THIS SPORTING LIFE
Four female footy reporters on sport, sexism and smashing glass ceilings.
At 20, Yvonne Sampson faced a choice no young woman should have to make: to focus on her sports-reporting career, or to keep the family farm alive after her father Robert’s sudden death.
She did both. She worked weekdays at country Queensland news stations, then drove up to 14 hours to spend weekends at home on the Sunshine Coast, riding, fencing and feeding. “I look back now and think, ‘What sort of 20-year-old would keep the farm going and work full-time?’” says Sampson, now 35, with a laugh.
She headed to Sydney at 30, a geriatric age in TV, to try her luck. Five years later, Sampson became the first woman to host the NRL State of Origin series with audiences reaching a massive 4.4 million.
Sampson’s Nine Network colleague Erin Molan was similarly driven – despite the 82 rejection letters she keeps at home. “It never came easily; I was never naturally good,” says Molan, 34. “No one looked at me and said, ‘Oh, she’s a star.’”
Her first ever job interview 13 years ago at a local TV station didn’t deter her. “I was horrendous. They never called me back,” says Molan. “But every week for about six months I would write an email to the boss, Steve Henderson: ‘I know I wasn’t great. Please give me a shot?’”
On Molan’s 21st birthday, Henderson called back: “If I give you a two-minute segment on the food show, can you leave me the f*ck alone?” Molan got her break and, thanks to her work ethic (inspired by her Major General father Jim Molan), became the first woman to co-host the NRL Footy Show on the Nine Network.
“I might not be as naturally talented as anyone else, but nobody will ever work harder than me,” says Molan.
Tenacity, it seems, is a crucial quality for women who make it in the world of TV sports. The ceiling in this industry isn’t glass so much as steel. Yet, this year, there will be more women on sports broadcasts than ever before. They will be at the forefront ahead of next week’s coverage of AFL and NRL grand finals, and will voice opinions alongside league immortals and AFL Hall of Famers.
“We are on a wave at the moment,” says Fox Footy game-day host Sarah Jones. “There’s definite momentum this year. It’s fabulous. Previously there have been women involved, but not in the really meaty, juicy roles – I think that’s a great shift we’re seeing at the moment.”
Jones’s story is also one of sheer determination to become the first woman ever to host an AFL broadcast. She recalls the moment her ambition fired when, as an excited six-year-old, she was watching Debbie Flintoff-king win gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics with her mother, Chris. “I think that’s what you should do,” her mother said.
Two years later, her mother and Sarah’s four younger siblings, Daniel, Rebecca, Thomas and Bridget, were in a car accident. Her mother didn’t survive.
“I look back and think there must be something she recognised in me as a little girl; she knew [sport] was what I loved,” says Jones, 34. “Watching the Olympics together is a special memory.”
Her dad, Tony, a livestock buyer and local footy hero in Echuca and Moama, Victoria, would bring up the five children. “Dad has done a champion effort of raising us,” says Jones. “We’re all happy, healthy adults. We had a really happy childhood despite [the tragedy].”
For Lara Pitt at Fox Sports, it is her father Andrew’s story of escaping the communist regime in Hungary and arriving in Australia with just a leather satchel “on a boat” that inspired her industrious nature. The stories he told her of working laborious jobs, such as installing the seating at Royal Randwick racecourse and shower screens in houses, stuck in her head.
`` sexist habits die hard. and the pay gap is huge ´´
“He instilled in me and my brothers, ‘This is what I had to do to provide for you, but you need to work hard to provide for your family,’” says Pitt. When Fox Sports star host Braith Anasta recently fell ill, Pitt slipped into his Super Saturday chair. And those in the know say she did it with ease. “Poor Braith… I was thrown in the deep end an hour before I went on air,” says Pitt. “I loved it.”
BEHIND EVERY GREAT female sports reporter is a senior footy bloke who has quietly championed her to the top of her game. Phil Gould, Ray Hadley, Andrew Voss and Jason Dunstall – all big football broadcasting names – have mentored and supported their female colleagues. Gould says Sampson, who also hosts the NRL Sunday Footy Show and Friday Night Football, is like “putty”.
“She would fit in anywhere, any sport, any panel,” says Gould. “She’s such a beautiful person, such an infectious personality, and unpretentious.”
She hosts live TV, adds Gould, “So easily, with great charm and knowledge… There’s a better feel to the broadcast than just watching some boring old blokes – and it keeps the boys on their toes, too.”
