Categorized | Women in Sports

Reporters or pretty faces?

Andrea Kremer flanks Deion Sanders after he was selected fifth in the 1989 NFL Draft. (Associated Press)

Female sideline reporters navigate cultural rules to gather news from the field

By FREDERICK DREIER

When Andrea Kremer stepped onto Raymond James Field in Tampa to begin her pre-game broadcast for Super Bowl XLIII on February 1, 2009, the veteran sideline reporter had a belly full of butterflies. It was not the roar of 70,774 fans that had Kremer nervous, nor the pressure of reporting NBC’s first Super Bowl since 1997.

Kremer’s jitters came from the news she was about to break. Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ injured MVP wide receiver, had undergone platelet-rich plasma therapy to repair the sprained medial ligament in his right knee. The procedure, which involved injecting blood platelets into the joint, had quelled the injury. The day before the game, Ward had given Kremer the exclusive news: he would play.

When the camera flicked on Kremer, her news about Ward beamed to an estimated 98.73 million households across the globe, which according to Nielsen Media was the largest TV sports audience at the time.

“By the time Super Bowl Sunday rolls around, there is really nothing new, nothing left to say about the game,” said Kremer, a 28-year veteran of sports journalism. “And here I was on the biggest stage I could possibly be on and I had information that nobody else had, and I nailed it. It felt pretty good.”

The injury slowed Ward’s explosive sprint, however his presence helped the Steelers in the 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Two weeks later, the New York Times ran a front-page story about platelet therapy.

Kremer’s report represents a pinnacle moment for sideline reporters, arguably the least understood and least appreciated position in sports broadcast. In theory, the sideline reporter provides a perspective only attainable by someone standing adjacent the action. In practice, it’s a job encapsulated by rules, both physical and cultural.

Overzealous PR managers restrict the flow of news and information. Coaches and players speak mostly in clichés. Strict guidelines, handed down by each league, govern where a reporter can go, whom she can interview and even what she can say on camera.

“You’re not supposed to linger behind the bench. You’re not supposed to repeat conversations you hear, there are a lot of restrictions down there,” said Kremer, who is regarded by many peers and media writers as the best in her field. “It’s a very misunderstood job.”

It’s also the job most associated with women. A handful of pioneering women first jumped into sports broadcasting 30 years ago. Today, on every channel from NBC to Speed TV, women bring the viewer closest to the action.

At first glance, the rise of women in this position appears to be the greatest female triumph in the gender battle against the sports television industry, the fraternity house of broadcast journalism. But do network executives hire female reporters for their sports knowledge, or to provide eye candy for the men watching at home? Is the on-field reporter even necessary to the broadcast team? Why have more women not made the jump into the coveted play-by-play or color analyst roles?

“The one role women are starting to dominate is the sideline role, which is the most dispensable role, the filler role,” said Marie Hardin, associate director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University. “I hope it becomes the springboard to more substantial jobs. But if it doesn’t you can say that women are indeed still stuck on the sidelines.”

In 1963 Jane Chastain broke the gender barrier as a football reporter for the local WAGA-TV station in Atlanta, Georgia. A natural on camera, Chastain progressed to the larger Miami market in the late 1960’s and then onto network sports with CBS in 1974. Chastain held a deep understanding of sports, and before making the leap to CBS she covered the Miami Dolphins as well as Olympic sports. Chastain faced “No Children or Women” signs in the pressroom and misogynic attitudes from above. She said CBS producers struggled to define her role in the broadcast team.

“The producers [at CBS] put me in the booth and said ‘don’t say anything technical. Don’t be funny. Don’t be cute. Don’t rely on statistics. But have fun and chime in,’” Chastain said. “Then they had me on the field interviewing ball boys and cheerleaders. I was like, this is not what I do.”

Producers oversaw Chastain’s appearance on TV, and requested she dress in drab overcoats, not wear too much makeup and “don’t look too pretty.” They also dumbed down her play-by-play analysis. It was an ill fit. After only a year with the network, CBS replaced Chastain with Phyllis George, the 1971 Miss American Pageant winner. Chastain went on to produce her own sports radio show. She still refers to the experience as “a horrible and frustrating part of my life.”

“The biggest mistake I made was to do what I was asked. To try and please them,” Chastain said. “I talked the way they wanted on air, and I sounded stupid.”

A decade after Chastain, Lesley Visser encountered the same no-girls allowed attitude from the NFL, MLB and NBA pressrooms, as well as the drab wardrobe at CBS. But Visser said the network was more direct with her assignment — she was to report on injuries and events from the game from the sideline. Before coming to television, Visser spent a decade working for the Boston Globe’s sports desk, where she was the first female NFL beat writer. At CBS, Visser could utilize her reporting prowess.

“They were much more concerned with what I was saying than how I looked,” Visser said. “I did tell them that my only stipulation is that everything that comes out of my mouth will be written by me. They agreed. They were staggeringly progressive.”

Lesley Visser was an original female sideline reporter. (Associated Press)

Visser broke ground for women in sports broadcasting, and set the standard for women on the sidelines. She became the first woman to cover the World Series (1992), to handle the Super Bowl trophy presentation (1992) and to report from the sideline at a Super Bowl (1995). Her sideline reporting led to other sports casting jobs with ESPN and ABC, and Visser even carried the Olympic torch in 2004, a tribute to her long career in sports.

Overseeing Visser was Neal Pilson, who was the executive director at CBS Sports from 1982-1995. Pilson does not know why Chastain’s inroad into sports broadcast fell short, while Visser’s career soared. During the decade between their debuts, did viewers become more willing to trust a female reporter? Perhaps — but Pilson believes Visser was able to cement her spot as a sideline reporter because she was better than her male contemporaries.

