Meeting the Challenge of a Most Unusual Sports Year

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka (Image credit: Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)

In the midst of the strangest, most unnerving and upsetting year in decades, sports necessarily took a back seat to the pandemic. When the games returned, even without fans in the arena, sports on television gave U.S. audiences the jolt of semi-normalcy they craved. In the midst of all this, women continued to make gains behind the scenes and in front of the camera, frequently shouldering the responsibility for making sure the transition from shutdown to partial reopening went as smoothly as possible. 

This year’s Women in the Game feature — profiling women who are stars in their fields in TV sports — touched on the challenges the executives and on-air personnel faced, and overcame, during the pandemic. Profilees also talked about how the industry has changed, and continues changing, for women executives. 

“Things are so different now from when I started,” fubo Sports Network head Pamela Duckworth said. “There’s especially been a huge shift since #MeToo, bringing more awareness to the issues of equity.”

Caroline Rebello, managing director at Evolution Media Capital, agreed. Now more than ever, she said, top executives “recognize that you want as many different voices in your company to make the best product and produce the best vision.”

These women say more change is needed and that they willingly take on some of that responsibility. “There’s still a long way to go, we need more women in leadership positions in all areas of sports and people of color too,” MLB Network senior VP, operations and engineering Susan Stone said. 

“If you see people [like you] in leadership, you believe it is a possibility for you,” she added, explaining that this will, in turn, attract more women and people of color to the field. 

Many of these women make mentoring, either formally or informally, a top priority, reaching back down the ladder to help the next generation. “I’m stubborn and I almost didn’t get into this field and I never want that to happen to anyone else,” said Kaitlin Urka, producer, NBC Sports & Olympics. “There are still roadblocks, but we’re chipping away at the glass ceiling.”

Judy Boyd, senior VP, production and coordinating producer, Fox Sports, pointed out that women are not looking for special treatment. “We just need to make sure everybody gets an equal opportunity to do the job,” she said. “We don’t need to make it easier for women, we just need to put everyone on the same playing field.”

Bess Barnes

Bess Barnes (Image credit: CBS Sports)

Bess Barnes 
VP, Programming, CBS Sports

Key Stats:  Bess Barnes, captain of Michigan’s golf team while in college, oversees golf programming for CBS Sports, including scheduling, acquisitions and partner relations. She also leads college basketball scheduling across CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network, including the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament and regular-season contests.

Varsity Status:  Barnes previously oversaw college football scheduling and has been involved in media-rights deals such as the renewals with the Big Ten for college basketball and the PGA Tour, as well as the extension of CBS’s joint March Madness deal with Turner Sports. She also created the CBS Sports Classic (an annual CBS college basketball doubleheader featuring Kentucky, North Carolina, UCLA and Ohio State) and brought the first-ever college bowl game to CBS Sports Network, the Cure Bowl, in 2015. 

Barnes previously spent 10 years at ESPN. She is co-chair of CBS Sports’s corporate cross-departmental We Need to Talk Steering Committee and serves on the executive committee of the CBS Sports Women’s Group.

In Her Own Words: “In college, I took an aptitude test that said I should be a reporter, but I don’t like speaking in front of people, so I went into TV and worked on sports shows, producing men’s hockey, women’s basketball and studio programs. I love working in the programming group because we’re involved in everything from scheduling to production, and that makes it fun. 

“Throughout the industry, there is now more of an understanding that a diverse perspective, which includes gender, provides greater value in the workplace. But even at CBS Sports, which is a very good place for women, we are not equal in numbers. I do think we have a responsibility to the next generation and that’s why I got involved with We Need to Talk and the executive committee of the CBS Sports Women’s Group. There was a young woman who mentioned that she was looking for mentorship and wanted to get to know the women executives outside of the office. It was a great idea because we’re all busy in the office, and this opened things up for a more casual and natural relationship and has turned into a great success.” 

Judi Boyd

Judy Boyd (Image credit: Fox Sports)

Judy Boyd 
Senior VP, Production and Coordinating Producer, Fox Sports

Key Stats: Judy Boyd is a multisport star at Fox Sports, with Major League Baseball, college football and soccer, including the FIFA World Cup, under her purview. She handles oversight of all live event production for those three categories and is involved in other facets of production within Fox Sports. Boyd also works extensively with FS1, the company’s 24/7 national cable sports network.

