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Uphill battle for women in NFL play-by-play roles may soon reach a turning point

The appearance of female talent in the booth on multiple preseason broadcasts in recent years raises the question: How long until a woman gets the call for a regular NFL role?

In the 96-year history of the NFL, there has been only one woman who has called a regular season NFL game. On Dec. 27, 1987, the final weekend of the regular season, Gayle Sierens did play-by-play of the Seahawks-Chiefs game for NBC. She received generally good reviews. Following that broadcast, then NBC Sports executive producer Mike Weisman offered Sierens six more game games for the following season. But the local NBC station Sierens worked for in Tampa did not want her to split time between the two jobs. Sierens never called another NFL game. She retired in May 2015 after a long and respected career as a news anchor in Tampa.

The history of female broadcasters working in non-sideline positions is as follows: Lesley Visser served as an analyst for a Westwood One/CBS Radio game in 2001 and eight years later became the first woman to do color for a televised NFL game, a preseason meeting between the Dolphins and Saints. ESPN’s Beth Mowins has called preseason games for the Raiders over the past two seasons. Last Sunday, KNBR 680 Radio (San Francisco) host Kate Scott made her debut as the preseason radio announcer for the 49ers, a two-game assignment she landed because Ted Robinson (the TV voice of the Niners) was working for NBC during the Rio Olympics. (The Niners’ usual radio announcer, Bob Fitzgerald, was moved to the TV side for the preseason.)

You are now updated on the list of women who have done NFL play-by-play and color analysis.

This leads to the obvious question: Why? Between all of the NFL rightsholders—CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC, and the NFL Network—there are around 20 spots for play-by-play broadcasters every year. Given a woman has never ascended to even one of the lower-level teams on the networks with multiple broadcast teams (such as CBS and Fox), the implicit message to women who want to enter sports broadcasting is that this job is not for you.

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“I didn’t even consider it a possibility until I was in college,” Scott said. “It wasn’t until I heard Pam Ward [who called college football for ESPN] and Beth calling games that I thought to myself, ‘Huh, there’s a woman in the booth? I love football and I know I want to be a broadcaster, so maybe that’s something I should look into.’ One of the reasons I believe there aren’t more women doing this is because most women don’t even think it’s a possibility due to the lack of examples out there. It takes a rare bird to think, ‘Hey, absolutely no one that looks or sounds like me is doing this, I think I’ll try it!’

“Because of that, there’s no pipeline,” Scott continued. “Young women contact me all the time to talk about sideline reporting, which I also do, because they see female sideline reporters everywhere. But I have yet to receive a tweet or email from a young woman looking to get into play-by-play. Fewer numbers equals a much smaller pool to choose from. You get the idea.”

ESPN’s Stephanie Druley is one of the highest-ranking women in sports broadcasting. As a senior vice president of event and studio production at her company, Druley is responsible for the entirety of ESPN’s remote production portfolio and associated studio shows for the NFL, college sports and Major League Baseball. In short, she makes the talent call on many of the programs you watch on ESPN.

At ESPN, Druley grew up on the NFL. She was an associate producer on Sunday NFL Countdown before serving as the show’s producer (becoming one of the first women to produce an NFL studio show), then as the senior coordinating producer in charge of all of ESPN’s NFL shows. Druley believes we will see a full-time female voice on the NFL sometime this decade. When I spoke with her six years ago on this topic, she was far less optimistic.

“I would like to be optimistic and I think it will happen soon,” Druley said. “I’d like to think that if we can potentially have a woman be president, we can certainly have a woman do the NFL. I think America is changing, sports fans are changing and the NFL should honestly be the most accepting because women love the NFL. It is the reason I do the job I do. The NFL was the gateway drug for me. The question becomes: Is the audience prepared?”

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One thing that executives must prepare for is some viewer backlash. Druley referenced that despite how great Doris Burke is on the NBA, she still gets criticism on social media for every men’s sporting assignment she does. “It is my job to not listen to that,” Druley said. “I think we tend to push it here because we want to see progress but sometimes I’m not sure Joe Six-Pack is ready.”

