As viewers turned their TVs to the Blues-Blackhawks game on Sunday night, a woman’s voice was the first they heard.
“It’s the push for the playoffs," the telecast began, "on a groundbreaking night that everyone can celebrate.”
Kate Scott and U.S. Olympic gold medalist A.J. Mleczko took the screen first. Another Olympic gold medalist, Kendall Coyne-Schofield, then joined them to call the action in Chicago. When they finished previewing the game, the final regular-season matchup between St. Louis and Chicago, they flashed to images of young girls in the United Center stands, ready to cheer on their favorite teams.
For people watching at home on NBC Sports Network, they were witnessing history. On International Women’s Day, an all-women crew was calling and producing an NHL game in the United States for the first time. Days before the telecast, studio host Kathryn Tappen, a New Jersey native, called the milestone “trailblazing."
Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, said she hopes the telecast will spark meaningful change for a sport that hasn’t always been at the forefront of diversity and inclusion.
“I think it was symbolic because it was International Women’s Day, and I think it showed that the NHL and NBC did this because they thought the time had come,” Kane said. “If this becomes a one-off and the NHL and NBC says, ‘Now we solved the problem of women in hockey,’ then that’s a problem."
It’s too early to predict the telecast’s impact on the future of women in sports, she said, but it shows progress.
The front offices of men’s professional teams in the Philadelphia region have mirrored broader progress. More than half of the Eagles’ top advisers are women. The Sixers rank among the most inclusive teams in the NBA in terms of female leadership.
Last year, the Flyers brought on Valerie Camillo, who is the NHL’s first woman to be hired as president of business operations. Camillo has since put together a diverse leadership team, with four of the seven people who report directly to her being women.
The Phillies have several women who work in the front office and player development.
Not all women are advancing, though, said Karen M. Turner, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and a former reporter who was dissuaded from covering men’s sports in the 1970s and ’80s. When she saw the promotions for the International Women’s Day telecast, she said, she immediately noticed that there was no racial diversity in front of the camera.
“All the women are white,” Turner said. “That too is an issue. Women are gaining more and more opportunities, but women of color aren’t getting these opportunities. ... I think it’s getting lost in the conversation."
She said she was encouraged to see more young women wanting to pursue jobs in sports reporting, with fewer hesitations and none of the push-back she received 40 years ago. On Temple’s campus, the Sports Media Society for Women held a screening of Sunday’s telecast.
For aspiring sports reporters, it has helped that women are becomingly increasingly visible in men’s sports, whether calling an NHL game or coaching on the sidelines, and leagues and media companies alike are taking steps to elevate their platforms. But the pace is slow.
Not only do women’s sports continue to lag far behind men’s in terms of popularity and media coverage (women’s sports make up only about 4% to 5% percent of sports coverage, Kane said), but men also continue to hold most of the jobs that involve coaching, scouting, and game analysis at the men’s professional and college levels.
In sports media, women make up only about 11% of reporters, a number that has stayed steady for more than a decade, according to the 2018 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card. The numbers on the TV side are similar, with most sports anchors and announcers being men.
To exacerbate matters, female journalists continue to face harassment just for doing their jobs in a male-dominated industry, a fact evidenced by derogatory comments on Twitter following Sunday night’s telecast. When The Inquirer published a story last week previewing the International Women’s Day event, one reader emailed: “Why can’t women just let men have a few things of our own where we don’t have to deal with the pushy women who seem to think their place is everywhere but the kitchen and bedroom?”
Kane, of the Tucker Center for Research on women in sports, said she doesn’t think women who cover women’s sports receive the same level of harassment as those who cover the men’s game. Unfortunately, she said, backlash usually comes hand-in-hand with progress.
“There’s always a new horizon for equity, and backlash always follows," she said. “But it’s much better than it used to be, that’s for sure.”
Steven Miller, the director of undergraduate studies for the department of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, taught Tappen during her days as a student on the New Brunswick, N.J.,campus. Today, Miller talks to his students, including aspiring sports reporters, about the barriers they’ll face in the industry. Some young women are hesitant to enter the field, he said, because of the sexism they’ll face.
While Miller takes pride in the accomplishments of alumni such as Tappen, he had mixed feelings about Sunday’s milestone.
“I was happy and angry with the whole thing,” Miller said. “I am angry that it’s such a rare phenomenon that a woman does play-by-play that they need to do publicity about it.”
Tappen and producer Rene Hatlelid, who worked behind the scenes on the International Women’s Day show, said last week that they hoped someday soon an all-women crew would not be a novelty.
“We still have a glass ceiling," NFL reporter Laura Okmin said during the telecast. “We are constantly bumping our heads against it. But what this game and this crew does is give us one more beautiful, glorious crack.”