Beth Mowins became only the second woman to serve as a play-by-play announcer for a regular season National Football League (NFL) game when she called the Monday Night Football (MNF) broadcast of the Chargers-Broncos game on Sept. 11, 2017. Mowins has called games for ESPN since 1994, and her repertoire spans college football, college basketball, and, for 23 years, the softball world series. As Chris Finn noted on boston.com, “[Mowins] confirmed again to little surprise that she’s a steady and often superb broadcasting pro, no pronoun qualifier necessary.” However, that Finn even needed the pronoun reference indicates why Mowins is significant for the proverbial hill she climbed to reach the MNF booth despite having the credentials to merit the opportunity years before.
From an “arduous struggle” to the NFL broadcast booth, the long trek for female sportscasters has centered on access, credibility, sustained opportunity, and pay. Gender and racial stereotypes for sportscasters have persisted for decades with women relegated to sideline reporter roles and people of color as analysts and sideline reporters, while (mostly white) males maintain the coveted play-by-play positions. The minimized place for female announcers represents workplace segregation and exemplifies an imbalance between women’s sports participation and fandom, which is incongruent with the small portion of females covering sports. Historically and socially, sport and media are averse to gender and racial equity in the broadcast booth.
Before Mowins, 30 years passed since Gayle Sierens broke the NFL broadcasting gender barrier when she called the Seahawks-Chiefs game in the 1987 regular season finale on NBC. I have known Sierens for more than a decade since we worked at competing stations in the Tampa television market and had the opportunity to interview her the day after Mowins’ MNF debut. Sierens said it is a “blur” about what she remembers from her pioneering moment for female sportscasters but did not think it would be three decades before another woman repeated the feat. Sierens exchanged text messages before the Monday night game with Mowins and sent flowers to the broadcast booth.
“I was so proud of her and just thrilled to see her because she is a true professional,” Sierens said. “She is so good at her craft.”
Mowins was paired with former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills head coach turned rookie broadcaster Rex Ryan. Ryan’s debut as a game analyst, which the New York Post described as a “surprising ESPN disaster,” provides another gendered stereotype in broadcasting that assumes a former coach or player can seamlessly transition into the booth, especially in men’s sports, without years of practice like Mowins. Sierens felt Mowins handled the challenge of calling an NFL game better than she did and echoed a San Diego Union-Tribune recap that Mowins “provided needed polish” to make up for Ryan’s mistakes.
“I truly would have loved to have seen her with someone that was a little bit better than Rex Ryan in the broadcast because I think she just so far outshined him,” Sierens said. “I thought she blew it out of the water.”
Sierens is surprised it took 30 years for another woman to call an NFL game but does wonder how many female sportscasters are interested in doing play-by-play. Sierens had opportunities to call future games for NBC but ultimately decided, along with a strong nudge from her bosses, to remain at WFLA as the station’s news anchor. After 38 years at the Tampa station, Sierens retired in 2015 with her NFL connection among her most momentous professional achievements. Then pregnant with her first child in 1987, Sierens faced a gendered workplace debate of motherhood versus profession. She chose the “secure, stable thing” that resulted in an Emmy award-winning broadcast career. However, the trailblazing moment remains relevant, especially in the wake of Mowins’ achievement, and raises some questions.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Sierens said. “You just have the what ifs. What if I had done it? What might that have been like [to call more games]? And would it have opened these doors for women a long time ago? That’s the only thing I ever kind of feel guilty about.”
Women breaking through to broadcast booths in perceived masculine sports (baseball, basketball, football, hockey) are not nonexistent but also not abundant. Gayle Gardner paved the way in MLB play-by-play in 1989, but few women have followed. Before Mowins started calling college football in 2005, Pam Ward broke that barrier in 2000 and provided play-by-play for ESPN for 11 years, but not without gendered criticism before she was let go in 2012. Doris Burke began covering the NBA in 2003 as a sideline reporter before switching to the analyst role. Burke made waves early in 2017 when she stepped away from her 20-year run covering the WNBA to focus solely on the NBA. The move did not conform to the gendered ideology that women should only cover women’s sports and aspire to “meet male standards” when afforded to sparingly enter the male domain. That is part of the larger societal issue at play.
Then there is the gender-role socialization factor of motherhood where travel for work can place strain on home and family. Cassie Campbell discussed the role of motherhood six years after becoming the first female analyst in 2006 for Hockey Night in Canada, which rarely, if ever, engages in discourse about fatherhood surrounding male broadcasters. Jessica Mendoza told The Atlantic that she faced a similar family decision as Sierens before becoming the first full-time female analyst in Major League Baseball in 2016 when she debuted with ESPN. Mendoza then received scrutiny on social media despite her All-American and Olympic softball playing career that should clearly legitimize her ability to break down the game. Mendoza and Sierens each mentioned a desire to not “screw it up” for fear of doors closing for other aspiring female announcers.
Mowins is a glowing sign of progress and has been tapped to call at least three more NFL games in 2017 for CBS, but female announcers still face challenges from network executives in a male dominated landscape. A full-time play-by-play gig is the next major step for female sportscasters. On this front, Sierens sees an opportunity for a long-term shift if those male suits are willing to break traditional stereotypical ranks.
“The only advice I would have is don’t put any blinders on to who should be allowed to do these kinds of events,” Sierens said, “because of Beth’s performance (on MNF) and for years frankly… that is a conversation that people will be having a lot more than they used to.”
Travis R. Bell is a multimedia journalism instructor at the University of South Florida. He has published in the International Journal of Sport Communication and Communication & Sport and has forthcoming book chapters about hyper-sexualization of female tennis players and racialized identity in football recruiting. Bell was a sports broadcast journalist from 2000-2012. You can read more on his website www.travisrbell.com.