“Lesley was very credible, she knew exactly what she was talking about,” Pilson said. “I think athletes appreciate a woman who knows about sport. They will happily blow off a male reporter and talk to a woman.”

In September of 2008, COED Magazine — an online-only men’s publication dedicated to sports, raunchy humor and sex — published its “Definitive Top-25 Sexiest Sportscasters” list. Neither Kremer nor Visser made the cut, however not-so household names Jenn Sterger of the Versus Netwrok (No. 3), Ines Sainz of TV Azteca (No. 5) and Jillian Barberie of Fox NFL Sunday (No. 17) did.

COED is not the only publication to rate female sports reporters. Playboy first published its “Sexiest Sportscaster Poll” in 2000. A Google search for “hottest sports reporters” found no less than 10 sites, with names like sidelinehotties.com, hogwild.com and sportsroids.com, all dedicated to critiquing female sports reporters based on their looks.

Hardin, who co-wrote a 2007 study titled “The Fragmented Professional Identity of Female Sports Journalists,” says the sites are extreme examples of feminine identity in the locker-room mentality of a mainstream sports broadcast.

“Any time you have women in a visual role in sports, the image is going to skew toward sexuality and hyper femininity,” Hardin argues. “I think we have to be careful about judging the choices made by some women. Sports is gender masculine, and there are individual rewards for women in the industry who can distinguish themselves from men.”

The COED list does much to distinguish its honorees from their male counterparts. Sterger, Barberie and Sainz (and others) are shown in various stages of undress — the photos courtesy of bikini and underwear photo shoots.

What impact on the industry do these websites have? Do station managers and producers weigh, as Hardin says “hyper femininity” over intelligence and ability? Not if they value the quality of their broadcast, says John A. Walsh, executive vice president at ESPN. Walsh, who is widely regarded as the architect of the network’s success, said the added number of pretty faces on TV is the result of increased competition in the marketplace.

“People do the sideline reporter role for visibility, it is viewed that it will lead to other assignments,” Walsh said, “You’d never hire someone based entirely on looks. But when you have candidates that have the qualities of expertise and great use of language, whether male or female… looks become a factor.”

Voted No. 18 on the COED list is Trenni Kusnierek, a sideline reporter for the Major League Baseball network. With a marathon runner’s physique, angled features and shoulder-length blond hair, Kusnierek catches eyes. Kusnierek has never posed for men’s magazines or underwear shoots — she’s a seasoned sports reporter. Before working with the MLB, Kusnierek covered the NHL and NBA for Fox in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, and worked as a one-man-band reporter in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

“I’m well aware that part of the reason my career has moved so quickly is because I am a blonde female, it’s silly for me to believe anything else,” Kusnierek said. “If I were a man, chances are I would not have a job.”

Kusnierek does not look at websites dedicated to female sportscasters, nor does she read what is written about her on the Internet. In the nine years in which she’s worked in sports broadcast, she has seen a shift. She believes young, attractive women find on-air jobs right out of college, without having to prove themselves in the trenches of the broadcast industry.

“The old guard of women on the sidelines, were they attractive? Yes. Were they drop dead? No. Were they seasoned reporters with a ton of experience — yes,” Kusnierek said. “No you look and see some girl who starts in a another major market. They don’t do one-man band. Maybe they’re 22 and really pretty and have a bubbly personality, but they aren’t bringing anything to the broadcast other than their looks.”

Visser’s pinnacle moment as a sideline reporter came during the 1992 NFC championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. After being hit hard by 49ers defensive tackle Dennis Brown, Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman limped to the sidelines with a severe concussion.

“I was there when the doctors gave him the smelling salts and asked him where he was, and Troy answered ‘Henrietta, Oklahoma,’” Visser said. “That is the kind of information that can only be brought to you by someone on the sideline.”

Had the injury happened today, Visser’s broadcast would have looked quite different from the one she gave in 1992. Due to rules handed down by the league, Visser could have described the scene and told about the doctors administering smelling salts to the quarterback, however she could not have quoted Aikman. And Visser could not have speculated on his injury, even though he had most likely suffered a concussion.

“When I started, I had much more ability to be a reporter,” Visser said. “You could really gather information on your own.”

In today’s game, news about an injury goes from a trainer to a team PR representative, who either distributes the information to everyone inside the press box, or withholds the news entirely. When the news of an injury breaks, it comes across in the most basic language possible, such as “right leg, sprain.” To operate within the restrictive atmosphere, sideline reporters can only describe what they see and hear to the audience.

“It’s all about paraphrasing,” said Suzy Kolber, ESPN’s Monday Night Football reporter. “You talk to someone and then describe what they said. You can lend some emotion and give the general message.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that the sideline reporter role has started to fade away from traditional sportscasts. CBS dropped its NFL sideline reporters in 2006, and now only utilizes the role for the Super Bowl. In 2008 ESPN announced it would scale back on its use of sideline reporters during each NFL game, focusing the role primarily on pre- and post-game interviews. According to Kolber, ESPN also switched its storytelling approach, focusing attention on the action, not the players.

“The philosophy used to be to really get to know the guys, to make [the audience] feel really connected with the players,” Kolber said. “To know them beyond just and X and O.”

The shift does not sit well with Kremer. Now in her sixth year at NBC, Kremer has seen the sports broadcast industry change with consumer tastes. At 51 years old, Kremer has no aspirations of a modeling career, or of seeing her face on a men’s website. She said she simply hopes women in the sideline reporter role can help each other advance through the ranks of the industry.

“With all do respect, I think [the sideline reporter] is a vital position, and when you don’t have one, you are missing something in your telecast,” Kremer said. “There are many credible women, those of us who have paid our dues. We say ‘I acknowledge there is a double standard for women, but I’m going to do my job’ and that’s how we’ll continue to go about it.”

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