WSMI Recap: To Join the Front Bench, Women Must Raise Their Hands

At the first-quarter meeting of SVG’s Women’s Sports Media Initiative this week in New York, the front bench took center stage. A panel of seven front-bench veterans discussed the progress that women have made as producers, directors, and technical directors, their struggles to advance, and the hurdles to ridding the front bench of its “no girls allowed” stigma.

The Whole Package: Features and Live Games
Molly Solomon, an NBC Sports producer who will produce the Opening Ceremonies and primetime coverage of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, kicked off the discussion by talking about the changing nature of sports coverage and how it is affecting the role of women.

“Sports is becoming more stats-centric, fantasy-centric, and moving away from the storytelling narrative,” Solomon said. “As the narrative has changed, I think, at the network, we do less features. We’re more about action, and maybe that is driving some people away.”

Even so, the ladies said, working on features and working on live games are not mutually exclusive.

“I don’t think that, if you do features, you can’t do live events,” said Carol Larson, senior associate producer for NBC Sports. “I think they complement each other in a way. Most of the live-event production guys don’t have any interest in doing features, but I think it helps to be able to do both.”

Raise a Voice
Years ago, explained freelance producer Brigette Boginnis, there were few production specialists, so every associate director was expected to know how to work in tape, cut a tease, and serve as a one-(wo)man production band. Today, large events have dedicated features units, and individuals are not expected to learn multiple skill sets, which makes it harder for a female working in production to market herself.

“I think guys are much more aggressive and verbal,” Boginnis said. “They’re going to hit the producers up and say, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ I don’t think that women necessarily will do that.”

CBS Sports director Suzanne Smith agreed: “Women don’t ask for what they want. Guys go in there and knock down doors. I think that’s a good lesson to learn.”

Another good lesson, explained Gina Hemphill, talent producer for MLB Network, is to learn to overcome your fears and get out of your comfort zone.

“I’ve learned to be impressed by what you do but not really impressed by who you are,” she said. “We’re often afraid of the unknown, and it turns out that the unknown isn’t so bad.”

The Infamous Work-Life Balance
For women interested in having a family as well as a career, working on the front bench can seem a daunting challenge.

“To be a producer at this level, your home base is not always where the sports are,” noted Beth Chappell, graphics/playback producer for ESPN. “Women think, if I’m going to have a family, how am I going to do this if I have to travel constantly?”

Solomon, who has triplets, joked that she wanted to be like Smith when she grows up (Smith directs NFL football and NCAA basketball, among other live events). But, with a growing family and a husband who travels, she found her way into studio production.

“I got my TV high, but I was able to stay home more,” she explained. “I do think the work-life balance is hard to reconcile. You have to find what you love and make it work. I don’t want to be known as a mom producer; I want to be known as a sports producer. You make choices and define your life.”

An important part of defining life as a female producer/director/TD, the ladies agreed, was taking off their TV voice when they go home.

“Production can be so consuming, you’ve got to do a reality check when you go home,” Boginnis said.

Added Solomon, “Whenever I come home from the Olympics, the first week, my husband just keeps saying, ‘You are not the executive producer of this family!’ You have to remember to take a step back.”

Multiple Roads to the Top
Some women, like NBC Sports Senior Producer Rebecca Chatman, have spent their careers moving up the ranks at a network in order to snag a front-bench position. Others worked through the freelance ranks or began elsewhere. Chappell, for instance, started out in insurance.

“I was working in car insurance when I got a job in the tape library at ESPN,” she laughed. “I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”

With some TV networks imposing a decade-long pay-your-dues-first philosophy, some women have found more success in front-bench roles by working with TV stations or outside packagers or even as freelancers.

Said Boginnis, who has made a successful career as a freelancer, “It might be easier to navigate moving up by working with outside packagers, not through a network.”

The Next Generation
To find the next generation of front-bench talent, this group of ladies suggests looking to the field, the court, the pool, and other athletic arenas.

“Our jobs are like athletic endeavors,” Solomon explained. “You need someone who wants the ball in the last minute. Athletes have competed under stressful conditions, and I think those traits translate to being a leader in a truck in any capacity. That’s one of the first things I look for on résumés — do they compete in athletics? — because they’ve been put in that arena and they have had to perform, and that’s kind of what we have to do.”

As more female executives take seats in the board rooms of sports networks, leagues, and teams, it may get easier for women to get their foot in the door at these organizations. However, to make it on the front bench, women have to continue to work hard — and learn to speak up.

“The next generation has to advocate for themselves, and women aren’t great advocates,” Solomon said. “I do hope that, by example, we inspire or motivate other women to take that step, raise their hand, and say that they are ready to produce or direct. You have to raise your hand.”

For more information about SVG’s Women’s Sports Media Initiative, contact Carolyn@sportsvideo.org.

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