It’s worth noting that Mowins was not given her job by ESPN—which has an NFL play-by-play opening available every year when they broadcast a Monday Night Football doubleheader the first week of the NFL season. I’ve suggested for years Mowins get the play-by-play job for the late doubleheader game. ESPN has instead made that assignment both a branding play (Mike & Mike) and a gift for longtime service (Chris Berman).

Vittorio DeBartolo, the executive producer of broadcasting for the Oakland Raiders, said he reached out to Mowins because he liked her work, and because there were some mutual connections through Syracuse University (the alma mater of both Mowins former Raiders owner Al Davis). DeBartolo told SI last year that Raiders owner Mark Davis challenged he and vice president of media and entertainment Brad Phinney to explore all avenues and think outside the box for the hire of a preseason TV voice. “I really tried to think outside the box, and I had seen Beth do games on ESPN for many years,” DeBartolo said. “I thought it would be intriguing.”

DeBartolo said Mowins impressed the brass with her appreciation of the team’s history (Mowins’s brother is a life-long Oakland fan, and the two often discussed the Raiders’ glory years) and her preparation. Mowins was also helped by the Raiders’ long reputation for bucking convention on hires.

“You need a champion,” Scott said. “Someone who is going to stick their neck out there for you, knowing that folks will say, ‘Gasp! A woman! Calling a man’s game! Who thought that was a good idea!’ And let’s be honest, most people are so worried about their own jobs these days the last thing they’re going do is put that job on the line for you. On top of that, who makes up the majority that makes those decisions? Men. We need more men who are willing to take a big risk for women. I’m one of the extremely lucky few who’s had that in Paul Aldridge, the man who gave me a shot at CHN [Comcast Hometown Network], Richard Zinn and the folks involved with the WCC at CSN Bay Area, and Lee Hammer and the 49ers. But I guarantee you there’s at least a handful of other women out there who are just as qualified as me; they’re simply waiting for someone to step up and be their champion.”

Druley said as a woman working in sports broadcasting, she believed she had an obligation to look out for other woman and to help folks crack ceilings. For instance, this year she assigned Maria Taylor to replace Joe Tessitore (who moved to calling games on Saturday night) as the host of SEC Nation, the SEC Network's pregame show on Saturday mornings. Druley said she did not think it was a coincidence that Mowins and Ward have had a successful run calling football because their voices have a lower tenor. “And I don’t think that is just for the NFL,” Druley said. “I think that is play-by-play in general and hosting as a whole.”

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One high-ranking male television executive for a network that broadcasts the NFL said viewers will see a woman holding a full-time role as a national NFL gamecaller before the end of this decade. “I would be surprised if it didn’t happen before the teens are over,” said the executive, who was given anonymity because he’s not the final decision-maker for his company. “The overarching issue is not many people—men included—set out to be play-by-play announcers anymore. They all grew up with SportsCenter and thus look at the anchor job as the plum. Any person calling games needs to have a command of the sport and a commanding voice and presence. Just like any other woman in a high-profile position, she will be under greater scrutiny than her male counterparts. We’ve seen women like Pam Ward and Beth Mowins do credible jobs calling football games—so in my mind it’s when, not if.”

Women represent about one-third of the NFL’s viewing audience throughout the regular season and playoffs, a number that has grown over the last 20 years. They account for about half of the Super Bowl viewing audience, which last year was 111.9 million on CBS. Something that has long filtered its way into the thinking of male executives running sports networks was that male NFL fans would accept a woman’s voice doing games. Of course, how would they know? It hasn’t happened.

But as both Druley and the other executive above said, things seem to be changing. Scott said earlier this week that the feedback on her calling the Niners was “shockingly, overwhelmingly positive” from all corners.

“I was expecting at least a small chunk of the ‘I don’t want a woman calling a man’s game’ reaction, if not the more vicious ‘Get the f--- off my radio’ response,” Scott said. “But I can count on one hand the number of tweets I received that fell into either of those categories. On the flip side, I did get multiple tweets saying something to the effect of, ‘I wasn’t sure about a woman doing play-by-play, but you nailed it.’ So, progress? One can hope.”