Lauded for college football work, ESPN's Pam Ward wants a shot at calling NFL games

By Leonard Shapiro
Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pam Ward was properly honored earlier this month by the College Sports Information Directors of America (COSIDA), who presented her with the organization's prestigious Jake Wade Award for making an outstanding media contribution in the field of intercollegiate athletics.

Her contributions as a versatile broadcaster have been outstanding for quite a while, and pioneering, as well, because Ward remains the first and now only female play-by-play announcer on big-time college football for a major national television network. Once again this upcoming season, she will be the voice of Big Ten football for ESPN's package of games, in addition to handling a wide variety of other assignments on television and radio.

The Mitchellville native and University of Maryland graduate obviously was gratified to have been presented the award at COSIDA's national convention in San Francisco on July 6. But she also will admit to a certain amount of frustration that she still has been unable to fulfill one of her own lifelong goals. Plainly put, Ward has always dreamed about wanting to do play-by-play on NFL games, the better to prove once and for all that a woman doesn't have to be solely restricted to studio or sideline work at the highest level of the sport.

She also is a realist. At her own network, Mike Tirico, one of the best in his business, is firmly entrenched as the play-by-play voice for "Monday Night Football." At NBC, the great Al Michaels isn't going anywhere anytime soon for Sunday night prime-time games. And at CBS and Fox, each employing six full-time announcing crews for Sunday afternoon games, there has been little turnover in recent years, with few openings expected in the near future.

"The NFL is something I've wanted to do since I was a little kid," Ward said in a recent interview, adding that she remains undeterred in trying to fulfill that quest despite years of hearing network executives insist there are only so many jobs out there and the pool of "qualified" female candidates makes it even more difficult to pull the trigger on what surely would be an extremely controversial hire.

"Maybe that's true," Ward said, "but I wonder why no one has even bothered to at least talk to me about the possibility. I don't really see what the big deal would be."

Make no mistake: Ward loves her job at ESPN, which also includes a hefty load of women's college basketball and plenty of radio and television studio work involving the NFL and the NBA, among many other duties she's performed since joining the company in 1996.

But play-by-play remains her great passion, and she's starting to wonder if she or any other woman will ever get a chance to regularly call NFL games in her lifetime.

Harold Bryant, vice president for production at CBS Sports, said in an interview that "it is coming in the future. As soon as we find the right person, we'd give her a shot. It is still a hurdle we have to overcome. It's something we want to happen and we will try to make it happen. Unfortunately, right now there aren't a lot of women out there doing it. I do know Pam Ward is one of them, and I think she's very good."

Ed Goren, president and executive producer for sports at Fox, also said he was familiar with Ward's work and "she does an extremely professional job. She has the appropriate voice quality. She's prepared. But we haven't hired a play-by-play announcer in quite some time; I can't remember the last time we did.

"Anytime there is a breakthrough, it takes the right individual to make it work, and one that the audience will accept. Branch Rickey had to pick the right person when he brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers. It's not a simple issue. Sometimes you only get one shot, and if you fail, then what?"

Ironically, there is something of a Catch-22 situation at work for Ward, as well. CBS and Fox both have a small stable of part-time announcer teams for weekends when they are televising more than six games around the country, which occurs three or four times during the regular season.

But because Ward is under contract to ESPN, it seems highly unlikely the Worldwide Leader would allow her to moonlight elsewhere. And it would probably be professional Russian roulette for Ward to sever her ties with ESPN for a chance to do three or four NFL games a season, contests that no doubt would match bottom-feeding teams with a minuscule viewing audience.

Ward clearly could have gone to a major network as a sideline reporter on NFL games, but she tried that genre once early in her career and despised the job. These days, she also hates the fact that when she speaks to young women on campuses around the country with an interest in doing sports on television, "they all want to be sideline reporters because that's really all they ever see," she said. "I tell them don't pinhole yourself, don't limit yourself. But they see it as their only way in, and that's a shame."

Still, it says here that if given a shot, Ward almost certainly would not fail. She's been doing the Big Ten for ESPN since 2002. Her well-deserved COSIDA award obviously speaks volumes in terms of her competence, and she also is widely respected by coaches and athletic directors around the conference for her attention to detail and her thorough approach to any game she's assigned.

The news release announcing the Wade award may have said it best: "She has come to stand out in the fact that her work is not regarded as a novelty."

What we have here is a highly competent play-by-play broadcaster who is clearly ready, willing and definitely able to take her work to the next level. Not only does Pam Ward need a chance to accomplish that objective. At this point, she deserves one.

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