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The thing about women Sportscasters is that they all know each other. They have had lunch of course. You might find them in a corner of the local sports bar or at a circular table in the Waldorf, explaining gimmick defenses, quoting the over-under and reciting baseball lore without once referring to an inning as a quarter. They are attractive but not glamorous, they are certainly not stupid, and they don't miss a game. They are much like their male colleagues. Frequently, they are better groomed.
They know two speeds on the stove, high and off. They have either very kind husbands or no dates at all—it's hard to find a guy who can pack a shoulder bag quickly enough. Some of the women sportscasters have children, whom they rescue from the hip of the nearest nanny with arresting ease. They range from ESPN's tall, ebullient Robin Roberts to NBC's tiny, intense Gayle Gardner, the first female sports anchor to appear weekly on a major network. They are knowledgeable, funny and appealing. "I mean, if you knew somebody like that, wouldn't you want her around?" Gardner says.
They have come far from the days when Phyllis George went jogging with George Allen. Or have they, considering that it's 1991 and no longer amusing to refer to women as the sex that burns the toast? Only four women appear regularly on major-network sports television: Gardner, CBS's Lesley Visser and Andrea Joyce, and ABC's Beth Ruyak.
The evidence suggests that their male counterparts will enjoy far lengthier and better-paid careers than they will. Women hold less than 20% of the on-camera sports jobs at ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN, and even that figure is misleading and sometimes subjective, since most women sportscasters turn up only every four years to comment on the events in which they competed in the Olympics. Only one woman, Gardner, is a weekly major-network studio anchor, and her position was in jeopardy earlier this year when NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol decided she was a better feature reporter than anchor. Only one woman, CBS and ESPN tennis analyst Mary Carillo, regularly does commentary from the booth on a men's sport at the championship level. And only 44-year-old Donna de Varona, the first woman to appear consistently on network sports telecasts—she made her debut as a swimming expert for ABC in 1965—has anything approaching the longevity of her male colleagues.
No woman does play-by-play, which is considered the breakthrough assignment in sportscasting. Last fall, Visser became the first woman to appear on the set of The NFL Today since George left in 1984. Nor is there any great wave of developing talent. Industry sources estimate there are fewer than 50 women working as sportscasters at the 630 network affiliate stations around the country. When George departed from The NFL Today, she expected to see a procession of women file into the studios. "I'm still watching," she says. "And where are all the women?"
What entitles women to deliver or comment on the sports news? Nothing, really, other than the precepts of equal rights and the fact that women are making up a larger part of sports audiences. In 1971, only 294,000 women participated in varsity sports in high school; by 1989-90, the number had grown to 1.85 million. "Guys do not have a genetic blueprint that allows them to understand or love sports," Visser says. Yet women have encountered a quiet but killing resistance in the three major-network sports divisions. "The whole industry is behind," former ABC Sports executive producer Geoffrey Mason says. "I don't know why. I don't know if there is blame to assess, or where."
Start with the network executives, whose hiring and advancement practices have created a glass ceiling beyond which women cannot progress. CBS Sports has been the boldest in assigning significant roles to women—Visser on The NFL Today, Joyce as last season's College Football Report host and Carillo in the tennis booth—but executive producer Ted Shaker has had to work hard to convince his superiors. "It only makes sense," Shaker says. "We're not doing it to make a point, we're doing it for an audience. But old notions die hard."
If there are any commendations to be handed out, the cable-television networks, and specifically ESPN, should get them. ESPN was the first to put women at anchor desks. Since 1981, eight women have appeared on SportsCenter. CNN followed suit with sports anchor Hannah Storm, in 1989.
Equal pay for equal work is a laughable concept in television sports. Gardner, the highest-paid woman in the business, earns $250,000 a year. The highest-paid men, Al Michaels of ABC and John Madden of CBS, earn upwards of $2 million, according to industry sources. It can be argued that Gardner lacks the range of her male counterparts. Fine. She was hired in 1988 as one of NBC Sports's anchors and its chief feature reporter. She works on air more than any other NBC sports personality. So put her on a par with her NBC colleagues Charlie Jones and Ahmad Ra-shad. She earns approximately $100,000 less than they do.
Yet most network executives profess ignorance of any disparity in pay. "There are none I'm aware of here," says Mason. When told of Mason's statement, a prominent woman sports-caster who did not wish to be named replied, "If you take the three networks across the board, there's no way that's true. And if I complained about my salary, I'd be out of here."