Sampson says former State of Origin coach Gould makes her feel “invincible”. “I feel so privileged and so safe to have him around… He’s always got your back.”
Molan’s mentor, Nine Network and 2GB broadcaster Ray Hadley, describes her as “indefatigable”. He draws parallels between his career and hers, describing a week in 1980 when he drove to every radio station in NSW he could think of, trying to get his break. “And I didn’t get one interview,” he says. “So when Erin tells me about her 82 rejection letters, as horrifying as the thought may be, I see Erin as a replica of me. I have a terribly soft spot for her. In the end her talent wins out. I mean, the 82 dickheads who rejected her are just that, dickheads.”
Hadley backs Molan so much that in 2017 she will become the first female full-time member of 2GB’S Continuous Call team. “She has this unbelievable ability to work at a high intensity and quality,” says Hadley. “For 30 years I’ve watched blokes dominate sport and now we have these incredibly talented women occupying spaces they deserve to occupy.”
Jones’s Fox Footy workmate of nearly 15 years and Hawthorn Football Club great Jason Dunstall says she has effortlessly slipped into the host’s chair on game day this season. “Jonesy fitted in seamlessly,” he says. “There’s never any suggestion of tokenism with Sarah – she loves her footy. The main thing I find about Jonesy is that gender doesn’t enter into the discussion. She is just one of those people who loves her sport and talks well.”
As for Pitt, Fox Sports commentator Andrew Voss says that while she can “bore you stupid about the Dragons”, her conscientiousness is impossible to fault. “I don’t think I’ve ever beaten her into the studio for the NRL Sunday Ticket,” he says. “There she is, head down, working the phones. She doesn’t take any shortcuts and doesn’t rely on anyone else to do her job… Even with a great crew around you, Lara and I feel you do your own work, you get your own stories. That’s obvious with her.”
The women all do their homework diligently. While some of their former footballer colleagues can turn up to the set without having done any preparation, it’s not the same for those who haven’t played the game at the top level.
Molan says she watches every game and interview, and reads every tweet and article she can. “I’m much more natural [on The Footy Show] when there’s not one thing someone can ask me that I won’t be able to answer,” says Molan. “If Fatty [Paul Vautin] asks, ‘How many tackles did Michael Morgan make? What was Cooper Cronk’s percentage?’ If I know all that, I’ll sit there confidently, and I’ll be able to make a joke and be natural.
“If I make a mistake, it will be because I’m a woman. If they make a mistake, it’s funny. That’s just the reality. I’m not an ex-footballer. The standard is different for me – but it doesn’t worry me.”
What did worry her were the cheap shots that were directed at her appearance when she first joined The Footy Show. Molan describes some of the online comments as “vehemently nasty”. These days, the level of vitriol has died down. “Look, engage me in a debate about what I said about a player. But 99 per cent of the time it was about what dress I was wearing… or whether they believe I’m attractive,” says Molan. “But I am not going to play the victim card – it’s part and parcel of TV.”
Fox Sports commentator Voss, who’s also worked at Nine, says the scrutiny of female hosts needs to change. “It’s a fact that a female on camera is judged more critically than a bloke,” he says. “An ugly bloke like myself – I’ve never had anyone pick apart what I am wearing. But [a female colleague] may be picked apart because of what she is wearing or her hair. We’ve got to get past that.”
Unfortunately, sexist habits die hard. The network flies Sampson and Molan economy class to footy games, while their ex-footballer co-stars, such as Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer, go business. And the pay gap is huge. Sources tell Stellar that for a good part of the last four years, Molan’s pay packet was around $100,000, while her fellow Footy Show panellist, Beau Ryan, received $800,000. Molan declined to comment.
Sampson confirms she wasn’t paid extra for hosting Wide World Of Sports and working on the sidelines for Friday Night Football, as she tried to break into sports broadcasting from her reporter role in the Nine newsroom. “That was just part of my duty,” says Sampson.
`` the 82 dickheads who rejected her are just that ´´
“It was great to work on a live broadcast… but people [think] you get paid millions of dollars because you’re in everyone’s lounge room. That’s not the case at all.”
And misogyny is alive and well. While Eddie Mcguire apologised after “joking” about drowning TV and print AFL journalist Caroline Wilson on a Triple M broadcast, Sam Newman from the AFL Footy Show later chipped in, dubbing the (mostly female) journalists who were critical of Mcguire as “excrement”. But this incident prompted national debate and, in turn, change. Mcguire’s early “holiday” the week the scandal erupted saw Jones promoted into his chair for Thursday Night Football. She shone.
