'Every Day Gets Better': The Rise of Women in Sports Media
Why this matters
Progress is not linear and not often quick, but through interviews across multiple generations of sports journalists in the 21st century, we can see that women in sports media have more opportunities and face less prejudice than they did in previous eras.
In 2006, as a 26-year-old reporter for ESPN The Magazine, I was sent to the training camps of four National Football League teams to interview players as part of our annual NFL preview issue.
In Jacksonville, I was waiting in the Jaguars’ locker room to individually interview several players after practice, during the team’s lunch session. The Jaguars’ media relations staff was pulling aside each player and sending them into the room, letting them know that they’d be speaking to a reporter.
I wore a green, knee-length skirt and a black shirt with a high neckline. Though I was a young, relatively new reporter, I had learned to dress comfortably yet conservatively, as a reminder that I was there in a strictly professional capacity. I had set up two folding chairs along the back wall for myself and each interviewee.
My first interviewee, a 300-plus pound lineman, walked in and saw me sitting in a chair, recorder in hand. I waved and said hello. He then walked over to a massage table, took his shirt off, laid down, put his face in the donut hole of the table, and said, “Let’s do this!”
I was momentarily confused. Then I realized: he thought I was a massage therapist. Nothing about my outfit or my demeanor would have given him that impression. It was simply because I was a woman.
Yes, that moment happened 16 years ago, and the lineman clearly meant no harm.In fact, when I informed him I was with ESPN The Magazine, he quickly sat up, face red, and apologized. Yet, I wondered: would this have happened to a male reporter?
Over the last two decades, sports media – an industry long dominated by White men – has made significant progress toward gender equality, more racial diversity, and away from a history of sexism and misogyny. However, progress seldom moves in a straight line, and it’s hard to argue that the media has reached a point of true representation. Statistics help share the story of the media’s landscape today:
- While there are now more women with prominent sports television roles than ever before, the same can’t be said of sports talk radio: of the top 100 personalities in 2021, according to Talkers, via the Women’s Media Center’s The Status of Women in Media 2021 report, zero were women.
- In its 2021 Sports Media Racial and Gender Report Card, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, out of the University of Central Florida, gave the Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) their sixth consecutive “F” for gender hiring practices. Director of the Institute and primary author of the report, Dr. Richard Lapchick, noted that “while women saw slight improvements in 2021, the overall record of the sports media for having women in prominent positions remains terrible.”
- In 2021, as the WMC Report also noted, more women graduated from journalism programs–undergraduate and graduate–than men, yet the attrition rate of women is higher after four years in the industry–a finding that holds throughout all of media, not just sports.
- While this story focuses on domestic media, the gender imbalance in media – as well as in coverage, is a global challenge, as this 2020 study from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pointed out.
Given the above, it’s fair to ask: when it comes to sexism, discrimination, and gendered barriers to career advancement, what has changed for women in sports media over the last two decades? And what hasn’t?
First, it is important to note the obvious: the experience of working in sports media is not monolithic. It is impossible to characterize all careers and experiences through individual stories. And not everyone wants to speak candidly while still working in the industry. But hearing from individuals, either those still working in sports media or those who have moved on, offers insight into what it can be like — and what changes are needed.
Former Monday Night Football sideline reporter Lisa Guerrero, an experienced sportscaster who later became an investigative correspondent at Inside Edition, told the New York Post in 2021 that she had suicidal thoughts after reading and hearing intense criticisms of her 2003 sideline reporting work (she left MNF after one season). At the time, Guerrero, a longtime sportscaster and actor, didn’t speak publicly about her reactions. Instead, Guerrero, who is Latina, left sports altogether.
Former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Cari Champion, now a broadcast journalist for CNN, spoke recently about being one of the first Black women to moderate a popular weekly sports talk show when she was hired to host First Take from 2012-2015. Champion, who left ESPN in 2020, said on the I Am Athlete podcast that network executives told her about her role on the show alongside Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, “You don’t matter, just be happy that you’re here.”
