Pundits drive the sports news industry, but women’s opinions are almost totally absent


Fox Sports reporter Pam Oliver. (LM Otero/AP)

Here’s a question you won’t hear debated by the panelists on sports-talk shows: Why are so few women among the panelists on sports-talk shows?

Women have made strides in virtually every area of sports journalism over the past two decades or more. They cover sports for newspapers and Web sites, write columns and host studio programs. They are ubiquitous as sideline reporters on game broadcasts and they’re a growing presence as the sports anchor on local newscasts.

But they don’t, generally speaking, get to offer their opinions on the air. The usual sports-chat topics — quarterback controversies, coaching decisions, draft projections and the like — are still the province of men. And those outspoken male pundits are increasingly responsible for shaping the narrative that drives the 24-hour sports news cycle, where strong opinions and hot takes rule the day.

Don’t women have opinions, too?

Guys have lots of them, and in the testosterone jungle that is sports chatter, some of the things they say about women can be pretty ugly. Maybe having a few women around wouldn’t hurt.

Fox Sports reporter Erin Andrews. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Last month, Kirk Minihane of Boston radio station WEEI called Fox sports reporter Erin Andrews “a gutless b----” for the crime — this is sports radio, remember — of expressing a mild opinion during an interview with pitcher Adam Wainwright during baseball’s All-Star Game. Minihane apologized for his comment.

Then there was ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith, who suggested on ESPN2’s “First Take” last month that women were responsible for “provoking” men into acts of domestic violence, such as Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s beating of his fiancee. Faced with a massive backlash, Smith also apologized and was suspended for a week by ESPN.

Sports talk usually doesn’t get that sexist, but it also doesn’t regularly offer many opinions from the other sex, either. A few clips from the highlight reel:

●ESPN, the self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” has had just two female panelists (Jackie MacMullan and Jemele Hill) among the 33 regular and guest panelists who have appeared on “Around the Horn,” its signature daily debate show, since the program started in 2002. “The Sports Reporters,” another ESPN blabfest, is somewhat better: It has put seven women on as regular or semi-regular panelists over the program’s 26-year run. (ESPN declined to comment for this story.)

●Among the top 100 sports-radio programs ranked by the trade magazine Talkers last year — a list containing 183 hosts and co-hosts — only two women made an appearance (Fox Sports Radio co-host Amy Van Dyken, whose program was ranked No. 76; and Dana Jacobson of CBS Sports Radio at No. 99).

●Of the 143 sports pundits whose picks and predictions are tracked by the Web site Pundittracker, only one is a woman (Ramona Shelburne, a columnist for ESPN.com’s Los Angeles site).

Is it the supply that’s lacking — that is, a pool of women who want to mix it up with the men on the air? Or is it the demand — a lack of interest among the overwhelmingly male sports audience to hear opinions from women? Or is it something else, such as timidity and sexism on the part of sports-media executives (overwhelmingly male) to give the ladies a shot?

CBS Sports Radio host Dana Jacobson, who once worked for ESPN. (Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ESPN via AP)

Answer: Maybe all of the above.

“Sports are still unquestionably positioned as a male domain, so the default experts are men,” said Marie Hardin, dean of Penn State’s communications department and an expert on sports media. “I’m not saying that women haven’t made great strides in opportunities to compete, to coach” — just this week the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs made Becky Hammon the first female assistant coach in major pro sports — “and to be part of the media around sports, but their numbers are too low to change the overall cultural sentiment around sports.”

Some of this is self-perpetuating, she says: Men have long dominated sports broadcasting, and men tend to hire other men.

And, she notes, fans have their own self-fulfilling expectations. Research by several scholars, including Hardin, indicates that sports viewers (typically but not entirely men) prefer to hear male voices when they watch sports, especially sports played by men. Women who comment on men’s sports are perceived as somewhat less credible. And women who comment on women’s sports are ranked even lower by fans, she said.