Fox Sports CEO Patrick Delany says Jones’s ascension was a “silver lining” in a difficult time. “I think the tolerance for discrimination is getting very small now. Most people expect equality,” he says, adding that the network has made a concerted effort to have more women in key roles on TV. “We have a number of very qualified women in our ranks that dwarf other networks,” says Delany.
He’s also open to a female calling AFL or NRL games, saying: “If we want to reflect Australia better, we need to have a higher number of women.”
To that end, this season Fox Sports has added Jessica Yates and Megan Barnard to its NRL game-day coverage. Tara Rushton has co-hosted an NRL Finals Fever show, while Louise Ransome has co-hosted NRL Tonight. Along with Jones, Neroli Meadows is also part of the Fox Footy team. On the Seven Network, Sam Lane is a panellist on the Saturday night pre-match show. She also worked as a boundary rider for the AFL women’s All-stars game (with more than a million viewers, it became the highest-rating Saturday night footy match of the year).
Jones points to her two-year-old daughter, Mila (who enthusiastically watched the Rio Olympics by her side), and says she is pleased the landscape is changing for future generations. “What my daughter will grow up seeing will be completely different from what I’ve seen,” says Jones. “She and other girls will see that they can do anything, that they don’t have to be restricted because they’re girls. I’d like her to think the world is her oyster, that you don’t have to feel hamstrung by being a woman.”
Pitt also finds joy in inspiring the next generation. “I’m sure there are other girls like myself, Yvonne, Sarah and Erin out there,” says Pitt. “They know it’s an option now. They think, ‘I can visibly see what my end goal can be now, whether it be TV, print or digital. If I want to be involved, I can be.’”
Molan loves that, these days, it’s women rather than men who seek her out on the street. “They say things like, ‘Before you were on The Footy Show, my husband was dismissive of my opinion, but since you started he listens to what I say, because he sees another woman contributing,’” says Molan.
ON A WINTER’S night earlier this year, Sampson did what no woman had done before: she took up a prized chair in sports broadcasting and hosted the most-watched rugby league game in the country. But it wasn’t without drama.
With 30 seconds before they went live to four million Australians, Sampson’s nerves hit hard. “Is it too late – can I run?” she thought. “Ten seconds,” cried the producer. Sampson’s vision went black and white. “Oh my god, I’m going to faint,” thought Sampson. “I am actually going to pass out.”
As the coverage went live, she composed herself. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to let womankind down,’” she says with a laugh. “‘If I ruin this, I’ll damage our reputation forever.’” She nailed it.
As a little girl, when the Broncos played, Sampson would spend the night yelling at the TV alongside her father. She knows he would have been proud: “You’d like to feel like your dad’s around saying, ‘You did a good job,’” she says.
As for her future? “I’ve never had a plan – I’m doing my dream job now,” she says. After a pause, she adds: “I did want to be the girl who rode Buck the Bronco [the team’s real-life horse mascot] around every time they scored a try. And some part of me still wants to be that girl. I haven’t given up yet.”
(from left) Sarah Jones, Erin Molan, Yvonne Sampson and Lara Pitt.
SARAH WEARS Giorgio Armani cape; Bottega Veneta suit; Paspaley necklace ERIN WEARS Christopher Esber dress; Sandro Paris blazer (worn on shoulder); Tiffany & Co. earrings; Peter Lang bracelets; Giorgio Armani boots YVONNE WEARS Carla Zampatti dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Paspaley necklace; Senso shoes LARA WEARS Nice Martin shirt; Ae’lkemi skirt; Trelise Cooper skirt (worn underneath); Paspaley earrings; Christian Louboutin shoes; stylist’s own sash
JOIN THE (MEN’S) CLUB (from left) James Brayshaw, Sam Newman and Eddie Mcguire on The Footy Show; (right) Erin Molan working at an NRL match in April.
(from left) ERIN WEARS Christopher Esber top; Kate Sylvester jacket (worn around waist), and pants; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Peter Lang bracelets LARA WEARS MLM top; Maticevski skirt; Peter Lang earrings YVONNE WEARS Bianca Spender dress; Paspaley necklace, and bracelet; Senso shoes SARAH WEARS Alex Perry dress;