While generalizations about the industry at large can’t and shouldn’t be made, it is still important to hear from those who are comfortable sharing their stories, particularly in examining the industry’s evolution over the years. As such, I spoke with five well-known veteran sports journalists (collectively, their work spans the last five decades) and one sports executive – five women and one man – about the challenges they’ve faced, the shifts they’ve witnessed, and the ongoing issues they still see. Here’s what they had to say:
Few sports journalists, male or female, have forged a multi-platform career like Christine Brennan. The long-time USA Today sports columnist is also a television commentator on ABC News, CNN, PBS Newshour, and NPR. In addition, she’s a best-selling author, and spends much of her time mentoring young women entering the sports media industry.
Brennan began her career at the Miami Herald in 1981 as the newspaper’s first female sports reporter. She wasn’t daunted: earning her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern had given her a lot of confidence, she says, as did the relationships she’d built with classmates like Pardon the Interruption co-host Michael Wilbon, who remains a close friend.
Brennan moved to the Washington Post in 1984, where she assumed another “first” title – first female sports reporter to cover Washington’s NFL franchise. But not without a bit of reluctance from a few NFL coaches and players.
At the time, the NFL didn’t have an equal access policy for female reporters. So George Solomon, her sports editor at the Post, enlisted a few other editors to meet with then-league commissioner Pete Rozelle. “I’m putting a woman on the beat,” Solomon told Rozelle.
The commissioner subsequently issued a ruling, sent to all NFL teams, that female reporters were to have equal access to cover the respective teams and players. Each organization had to open its locker rooms and each did, except the Dallas Cowboys, who opted for a designated interview room. But just because the door was open, it didn’t mean Brennan and the few other female reporters she saw were always welcome.
“I’m sure there were people in the corner saying, ‘I know she got the job because she’s a woman,’” Brennan says. “But is some guy in the corner going to bother me? No way. Of course there will be someone who thinks you can’t do it – pay no attention to that.”
In the era before social media, Brennan says, it was easier to focus on work and ignore sexist insults and attacks. Readers couldn’t reach her on a public forum at any moment. They had to write physical letters, which could be thrown away and took time and intention to write out and mail.
Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Brennan says she saw gradual change in terms of more women becoming sports reporters. A tipping point of sorts came at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. Sitting inside the press box at a packed Rose Bowl as the U.S. Women’s National Team prepared to play China, Brennan saw over a dozen women – a much higher number than she typically saw in locker rooms or clubhouses.
Today, Brennan is encouraged at how that number has continued to grow: ”There are so many women I’ve never heard of [in sports media], but that is because there are so many that you can’t keep up,” Brennan says. “And that is wonderful.”
Having served as the first president of the Association of Women in Sports Media in 1988, Brennan continues to be very involved with the organization, endowing scholarships to young women who hope to work in sports media. “Can it get better? Of course,” she says of gender diversity in the industry. “Today is the greatest day to be a woman in sports journalism – until tomorrow. Every day gets better. It’s been a stunning transformation.”
Arielle (Ari) Chambers
Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, 30-year-old Arielle (Ari) Chambers watched powerful women in sports, including long-time North Carolina State University women’s basketball coach Kay Yow and University of North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell, every day. Throughout her formative childhood and teen years, powerful, smart women and sports were synonymous for her – and now, she’s one of them.
A two-sport athlete in high school (volleyball and cheerleading), Chambers also worked as the manager for her high school women’s basketball team, where she fell in love with the sports space.
After graduating from North Carolina State (undergraduate) and the University of Oxford (graduate), Chambers moved to New York City and worked on the entertainment (spirit) teams for the Knicks, Rangers, and Liberty. She initially wanted to focus only on the Liberty; however, her director encouraged her to work a season for the Knicks as well.
In doing so, she experienced sold-out Madison Square Garden match-ups and a flurry of media covering the men’s professional teams. But at Liberty games, she saw four or five media members, total. There were so few journalists, Chambers says, she knew them all by name. As such, she felt there were so many athletes’ stories not being told. After seeing that discrepancy, she decided she wanted to change it and cover women’s sports herself.