Hardin notes that the roles women have been able to achieve on sports broadcasts, such as hosts facilitating the conversation among pundits, don’t position women as the authoritative “voice” on a TV broadcast. The big jobs — play-by-play announcers, analysts, panel pundits — tend to go overwhelmingly to men. Throughout the long history of televised sports, only a tiny number of women, such as ESPN’s Pam Ward and Beth Mowins, have ever been play-by-play announcers on major men’s sports.

The only job dominated by women in TV sportscasting — its “pink-collar ghetto,” as Hardin puts it — is sideline reporting, a lesser role than the announcer or color commentator. It’s mostly younger women who fulfill these roles, reinforcing the perception that the job is primarily window dressing. Fox recently demoted its veteran NFL sideline reporter, Pam Oliver, after she dared to turn 53. She was replaced by Andrews, who is 36.

A different dynamic may be at play in sports radio. Women just aren’t clamoring to become hosts of the pugnacious call-in shows that dominate the format, says Chuck Sapienza, vice president of programming for ESPN 980 and Sportstalk570, two Washington-area stations owned by Redskins owner Daniel Snyder.

“Most women interested in broadcasting are interested in TV,” he says. “We try [to attract women]. We try a lot. It’s next to impossible.”

Sapienza regularly asks would-be interns and young job candidates about their career ambitions. Many of the young men want to break into, or move up in, sports radio. But Sapienza says, “I’ve never had a young woman tell me she wants to be a radio talk-show host. They want to be on ‘SportsCenter.’ They want to be sideline reporters.”

Part of it, he reasons, may also be because of the absence of role models. There are no women on sports radio who approach the stature of Jim Rome, Dan Patrick or Mike Francesa, all major sports-radio stars. Nanci Donnellan, known as “the Fabulous Sports Babe,” once had a nationally syndicated radio show, but has had health problems in recent years. She now has an overnight show on an AM station in Tampa, WHFS.

The good news? If the playing field still isn’t exactly level for women, the balance may at least be starting to improve. Slowly.

Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist, points out that women have begun to appear more frequently on TV as expert commentators and analysts on men’s sports. Among others: Dottie Pepper, a former pro golfer-turned-broadcaster, offered her views about Tiger Woods’s back problems on ESPN the other day; former soccer player Julie Foudy was an expert commentator on the recent World Cup; WNBA star Kara Lawson has weighed in on the NBA on ESPN.

“This would not have happened five years ago,” Brennan says. “ESPN would never have asked a woman to comment on a man. These are all breakthroughs in their own way.”

Brennan herself is proof of the improving climate. A one-time panelist on “The Sports Reporters,” she is a regular sports commentator on NPR and on such ABC News shows as “Good Morning America” and “Nightline.” “I’m doing more TV in my 50s than I did in my 30s and 40s,” she says.

Having more women on sports broadcasts isn’t just a question of equity, she argues, it’s smart business.

“TV sports has just about maxed out the male audience,” Brennan says. “If you want to grow your ratings, you’ve got millions of girls and women in this country who are growing up to be consumers of sports news and products. They’re obviously used to hearing a man talk about sports. But maybe there’s a 12-year-old girl somewhere who hears a woman’s voice and says, ‘Let’s watch.’ And the sport and the network have just created a new fan.”

Lesley Visser, the veteran CBS sports reporter, takes the long view.

Back in the 1970s, when she became the first woman to cover the NFL as a reporter for the Boston Globe, Visser noted the surprised and occasionally hostile reception she’d get from the players, coaches, team officials and fans. The credentials on her press passes to games read, “No Women or Children in the Press Box.”

After she became a TV reporter in the 1980s, Visser started racking up firsts: the first woman to report on an NBA broadcast, the first to do a Final Four game, the first at a Super Bowl.

It’s not unusual to see a woman covering any of those events now.

“It takes time for a culture to change,” says Visser, 60. ”People don’t smoke as much as they once did, but they didn’t all stop smoking the day after we learned it was bad for you. It takes time.”

And this, too, will change, she says: “I think it’s coming. Is it moving fast enough for me? No. But it’s coming.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.

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