Varsity Status: Boyd joined Fox Sports in 2000 as a broadcast associate, her first professional job. She primarily worked on MLB coverage. Since then, she has worked in various production roles on NFL, MLB, college football and NASCAR telecasts. Named coordinating producer of MLB in 2010, Boyd was elevated to VP in 2012; she was also coordinating producer for Fox Sports Digital Entertainment.

In Her Own Words: “In college [at Cal State Northridge], I studied broadcast journalism and history and was thinking about law school. I really liked live
television but not the news, which was all murders and car chases. I liked sports. Fox Sports is the only place I’ve ever worked. I’ve always been lucky, even when I was a production assistant here, there were always other women working in the group. The production side has been more male-dominated over the years. There was a time when women thought they couldn’t get into that world but that’s not the case anymore.

“What I love is the challenge of a new project of finding new ways to do things, whether it’s through the evolution of technology or the growth of our people. I do miss live television, being hands-on, sitting in the truck. So I still go and do it for the NFL show. I enjoy it, but also that way I know what my people are going through and how to help them get the resources they need.

“With the pandemic, we had to figure out how to do broadcasts with Joe Buck in St. Louis and John Smoltz in Atlanta. They weren’t together at a ballpark until [Globe Life Field] in Texas in the postseason. When we were in the bubble there, we learned some things we will use in the future. Some, like cameras on top of the dugout because there were no fans, we won’t be able to [do], but cable-cams along the first- and third-base lines and different high-speed cameras, we will continue to use. We usually have 350 to 400 people on site, and we had 200 this year, with people like editors working remotely. I think that’s the future. There’s a learning curve, but we can embrace it.”

Andi Chu

Andi Chu (Image credit: Tennis Channel)

Key Stats:  Andi Chu oversees all of Tennis Channel’s nonlinear and operations activity, building a new multiplatform content division for the Sinclair Broadcast Group-owned channel. She and her team relaunched and its app as a streaming destination. She led the reboot of Tennis Channel Plus with longform content including curated playlists and new content. After Sinclair bought Tennis Media (which produced Tennis magazine and, she integrated it into the Tennis Channel operational and content structure. She also oversees e-letter Baseline and the Tennis Channel Podcast Network. Chu spearheaded Tennis’s first digital series, My Tennis Life, with active professional players.

Varsity Status:  Before joining Tennis Channel in 2016 as executive director, digital operations and content, Chu spent six years at the Women’s Tennis Association, handling content and social media across digital platforms for the tour and its players and sponsors. That came after a career in Los Angeles working in feature film and television, including roles as director of development at Paramount Pictures’ Alphaville Productions and director of distribution for ManiaTV.

In Her Own Words: “I wanted to be in film development and production so I went to Los Angeles. Eventually, I moved to work for digital startups, in part because I’m an early adopter and I was looking for knowledge outside traditional formats and for creative ways to do storytelling. 

“When I got to the WTA, I had no sports experience but I wanted to see what it was like and found the fast pace — everything is so accelerated there, compared to film and television — so rewarding. I also got to see the world and understand how production is done globally. 

“I’m especially proud of how we handled the pandemic this year. We were able to get up and running and then to fill our social channels with new content even when there were no matches on, leading to an increase in traffic.

“I’m hands-on in all the areas that I oversee, but building a team has been one of the real highlights for me. When I joined, I had one hire but now I have a full-time team of 17 and another 17 reporters/talent under contract to provide print, online or on-air content. I’m very big on diversity: When I came to Hollywood as an Asian-Canadian female, I saw how difficult it can be. Mentoring is also important for me to go back and give others the same opportunity.” 

Marie deParis

Marie DeParis (Image credit: SNY)

Marie DeParis  
Senior VP of Marketing and Affiliate Relations, SNY 

Key Stats:  Marie DeParis is responsible for brand marketing for SportsNet New York — the official television home of the New York Mets, New York Jets and UConn Huskies — including on-air promotion, advertising, events and sales promotion and affiliate relations. DeParis has won eight New York Emmy Awards and six Promax North America/BDA Promotion & Marketing Awards for television commercial campaigns, promotional spots and digital projects.

Varsity Status: Prior to joining SNY in 2007, DeParis was senior VP of strategic marketing and sales for the New York Daily News, where she led all consumer and trade marketing; she also served as associate publisher of the Daily News website. She previously held management positions at Fox Television and Radio City Music Hall Productions in New York. She also serves on the Bethany College Board of Trustees (her alma mater) and the Professional Advisory Board of the Business of Sports School, a New York City public high school.