Howard Megdal offered Chambers her first journalism job in 2014, after Chambers interviewed with him during halftime of a Liberty game (while she was still on the spirit squad). Soon, she was writing regular WNBA content.
First, she wrote news stories; soon, seeing how easily she cultivated relationships with the athletes she was covering, Chambers was producing written and video features and profiles. When she wasn’t covering the WNBA, she worked on NCAA content, which has grown into other roles, including reporting from WNBA and NBA All-Star games, the WNBA’s Her Time to Play series, in-arena coverage for the Connecticut Sun, and more.
If the phrase “THE WNBA IS SO IMPORTANT,” used by Twitter Sports as their WNBA 25th anniversary campaign, sounds familiar, it is: Chambers created it.
She continued building her career and platform through social media. In 2019, Chambers founded Bleacher Report’s HighlightHer, a multimedia platform sharing the stories of female athletes and teams (the Instagram following is up to over 200K). She also hosts a weekly show on NBA TV during the WNBA season entitled Don’t Sleep.
Explore: The Power of Women & Girls in Sport
Through each step, Chambers has remained authentically herself. She often greets her viewers with, “What’s up, y’all, it’s Ari here,” and is transparent about the friendships she forges with the athletes she’s covering. “I’ve always been pretty much universally digestible, but at the end of the day, I’m a Black woman with curly hair who likes to wear bamboo earrings,” Chambers says of staying true to who she is.
“I know that my position is a bit unique in that I brought something to the table that was proven to be successful, and I didn’t have to shape-shift myself much,” Chambers says. “It doesn’t mean when I’m in these spaces that I’m not beating down a wall to get people to care about women’s sports.”
She has faced challenges in breaking news, where others have challenged her sourcing or the veracity of what she has shared. Chambers has also been burned by agents who are mad that she broke the story instead of another reporter. “That’s interesting to me, because you wouldn’t necessarily have the same energy toward a White counterpart, especially a White, male counterpart,” Chambers says.
In difficult moments, she relies on her mentors and her close peers in the industry, a.k.a. her tribe. “It’s really comforting to have people who look like you who can say, ‘I know what you’re going through,’” Chambers says. “I’m in the position that I know I’ll be audaciously myself regardless, and I have a nice group of people that back me in that.”
Chambers has continued to push for more coverage of not only women’s sports, but also the stories of the individual athletes – particularly the underdogs. “Because I’m a Black woman who works in women’s sports, and particularly in a league that’s 80 percent Black and predominantly queer, it’s an uphill battle getting people to be intentional about coverage of that,” Chambers says. “And being intentional about wanting to include leagues like the WNBA. It’s an uphill battle sometimes, but I know that there’s a purpose.”
Chambers, who was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Sports list, The Athletic’s 40 Under 40: Rising Stars in Women’s Basketball list, Footlocker’s Sole List and Yahoo’s Changemakers, all in 2021, says she has always embraced the spotlight. “These are people that look like me, that relate to me, even on the NBA side,” Chambers says. “When I go to NBA All-Star, the past five years, LeBron will literally be like, ‘No, [call on] her.’ I’m a relatable person because of my energy and my aesthetic, and my frequency and my commitment to the game puts them at ease.”
Still, Chambers pointed out, that scenario is in the locker room, interview set-up, or press conference. In addition to the athlete interviews, the sports media industry needs to go beyond simply diversifying the C-suites with more women and people of Color. "It’s letting people know that these jobs exist and are available,” Chambers says. “Because sports media has historically been a White boys club, a lot of the opportunities that exist, we don’t know about. The whole argument is that no one Black applies, which I call bullshit, but it’s like, do we know these jobs exist and are open to us?”
Chambers works actively to serve as a role model and mentor for young women, encouraging them to empower themselves and one another. Today’s sports media landscape is also very individually brand-based, she says, so practitioners need to capitalize on what makes them unique – and then speak up.
“The worst thing I’ve observed over the years is when women are invited to the table and they’re quiet,” Chambers says. “When you finally get to the table, make sure you have something to say.”
