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Sportscasting Pioneer Donna de Varona Reflects on Women in the Biz

Donna de Varona’s first Olympic Games came in 1960 when she was only 13. Four years later, the swimmer won two gold medals. At that time, college scholarships for women athletes didn’t exist, so de Varona used her relationship with ABC Sports to land a job as one of the first and youngest female sportscasters. She credits Roone Arledge, the visionary head of ABC Sports, with giving her career the boost it needed. “Arledge … believed fan interest in a sport depended upon compelling stories, enduring rivalries and most of all interesting personalities,” she notes. De Varona talks about women’s sports and broadcasting in a guest column for Variety’s Power of Women issue.

My decades in the business began in 1964 when I called ABC network-swimming producer Chuck Howard and told him the only way I could deal with retiring was if I could work on swimming telecasts.  A few weeks later, with no training and a work permit in hand, I joined Jim McKay for ABC’s live coverage of the Men’s National Swimming Championships. At 17 I was making history as the youngest and one of the first women to enter the sports broadcasting field. What no one knew was that I had no contract. I did not have an agent either, and as a freelance analyst my pay was barely above union minimum and hundreds of dollars less than my male counterparts. I was on call for all of ABC’s swimming events from 1965 through 1976, including the Olympics.

No woman had covered Olympic events before.

My big break came in 1975 when ABC signed me to work with the local news affiliate in New York —  I was finally making a living wage and getting consistent assignments as the first woman to work in the market.

However, on the network level, scoring assignments for one of the big three networks — ABC, NBC and CBS — took perseverance, finding a niche and being able to find confidence and perform under pressure when so many did not support you. That was nerve-racking.

Breakthroughs in the industry came in the wake of the 1960s civil-rights movement. It was a time when the convergence of political activism, federal legislation and bold leadership led to changes in America’s social and sporting landscape.

Four years after I made the transition from the pool to the broadcast booth, the darling of the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, gold medalist figure skater Peggy Fleming, joined Dick Button for all of ABC’s skating coverage. A tradition had been established, and Arledge understood that talented and attractive women athletes were a driver of ratings.

In 1970 when tennis champion Billie Jean King found success in spearheading the campaign to create a professional women’s tennis tour, Arledge paid attention. King’s battle resonated with all women in the workplace. It was a time when we were making less than 57¢ on the dollar — her struggle was every woman’s struggle. Sportswomen were making even less, most of us were earning nothing.

ABC’s 1973 broadcast of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobbie
Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” (now on the big screen) was not about sport, but about how women were valued.

The first of its kind mega-event took place in a packed Houston Astrodome.  It was a ratings bonanza, as 90 million worldwide watched the spectacle. Shortly after the match, my assignment was to convince King to join ABC. Subsequently we hosted a first network special on women’s sports, “The Lady Is a Champ.”

In the mid-1970s, CBS was first to recognize the growth of women’s interest in football. In 1975, former Miss America Phyllis George joined CBS’ “The NFL Today” show. A year later, Boston Globe beat writer Lesley Visser broke ground, becoming the first female NFL analyst.  In a business that retires women too early, Visser has had staying power and a profound impact on the acceptance of women in sportscasting, paving the way for the current generation of sideline reporters, a rising number of analysts and play-by-play announcers covering men’s college professional sports.

Developing parallel to the rise of women sportscasters was the expansion of women’s sports on TV. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics was the watershed moment in this movement. For the first time NBC broadcast all of the women’s basketball games, helping to showcase the launch of the WNBA.  Although NBC was criticized for not broadcasting the women’s soccer final, sellout crowds for the women’s matches convinced FIFA to award the 1999 Women’s World Cup tournament to the United States. Prime time exposure made stars of the players and articulate team captain Julie Foudy found a future in the sportscasting business with NBC and ESPN.

In 2015, Fox outbid ESPN for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, and its in-depth coverage set a new ratings mark when some 25.4 million viewers tuned in for the U.S. women’s victory over Japan. With Lifetime signing up to broadcast the launch of another women’s professional soccer league hopes are high that this effort will be sustainable.

And in a non-Olympic year, 2017, ESPN and ESPN2’s 800 hours devoted to women’s sports is the most of all network coverage, but data collected between the years 1989 and 2014 indicate that women’s sports are getting less coverage than in 1989. In 2014, only 3.2% of network TV was devoted to women’s sports. That percentage may increase during Olympics and World Cup coverage, but overall, women who want to be in the sports business continue to face incredible odds.

USA Today columnist and prominent TV reporter Christine Brennan believes that for real change to take place more women need to be in charge not only with top jobs but hosting, doing play by play and color. Today’s pioneers such as Mary Carillo, Hanna Storm, Bonnie Bernstein, Linda Cohn and Andrea Kremer have been solid role models for a new generation of women who have made progress in a business that has not changed much since my first interview with ABC’s Jim McKay in 1960. Truth is, I loved every frustrating and up and down minute in the business.

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