In Her Own Words: “I always gravitated to sports. In college, I was the first female analyst on radio for baseball there. In my job at a public-relations firm, my boss asked me to research Johnny Bench for a Crest promotion but he was my favorite player and I said, ‘I know everything there is to know about him.’ I got to do a lot of sports work there, though it wasn’t all baseball: I did have to do a tractor pull promotion for a motor oil company, too. 

“At Radio City, I learned about working in live entertainment, so I feel that in my career one thing always leads to the next. At the Daily News there was always sports in promotions and partnerships. I worked with all the leagues, so when I came to SNY it didn’t feel like there was a transition, especially because I worked on SNY’s first live show, Daily News Live, from the Daily News side. 

“At SNY, the senior staff is 10 or 11 people and I was the only woman for years, but now there are four women, which is really refreshing. We provide such a difference in perspective and since all our jobs cross over to everything from programming to human resources, it’s important to have that.  Everybody is starting to move more toward that direction. Cable is much more female-friendly than the teams and leagues — they are still dominated by men — but I’ve definitely seen a change.” 

Pamela Duckworth

Pamela Duckworth (Image credit: fuboTV)

Pamela Duckworth 
Head, fubo Sports Network

Key Stats:  As head of fuboTV’s live, free-to-consumer TV network, launched a year ago, Pamela Duckworth is responsible for all creative direction, including original programming. In addition to partner programming from Stadium and Players Tribune, original programming includes No Chill with Gilbert Arenas; Call It a Night and Drinks With Binks, both hosted by Julie Stewart-Binks, and The Cooligans. She also still runs Duckworth Entertainment, a full-service creative marketing production company based in New York and Los Angeles. 

Varsity Status:  After five years as a producer at QVC and later spending two years at Al Roker Productions, Duckworth was head of advertising production and events at DirecTV for 10 years, through 2016. She then founded Duckworth Entertainment. Over the course of her career, she has been honored with twelve Cannes Lions, three Clios and two Effies, among other awards. 

In Her Own Words:  “I played volleyball and soccer growing up and through my dad, who had four girls, came to live for college football. We were in Ohio and my grandma was friendly with [legendary coach] Woody Hayes. There’s something about sports, the passion of it, the adrenaline, that fits my personality. 

“When AT&T bought DirecTV we all scattered, but at one point Joel Armijo, who had been there with me but who had become CFO of fubo, brought me in to do some consulting. Then last year, CEO David Gandler said, ‘We should start our own network. Can you do it in two months?’ I’m never one to back down from a challenge, I just said, ‘Give me three months.’

“It was a whirlwind. I brought on producers and talent, and by September 2019 we had three original shows as well as partner programming. We provided a fresh point of view, a more comedic one in a time where sports can get so serious. My goal is to get into the athletes’ minds and to bring on more personalities.

“It’s a crowded field with so much great content and the big dogs launching independent streaming, too. Our goal is to stay in the game and stay relevant. When the pandemic hit we never went dark, we pivoted to doing the shows from home. I’m really proud of our whole team. People know our name now and are coming to us with pitches every day, which is cool. 

“I was fortunate to have great mentors, who were men, bringing me up through the ranks. I worked in car racing in the late ’80s and I was the only woman there. Today, I make sure my team is diverse. I like internal promotion. I can bring a woman in as a production assistant and then move her up.” 

Caroline Rebello

Caroline Rebello (Image credit: EMC)

Caroline Rebello
Managing Director, Evolution
Media Capital

Key Stats:  Caroline Rebello’s deals — $4 billion in a single year —  are reshaping the U.S. sports media landscape. Recently, she has helped close deals such as the launch of Marquee Sports Network by the Chicago Cubs and Sinclair Broadcast Group; the St. Louis Blues’ local media deal with Fox Sports Midwest; and the Detroit Pistons’ local media deal with Fox Sports Detroit. She also advised two individuals on their acquisition of an NBA and an NHL franchise and secured favorable outcomes for two pro sports teams in confidential media valuation disputes.

Varsity Status:  Past deals at Evolution Media Capital, which is CAA’s merchant bank, have included the Vegas Golden Knights’ local broadcast deal with AT&T SportsNet; the Charlotte Hornets’ local broadcast deal with Fox Sports South in 2012; and the Brooklyn Nets’ local broadcast deal with YES Network. Since joining EMC in 2010, she has helped grow the group from a client roster of one team to more than five dozen. Prior to Evolution Media, Rebello served as an investor at TowerBrook and a media and sports strategic development executive at SCP Worldwide.