Andrea Kremer has been a trailblazer in sports media for decades. In 1984, she became the first female producer at NFL Films. Five years later, she became ESPN’s first female correspondent. More than three decades later, she hasn’t stopped, building one of the most respected careers in all of sports media. Like Brennan, she has successfully worked across platforms: ESPN.com, ESPN radio, NFL sideline reporting, studio shows, Olympics coverage for NBC, and as a correspondent for HBO’s Real Sports, a role she still holds today.
In 2018, Kremer and Hannah Storm became the first all-women booth to call an NFL game, going on to call 11 games for Thursday Night Football for Amazon Prime. In addition to her work for Real Sports and the NFL Network, Kremer is a co-host of We Need to Talk, the only all-female sports show on the CBS Sports Network.
When Kremer was originally hired by ESPN, she says, the sports media landscape was “bleak” for women – especially for female reporters. While women like Linda Cohn sat behind the SportsCenter anchor desk, they were rarely out reporting the stories and interviewing the athletes. And they certainly were not working as head executives, managers, or the voices calling the action.
Kremer credits her rise, in part, to “fantastic mentors who were genuinely interested in” teaching, coaching, and offering feedback in leading to her early career success. And they were strictly respectful and professional, Kremer says, not trying to sleep with her (and vice versa). “That was key.”
Still, she sometimes faced sexism. When Kremer joined ESPN, she already had five years of experience working as a producer. Her two male mentors took her to lunch one day, where they told her that the producers working under her had complained that she was “too tough” on them. Kremer sat there seething, so angry she wanted to cry – but also knowing she could not cry in front of two men. Instead, she listened. When they had finished speaking, she looked at them and asked, “If I was a man, would we be having this discussion?” They looked at each other and said, “probably not.”
In 2018, Kremer, a two-time Emmy winner and member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, was awarded the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, only the second woman to ever receive the prestigious award. In doing so, she received calls, emails, and voicemails from former producers at ESPN who she’d overseen and taught, who said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t learned from you.”
“I always harken back to that [lunch] conversation,” Kremer says. “I’ve never asked a producer to do anything I wasn't willing to do myself. If I have high standards, what’s wrong with that?”
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Kremer has combined her high standards with her own principles. She decided that, despite the nature of a post-game locker room setting, where players are often interviewed post-shower, she would never interview a naked man. “I felt like if he didn’t have the respect for me or himself to put something on, I didn't need to talk to him,” Kremer says.
Kremer sometimes felt the frustration and doubt that comes with being overlooked for a position because of your gender. She channeled those emotions into rigorous preparation, research, and professionalism – qualities that came in handy when she faced sexism and disrespect from male interviewees.
Kremer remembered interviewing former Indiana University head basketball coach Bobby Knight in the 1990s. She knew that Knight would test her – and sure enough, early in the interview, Knight responded to a question by asking a question of his own. Kremer had prepared diligently, and she answered his question in full with a neutral tone. The whole tenor of the interview changed, Kremer says. Knight saw she was knowledgeable and well-prepared, and he was ready to respect her as a reporter. “Truthfully, I’d rather have people test me and know that I know what I am talking about than to assume I am there for any other reason,” she says.
When Kremer mentors young women today, she advises them to do the same: study, prepare, and have confidence in your knowledge. Kremer took that approach to Thursday Night Football, knowing that some viewers would be skeptical simply because she’s a woman. “Football commentary is really challenging because unlike basketball, baseball, and hockey, women don’t play it, at least similarly at an elite level,” she says. “Yes, there are women’s [football] leagues, but you always fall under that, ‘you didn’t play the game.’
“There’s a lot of people who commentate and don’t play, but people are so inculcated to listening to broadcasts, particularly football, that have a certain rhythm and iambic pentameter that are delivered by men,” Kremer says. “All I can do is be prepared, bring something different but valuable, and hopefully people are interested in listening to it and employers think it’s a viable option and alternative.”
