Lisa Byington remembers the butterflies she felt as a little kid watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
She was a basketball player herself, and with men’s games televised much more frequently than the women’s, March Madness was always her favorite event.
Byington paid more attention to the players than the announcers—she dreamt of being an athlete, and would imagine herself as a college player, hearing “One Shining Moment” or emulating Keith Smart’s 1987 corner-jumper game-winner for Indiana.
She may not have foreseen making it to March as the one calling, instead of taking, the shots. (Although she would do that, too, helping Northwestern to an NCAA tournament appearance as a point guard in 1997.)
But as she becomes the first woman to call play-by-play at the men’s NCAA tournament for a national outlet this week, that’s exactly what she’s done.
“I just look at it as being progress. This is one step closer to get to a point of where we want to go,” Byington says. “It’s the story of so many men and women who have come together, who are part of this process to help generate this opportunity now.”
This is her latest accomplishment in a career that already has its share of historic “firsts.” In 2017, Byington became the first woman to call play-by-play for a Big Ten Network football game. In 2019, she was part of the first all-woman crew to call an MLS game, believed to be the first all-woman broadcast of any of the five major men’s professional leagues.
She began working as a March Madness reporter with CBS and Turner Sports in 2017, covering the 2019 men’s Final Four from the sideline in the network’s virtual reality broadcast. She was set to work again as a sideline reporter for the 2020 tournament before its cancellation last year.
The opportunity to move from the sideline to the booth for this year’s Big Dance came about in February.
It’s a comfortable jump: Most of Byington’s work for Fox Sports and the Big Ten Network since 2013 has come in the play-by-play role. She called both men’s and women’s games across the Big Ten and Big East this season. As the news that she would do play-by-play for the 2021 men’s tournament broke on March 11, she was readying to call the Big Ten women’s tournament quarterfinals later that night.
“I got a text from [fellow announcer] Brian Anderson, right as the selection show was starting, and all it said was, ‘If you don’t feel butterflies right now, you are a robot,’ ” she says. “I’m going to be as excited as anyone would be for this kind of opportunity.”
Byington may be the first woman to call play-by-play at the men’s tournament, but she hopes she’s not the last. She points to the NBA as a sign of forward progress for women in the field—the Raptors-vs.-Nuggets game on March 24 will feature the first all-female broadcast team in league history.
“It starts with people allowing women, minorities, the opportunities that haven’t always been there, and the NBA has had an incredible trickle-down effect,” she says. “People pay attention to the NBA, people watch the NBA. So it has to start in a place that people care about and pay attention to. … It takes someone saying, ‘This person is worthy of this, this person deserves this,’ and opening the door in that way.”
Her debut will come Friday afternoon, as No. 1 seed Baylor takes on No. 16 seed Hartford. She’ll call West Virginia vs. Morehead State later that day, and then Creighton vs. UC Santa Barbara and Texas vs. Abilene Christian on Saturday.
The butterflies might return when she takes her seat courtside on college basketball’s biggest stage. But Byington likens it to a scene in Hoosiers, where coach Norman Dale measures the rim and free throw line at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse before the state final—a fitting metaphor considering games are set to tip off up the road at that very gym, just as she’ll be going live from Lucas Oil Stadium.
“When I look out onto the court, that’s the same court, it’s the same teams, it’s the same sport you call all year long. And those are the simple things, the basic things you have to remind yourself,” Byington says. “There’s more eyeballs, and, granted, the stakes are higher. [But] it all comes down to the job that we do all year long.”
SI’s tournament newsletter analyzes everything you need to know about the Big Dance: what just happened and what’s happening next. Sign up for Morning Madness here.