosaurs as there are i guess in any profession. Problem is that those dinosaurs are often in decision making positions…

    Sad though that in 2015 those women are still seen as pioneers even though a woman like Chantal Machabée has been in the portrait for decades now !

    But this is the time to recognize and celebrate their work ! Hat`s off mesdames !

  3. Sean Coleman

    All 5 broadcasters spoke very well Thursday. Although they’ve all taken different paths, each touched on reoccurring themes of mentorship, perseverance and passion. Looking forward to more young women following in their path

  4. Mimo

    For years, Mexico has had a female play by play announcer for Mexican Premier Soccer League games on Televisa. Her name escapes me but she also anchors the sports segment on some of the national news broadcasts. In fact almost all of the national sports broadcasts are run by female anchors down there. The Yankees also have a female colour commentator on radio broadcasts.
    We need to step up our game. Robyn Flynn is a real talent and a very intelligent woman. There’s no reason she should not be doing play by play.

  5. Paul

    Melnick a feminist because he worked in the same building? OK. Now how about how he treats male co-workers? Maybe he is a feminist.

      1. Paul

        “women who at some point worked at the same station, interning or otherwise working with TSN 690 afternoon host Mitch Melnick” The same floor then? I remember Flynn working the Morning show for a long time. Only Andie worked directly with Melnick. The others did it on their own.

        1. Fagstein Post author

          I remember Flynn working the Morning show for a long time. Only Andie worked directly with Melnick. The others did it on their own.

          Are you suggesting they’re lying about Melnick being a mentor or pushing for more female voices on the air?

          1. Paul

            No. Never implied it but thanks. I am suggesting that its wrong to credit Menick for their success. You’re implying that they wouldn’t have succeeded or even given a chance if Mitch wasn’t there despite Flynn working Mornings for more than a year. Are you suggesting that Mitch is the only man at 690 that would have given these women a break? I’m the one suggesting that they would have succeeded without Melnick; mentor or not.

            1. Fagstein Post author

              I am suggesting that its wrong to credit Menick for their success. You’re implying that they wouldn’t have succeeded or even given a chance if Mitch wasn’t there

              No, I’m recounting what they said during a panel discussion. Unlike you I’m not going to substitute my opinion on their career paths for their own.

              1. Paul

                Fine but the fact is they succeeded because they worked for it. Worked for it as any man there. Melnick pushed for women? Other than Totally Broad which was a good show hosted by Bennett, albeit it’s a short run, name one show hosted by a woman in the history of 690. Saying you’re a feminist and actually being one are two different things. It’s been fun.

  6. Robyn Flynn

    Cassie Campbell became the first woman to do colour commentary for an NHL television broadcast on October 14, 2006. I’m fairly certain that neither she, or any other woman, have done it since. It’s been eight and a half years. Things are changing, but at a glacial pace.

    1. Steve W

      Yes I was aware of that. And years later, Cassie Campbell was a colour analyst on CBC, of a NHL Canadiens-Rangers game(about 2 years ago). And maybe one or two other as NHL colour analyst later on(I remember her as a NHL colour commentator for one game, but can’t remember any other details) . Can’t see all her hockey TV work, as she was mostly working the western NHL games, as she’s based in Calgary.

  7. alanna r

    As Robyn Flynn mom, the expression I get most that infuriates me is “wow, she knows alot about sports, for a girl.” No. She knows a lot about sports. Period. My second husband (whom I married after Robyns career in sports started) Is a sports writer in BC and represents senior female hockey for BC with hockey Canada. (I know. Ironic isn’t it ) I have yet to hear “wow, he knows a lot about sports for a guy. ” I’m very proud of Robyn for her career path and have more respect for her knowing what challenges she faces ever day for doing what she loves. Talking sports.

    1. Mimo

      You nailed it there. She know’s a lot about sports. I’m more familiar with her work on CJAD, but even there she does talk sports with Barry Morgan at times, and even with his decades of covering sports, she puts his knowledge to shame much of the time. To be honest, most women that I know who are into sports REALLY know their game. They’re passionate and knowledgeable fans.

  8. gazoo

    All these women should be proud of the work they are doing. Enjoy listening to them whenever there is a chance.
    Definitely they could have their own shows and put some of the men regulars who are on the air now to shame!

  9. Jon

    “TSN, Sportsnet, RDS and TVA Sports have women on their broadcast teams. But very few of them. And when they are used, it’s often as news anchors partnered with men (Jennifer Hedger, Kate Beirness, Carly Agro, Evanka Osmak),”

    Lately, I’ve noticed TSN giving more airtime to their female personalities. Tune into Sportscentre on any given night, and more often than not, I’ve seen two women are anchoring the show. In addition to Jennifer and Kate, they also have few other personalities including Natasha Staniszewski (who is often hosting alongside Kate) and Tessa Bonhomme (from the Canadian national women’s hockey team and also playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. A couple of newcomers were brought into the fold in the last year including Laura Diakun (formerly of The Score) and Kara Wagland.
    However, this is primarily during late evenings, overnight and weekends. The only downside is that with so many male and female personalities, few of them have regular airtime on a nightly basis. Also, there is no weekday morning edition of Sportscentre.

    Not sure about the other networks as I don’t watch them regularly. I do recall on Sportsnet, their female personalities are spread out all throughout the week – they have one female host (Caroline Cameron) alongside James Cybulski on weekday mornings, a sole female host (Hazel Mae) for the early evening edition, and Evanka hosts the primetime edition alongside a male host. Carly Agro has been handling the overnight shift and another female host (Jackie Redmond) is regularly seen on weekends. Very rare that I’ve seen two female hosts anchor Sportsnet Central, although I might be wrong.

    I don’t recall having seen a female anchor on Sports 30 (RDS) in quite some time, nor do they have two hosts on air at the same time. The same goes for TVA Sports, although I have seen few occasions where one or two of their female personalities anchored their nightly show (Le TVA Sports) but not alongside another co-host. Also, you may recall at the beginning, they had a daily two-hour show anchored by a female (Karine Champagne) alongside male panelists and co-hosts (to compete with Le 5 a 7 on RDS). That lasted for only one year or so.

  10. Jon

    One other name I forgot to mention: Martine Gaillard – longtime personality on The Score and currently on Rogers Sportsnet, filling in on weeknights and weekends.

  11. Jean-François Codère

    About the ratings and following of most women sports, the answer is easy, really: there isn’t a lot of people watching 15 years old kids playing hockey in Midget Espoir either, and yet one of 26 teams of that level in Quebec kicked Team Canada’s butt recently ( Yes it was training camp for Team Canada, but Midget Espoir isn’t even the highest level for 15 yo and they weren’t allowed to hit. I happened to be there for parts of the game, the kids were dominant.
    I’ve had the chance of meeting one of those girls on the ice before and she was way better than I was, so I’m not trying to disrespect them, but it it what it is, you just can’t expect the same following than the NHL.


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