Assessing today’s sports media landscape, Kremer cautions that it is not as progressive as it appears. “If you look at where we are as a society, in terms of the respect that’s accorded minorities, whether gender or racial, we’re not in a good place,” she says. “We always hear sports is a microcosm of society – that illustrates it in an extremely strong way. Women are losing rights in American society, and I think there’s still a huge segment of the population that doesn't want to get its sports news or commentary from women. When you solve that in society, it’ll trickle down into sports.”
Current Meadowlark Media CEO and DAZN board member John Skipper spent 25 years at ESPN. In June 1997, he became the senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine. Eight years later, he was named executive vice president of content. On Jan. 1, 2012, he became president of ESPN.
Skipper, who is White, grew up in North Carolina and witnessed racial segregation throughout his childhood. He says that one of his biggest goals at ESPN was to hire more diverse employees. When hiring for The Magazine, he asked his staff to look at the top 50 newspapers in the country, as well as the major sports magazines, and compile a list of the women and people of Color who were writers or editors at each publication.
That process ultimately led to ESPN’s hiring of Dan Le Batard, a Cuban-American, Jemele Hill, a Black woman, and many others. “We were proud at the time that when you walked into our office, it looked different than any magazine I’d ever walked into,” Skipper says. When editor Alison Overholt was later named editor-in-chief of The Magazine, she became the first woman to lead a sports magazine in the U.S.
As president of ESPN, Skipper pushed for more air time for women’s sports. “But there was entrenched disdain in the studio and newsrooms of ESPN for women’s sports,” he says. “They were dismissed.” Skipper says he was told that fans “didn’t watch them,” even though there was no research to support that claim. More women and people of Color began to fill the anchor seats on SportsCenter, though many of the specialty shows remained male-dominated.
When Skipper took over ESPN.com, he inherited a predominantly white and male staff. So he established his own version of the NFL’s Rooney Rule, telling the website’s editors that they had to interview a diverse set of candidates when hiring for new roles. “So if someone had 26 open slots and hired 24 white males, we were unhappy and told them,” Skipper says. “You’re not doing a very good job of looking if you can only tell me White males are the best candidates.”
While Skipper left ESPN in 2017, his efforts appear to have made a lasting impact. In the 2021 TIDES study, Lapchick noted that “ESPN has been a leader in the hiring of women and people of Color in key positions. In fact, as will be seen, if we were to remove ESPN from the data entirely, racial and gender percentages across multiple categories would drop significantly.”
Veteran NFL sideline reporter Laura Okmin began her career after taking a sports broadcasting class in college. She loved the course, and one day talked to the professor after class. She says he told her that he’d taught close to 18,000 students – and guessed that he had maybe seven who were on air, talking about sports.
“Well then, consider me number eight,” she recalls telling him.
But when Okmin started working in 1992, she says, “I was told how much I didn't belong.” Her first job, in Alabama, took her nine months to land. She remembers covering a high school football game on a Friday night. For Okmin, who had come from Chicago, it was a big moment. As she waited to interview a coach, she thought to herself, “You’ve made it, you’re on TV, talking sports.”
The coach, she says, walked out with a few men beside him. He was carrying a football and a basketball. The men were laughing. Okmin extended her hand to introduce herself. The coach looked at her.
“Little girl, I just want to make sure you know the difference between a football and a basketball,” Okmin remembers him saying. “One is oblong and one is round.”
Almost immediately, Okmin began doubting herself – and whether she would be accepted. She was sensitive to everything she did, on and off camera. She knew she was being watched. She didn’t see many women in her line of work, so she wasn’t able to build supportive relationships or ask questions like, “How are you handling this?”
Instead, she knew the handful of women in similar roles likely all viewed each other as competitors, rivals for the limited opportunities that existed in a male-dominated industry. She put her head down, focused on her career, and decided that the best way to handle sexism was to be knowledgeable and prepared to answer anyone who questioned her competence.
When Okmin turned 40, however, her attitude changed. “It went from, ‘let me answer all your questions, to, get the F out of here with your questions,’” she says. She began what she calls her “second act”: instead of seeing other women in sports media as competition, she wanted to help them. She subsequently founded GALvanize, a program that trains and mentors women entering sports media and helps them build professional networks and relationships.