In Her Own Words: “I was a pole vaulter in high school and college and I wanted to work in sports, but I didn’t know if it was possible. At Wharton, I really liked economics and business, which led to investment banking at a private-equity firm. We made an investment in a hockey team and the opportunity to work in sports came up so I decided to try it out. Then I was able to jump over into the sports business and learn the media business, so at Evolution I was happy to combine it all. 

“I was conscious that this was a rare opportunity. It was not about being a woman, but about coming in as an outsider. I came from banking, which is predominantly male, so like it or not you get used to it. Now at Evolution and CAA overall, there are more and more women every year. 

“I’ve been involved in WISE Within (Women in Sports and Events), but I also always have an open-door policy for any woman who emails, calls or texts me. I make a point to try and get them where they’re going. I’m also involved in Forward, the CAA women’s group, and I sit on the multicultural committee as well. I mentor women on the track team at my alma mater, too, for those who might want to enter finance or media or sports. It’s really important to give back.” 

Susan Stone

Susan Stone (Image credit: MLB Network)

Key Stats:  Susan Stone oversees all production and studio operations, such as the Emmy Award-winning MLB Tonight and NHL Tonight, MLB Network Showcase game telecasts, and on-site studio programs from All-Star Week, the Stanley Cup Finals and the World Series. She oversees the operations and engineering for NHL Network as part of the NHL-MLB digital media rights partnership announced in 2015.

Varsity Status: Before joining MLB Network in 2008 to help oversee its launch the following year, Stone held crucial jobs throughout the sports media industry. Previously, Stone had taken time off in 2001 after the birth of her son (and subsequently her daughter) but then did consulting and part-time work for NFL Network before returning full-time as remote operations executive for more than two years. Prior to having children, she had worked as director of production services at CBS Sports, and director of production management and venue operations, NBC Olympics.

In Her Own Words: “I was always a sports fan — props to my dad, who had two daughters and always took us to Mets, Giants, Rangers and Knicks games — but a sports career was never on my agenda. After college, I did some production work in theater, but I wanted more stability. I thought that I loved production and operations, so maybe it would be fun to do it for sports on television. A friend told me about a temporary secretary job in production at NBC Sports. It led to a full-time job and I found my niche. But it never occurred to me then that a woman could have the job I do.

“We shut down on March 16, but by March 25 we were on the air for MLB Opening Day at Home, which is one of the things I’m proudest of in my career. It took effort and creativity. I always engage in any great idea. I just say, bring them all to the table, like when our technical director volunteers at a local high school where he was working on a cloud-based production system and said we might be able to do something with it. There are some things that may hold future uses, too. Our engineers found tools to allow our editors to work remotely, which is good because we’re usually bursting at the seams here and because we’re not in the city, so snow can create major stress in the winter and this can help people work remotely in the off-season.” 

Maria Taylor

Maria Taylor (Image credit: Kelly Backus/ESPN Images)

Maria Taylor 
College Sports Host, Analyst and Reporter/NBA Countdown Host, ESPN

Key Stats:  Maria Taylor has been a reporter for College GameDay and ABC Saturday Night Football since 2017 and she is also a host for NBA Countdown. In addition, Taylor serves as an analyst on other SEC and ESPN telecasts, including volleyball and women’s basketball and contributes to ESPN’s NBA Draft coverage.

Varsity Status:  At the University of Georgia, where Taylor majored in broadcast news, she played varsity volleyball and basketball and was named to the all-SEC volleyball team three times. She later earned an MBA at Georgia. After getting her master’s degree, she became a college football analyst and sideline reporter for ESPN and later added to her résumé with roles as an analyst and host for the network’s coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and Women’s Volleyball National Championship and as a sideline reporter for men’s college basketball.

In Her Own Words: “I was going to be a doctor and major in biology but it wasn’t going great, so then I switched to business until I took a journalism class with a friend. I was freelancing after college and went back to get the MBA because I wasn’t sure if TV would work out so I thought I could work in athletic administration. I worked initially at Comcast Sports South, doing volleyball, which was in my comfort zone, but then also high-school football and SEC football, too. 

“The roles have certainly changed for women in recent years. It used to be the only roles were the sideline reporters, which were more marginalized. But now women have the expectation of hosting and Doris Burke is in the booth for the NBA and Jessica Mendoza for baseball. The doors keep getting broken down. There’s still a lot of ground to cover, but there’s slow but sure progress as women have really invaded this male-dominated space. 

“I would not want to do play-by-play, but I would love to be an analyst. The NCAA women’s tournament is the most fun I’ve ever had at work. This year, being in the bubble for my first NBA season was a big challenge but it was exciting, hosting all the coverage of the games and all the other issues about the coronavirus and social justice issues.

