WSMI Hosts Sue Stratton at NAB Meeting
In the midst of the NAB whirlwind, SVG’s Women’s Sports Media Initiative sponsored an hour of reflection as 40 women working in all facets of sports technology gathered at the Las Vegas Convention Center to hear an address from legendary sports director Sue Stratton. Stratton, who spent 30 years directing Los Angeles Lakers broadcasts, discussed her rise in the industry, challenges women must face in the sports business, and some of the reasons she believes more women are not involved in all facets of sports production.
Stratton began her college career on a home economics scholarship at Penn State University, and after considering a career as a lawyer, got a job as a trainee with the ABC affiliate station in Washington D.C., in the news department.
“I had no background in television, but I knew from the first day editing a cartoon that this is what I wanted,” Stratton says. “The directors at the station had all come from the program; there were three women in the group of 35.”
Stratton’s first camera assignment was shooting an Italian State dinner at the White House, and she never forgot the help she received from a man who helped her to navigate the crowd to get her perfect shot.
After moving to California, the Lakers and Kings games were moved to Stratton’s new station, where she was hired to produce and direct the shows.
“That was unbelievable at the time,” she says. “Normally the junior person wouldn’t have a chance to do this kind of work, but the other directors didn’t want to do sports. The problem was that the Lakers didn’t want me. They said that the station could send me on the road, but that I wasn’t going to do anything. The station told me to just show up, so I did.”
After about two months, Stratton held her own when the Lakers decided to go ahead with a broadcast in a completely inhospitable broadcast environment. After standing up for herself, Stratton won the support of management and began to make a name for herself as a director.
“At that time,” Stratton reminds her audience, “color had just come into television, tape was two inches, and replays were on a disk that held 32 seconds. The first Rams game I did, we had a felt board with plastic letters for graphics. We swung the camera around to get the board and knocked it over.”
The qualities that make a good producer or director, Stratton says, are probably the same now as they were in the 1970s when she got her start.
“The ability to work with people, tenacity, you’re not going to be discouraged easily, creative ability, and are you a leader,” Stratton says. “Both men and women have those same parameters, in my opinion. It goes both ways.”
As for why there are not more woman working in sports production, Stratton says, she has some theories. Most directors begin as utility people, and women do not often enter that field. Without local stations doing their own broadcasts, the pipeline to training is difficult.
“Anyone who wants to be a director really needs to have a good grounding in production skills,” Stratton says. “I would never have survived those two months if I hadn’t had good training from WMAL. If you hire someone without that grounding, it won’t work.”
Producers, Stratton explains, must know how to outline a story and design it. Many of today’s younger producers do not receive broad-based training that will help them to succeed on the front bench. And when women do get a chance to produce or direct, Stratton says, they don’t feel that they have the freedom to make a mistake.
“I also had managers who helped me and liked me,” Stratton says. “Now that you have freelance people who don’t have a staff job with the support that I have, they feel threatened and insecure. They don’t admit if they’ve made a mistake; they blame somebody else, and that’s the quickest way to instant death in a truck. Then you have a crew who doesn’t trust you.
“As a woman, you are expected to work hard and be aggressive, but you have to temper that with kindness,” Stratton continues. “You have to use judgment when you want to go out like a pit bull and when you don’t. Sometimes that’s a problem for a young person.”
To combat this trend and bring more women into the industry, Stratton says the onus lies on women already in the business to publicize the jobs that are available to young ladies.
“Be more open and publicize jobs for women in this business,” Stratton says. “I think you should try to do more attention getting so that women know that these are career paths that they can follow. I know that you all can do it!”