Okmin also was inspired by her longtime friendship with Stuart Scott, the popular and groundbreaking SportsCenter anchor who died in 2015. While covering the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, she found herself in a room with a group of reporters, waiting to interview National Basketball Association coach Pat Riley. Okmin was the only woman in the room; Scott was the only Black man. He introduced himself, asked Okmin why she was effectively hiding in a corner, and then told her: “If you stand out, then stand out!”
“I was trying so hard to fit in,” Okmin says. “That was really big to watch a man who was constantly being told, ‘You're speaking too loudly, too urban, it’s not about you,’ and he just would dig in. And anytime he was told not to do something because of who he was, he made sure to step into that. I always noticed it – it just took me a while to follow.”
Back then, Okmin says, she could count the number of women reporters she would see at events like the Super Bowl on one hand. “Eventually, it went from one hand to two,” she says. “And now it’s at the point where I can’t count because there are too many. And that’s awesome.”
As for the people in charge of sports media? That’s a story of inclusion, Okmin says, that largely remains unwritten – and not just for women. “If I count the number of women and people of color who are decision makers and content creators, and people who are hiring, I can still count those,” she says. “For us to make true, sustainable, meaningful change in this industry, we have to have more women and people of Color at the top.”
The newest member of NBC’s Sunday Night Football telecast isn’t new to the industry. Stark’s national sports media career began in the mid 1990s at ESPN, where Stark says she was “100% a woman in a man’s world.” On the plus side, that made Stark stand out. People wanted to talk to her, she says, because she didn’t blend in with every other man in the room.
But Stark also faced challenges that her male colleagues didn’t. Asking sources for their phone numbers, for example. Young, single, and in her early 20s, Stark found that male athletes and team executives often would misconstrue those requests. Similarly, while male reporters could go to parties or hang out with athletes and executives, she had to be more circumspect.
“It was trying to find that balance – striking a fine line of socializing with these guys but also not letting them think I’m here for the wrong reasons,” Stark says.
There were also sexist slights: Stark remembers how, during interviews, Major League Baseball players would ask her if ESPN baseball expert Peter Gammons had written her interview questions for her. Older men in particular were slower to accept the presence of women in the media. While walking the golf course with Jack Nicklaus for a made-for-TV golf event, Stark says, he turned to her and said, “Hey, you may be pretty to look at, but you’re standing too close to my line.’”
Stark became the first female sideline reporter for Monday Night Football in 2000. Two years later, long-time 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney ranted about women commentating in football on The Boomer Esiason Show. "The only thing that really bugs me about television's coverage is those damn women they have down on the sidelines who don't know what the hell they're talking about,” a then-83-year-old Rooney said, adding, "I mean, I'm not a sexist person, but a woman has no business being down there trying to make some comment about a football game."
Stark chose not to comment at the time, instead focusing on her work. And on being patient. “Have I had someone say crazy, lewd, or insensitive comments to me?” Stark says. “Absolutely. But I tried to walk away from those and just shut it down.”
Stark always reminded herself that change is gradual. Today, she knows that her hard work – in addition to Sunday Night Football, Stark hosts and works on features for a news magazine show for NFL Films – commands respect from colleagues and athletes alike. And she sees more acceptance of younger women who are just starting their careers in sports media.
“Before, where I felt like I was constantly challenged or it was an anomaly for me to be in a locker room, now it’s commonplace,” Stark says. “I don’t have that fear or expectation. I can just do my job.”
Correction: In a previous version of this story, GSM incorrectly characterized Lisa Guerrero as "a model who had little experience working in sports." We apologize for the error.
The Influence of Sports Media
The media shapes how people view characters and issues in sport and society. Today, however, journalists' stories are increasingly found online and on social networks in addition to more traditional mediums like print, television and radio.
As the media itself has changed, its relationship to and impact on athletes and the sports industry has changed as well. Does a more disparate and diverse media ecosystem inspire hope for a better future in sport, or could old pitfalls arise again in an era defined by digitization and immediacy?