“I co-founded in 2014 the Winning Edge Leadership Academy, which runs programs for women and minorities in sports and entertainment and business, so I might be helping someone looking to get into broadcasting but also someone who wants to become an athletic director.”

Kaitlin Urka

Kaitlin Urka (Image credit: NBC Sports Group)

Kaitlin Urka
Producer, NBC Sports & Olympics

Key Stats:  At NBC since 2011, Kaitlin Urka’s work has earned her four Sports Emmys as she has tackled the world’s biggest events: the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals and the Tour de France. On March 8, she created the very first all-women’s NHL broadcast (on-air and behind the scenes) to celebrate International Women’s Day. 

Varsity Status:  Urka studied journalism at the University of Michigan, where she was named one of the 100 most promising student journalists in the nation and received an award for excellence in communications studies. She also served as general manager of WOLV-TV, the student-run station on campus. As part of Gannett’s Talent Development program, she got her start in television as a morning show associate producer and on-air talent.

In Her Own Words: “I thought communications studies was a springboard for law school. I didn’t see women working in television, so I thought I could go into sports law. When I went to the school’s TV station there was not a single woman on any sports program, so I worked on all of them, then I recruited other women. I had a passion for sports and TV and I was good at it. Still, even when I was at Gannett I thought about law school because I had people there tell me they’d never hire a woman to work in sports and that I didn’t belong there.  

“I was a Punt, Pass and Kick champion when I was 9. But people don’t see that and make assumptions, while no one asks men to see their credentials. I was turned away by an old man at the locker room door during an NCAA tournament when I was the Michigan beat reporter.  I like to think most of those guys are gone now, but there are still biases that exist and I still have to work twice as hard to prove my worth.

“The all-woman broadcast came about when analyst A.J. Mleczko took her teenage daughter inside a production truck and her daughter said, ‘Mom, where are all the women?’ We are all so spread out — there are really talented women working here in all areas but we very rarely all get to be together. And that can get lonely. 

“The idea is that ‘if you see it, you can be it,’ but I didn’t want to just show girls, I wanted to show little boys so the idea of women working in these jobs becomes the norm and we don’t have to make a big deal of it. I was so nervous before the game, since social media can be such a negative space, but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. We’re still chipping away at stereotypes and assumptions just to give women equal footing.

Sara Zuckert

Sara Zuckert (Image credit: NBA)

Sara Zuckert  
Senior Director and Head of Next-Gen Telecast, NBA 

Key Stats:  Sara Zuckert played a particularly crucial role in overseeing the NBA’s bubble, the isolation zone set up at Walt Disney World to protect players from COVID-19. Zuckert oversaw the virtual fan initiative for the NBA Season Restart in Orlando, Florida, which included video boards surrounding the court filled with digital "fans" who could interact with each other in real time. Overall, Zuckert is focused on evolving game telecasts across all channels, featuring customizable experiences, alternate camera angles, companion content and interactive engagement.  

Varsity Status: Zuckert landed an NBA internship in 2013, while getting an MBA from Yale, then joined the league full-time in 2014. She started in the Domestic Programming & Content Strategy group, focused on content strategy, game flow and telecast innovation. Prior to the NBA, Zuckert worked in media planning and programming for TV Land. She is also a member of the board of WBRU, a nonprofit digital media workshop for college students affiliated with Brown University, her alma mater.

in her own words:  “Working for the NBA was a dream of mine. I’m not just a fan of the teams but of the league’s presence in the media space. My internships, at Madison Square Garden and then at the NBA, were fantastic learning experiences, as was my experience on the business side of the radio station at college. The NBA has provided great opportunities for me. My job is in programming but it crosses over into media, business and content strategy, so there are great chances to learn about all aspects of the business. 

“At Next Gen, we had already been working on the game flow in telecasts, working with players and officials to change things like the number of timeouts to make it better for the fans at home. With the absence of fans, we tried things we had used in summer league and other games, like different camera angles and the ‘rail cam.’ [This lets the streaming audience see the action through a lens on a mobile table that moves up and down the court with the action.] We also experimented with everything from the audio soundscape coming from the courts to ways to give virtual fans a chance to participate.

“We know that 99% of NBA fans are not at games in person, so even after the pandemic is over we will continue to find ways to create the best atmosphere for fans at home, maybe using some of these ideas.”

Stuart Miller

Stuart Miller has been writing about television for 30 years since he first joined Variety as a staff writer. He has written about television for The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, Vulture and numerous other publications.