Suggestions For Promoting Gender Equity In Ultimate Broadcasting

A personal case study.

AMP’s Andrea DeSabato provides commentary on the 2015 All-Star Tour stop in Philadelphia. Photo: Brian Canniff — UltiPhotos.com

“I think the best commentator should be on the mic.”

Thus began Rob McLeod’s response to Team Canada player Rena Kawabata’s tweeted demand for a female commentator for the World Games, which led to his resignation as WFDF Communications Director. Of course, it was McLeod’s more-overtly misogynist comments which followed that triggered the online petition for his resignation, but I believe the initial statement also deserves scrutiny.

In this article, I explain how subjective assumptions about what makes someone the “best commentator” may be preventing women from calling high-profile ultimate matches, and I offer suggestions for promoting gender equity in ultimate broadcasting.

Within the heated exchange, McLeod asserted that WFDF had done a better job of promoting gender equity in ultimate broadcasting at “the last two major events [by] having women on the mic for mixed and women’s games.” I was one of the women on the mic at one of those events: the 2017 World Championships of Beach Ultimate in Royan, France. Though WFDF had hired three women and three men as livestream commentators in an impressive initial demonstration of commitment to gender equity, three out of the seven final matches had just one woman, placed in the secondary “color” role, and the other four, including the Mixed Division final, had two men.

I was not a party to the discussions which led to the decision to have men outnumber women 11-3 on the arena mics in the highest-profile games, but I observed enough of the process to have some understanding of what factors shaped that decision and what we can do to prevent that from happening in the future, without sacrificing the quality of the broadcast.

Suggestion #1: Make a Woman the Play-By-Play Commentator at least 50% of the Time, Including High-Profile Games

At the arena field at WCBU, we used the model of sports broadcasting most commonly used in American sports, which has two distinct roles: “play-by-play” and “color” (also called “analyst”). In this model, the play-by-play commentator is the main voice. In addition to literally describing what is happening on the field as the disc is in play, he/she directs the flow of the discussion, and it is only once the play-by-play commentator has either specifically invited the color commentator to speak (often with leading questions) or has otherwise made it clear he/she is done with the point that the other commentator can bring in the color (i.e. interesting background information) or analyze the play. While this model potentially gives the analysts substantial opportunities to express their unique opinions and perspectives, in practice, those opportunities may be circumscribed by the direction of the play-by-play commentator. In order to promote gender equity, it is crucial that the person directing the discussion is sometimes a woman.

It is generally assumed that the play-by-play role should be filled by the most-experienced broadcaster. Indeed, in the sports broadcasting world, play-by-play is that coveted senior role that broadcasters spend their careers jockeying for position to one day obtain, and which even the “best” female sportscasters are never given in mainstream broadcasts.

But, here’s a secret: “play-by-play” isn’t harder to do than “color.” It’s simply different, with a distinct learning curve and required skill sets. As long as one is an experienced ultimate player and a comfortable talker who can see the field and jersey numbers, one can learn the roster and call out what’s unfolding on the field and then ask the color commentator to chime in about it means or why we should care. Thus, while it makes some intuitive sense to have the person who is directing the show be the most-experienced broadcaster, it is a bit of a misguided assumption, since both roles benefit from practice, experience, and chemistry with one’s partner. And this assumption is widening the gender gap, because in big-game ultimate broadcasting, the ones with the most on-air experience are currently men. If we keep putting men in the play-by-play role, then women will never direct the conversation. Even if we let women practice play-by-play on some relatively insignificant games, it is unlikely they will catch up in experience to the men who have been doing it longer; when the big games come up, we’ll still put the more-experienced announcers in charge of the conversation.

This appears to be what happened at WCBU this year, where the commentators with the most broadcasting experience were men. Before the two most-experienced men, Tom Styles and Evan Lepler, arrived mid-week, the other four commentators had turns trying out different distributions of the play-by-play and color roles together, often with two women on the mic, including on men’s games. Once Tom and Evan arrived, they generally were given the play-by-play role, with one of the less-experienced commentators on color.

Pretty soon, there were more commentators than needed, and a behind-the-scenes pecking order was established, wherein Evan rose to the top and got the play-by-play position on each finals match, and the color position was distributed among four of the other five commentators, with a couple male guest appearances taking some of the slots. While Evan, an American who regularly calls AUDL and USA Ultimate games on many platforms including ESPN, brings undeniable experience, skill, and dedication to the job, selecting him as the only play-by-play announcer for every final meant that only his particular ultimate vision and voice was directing the show. As a consequence, distinct gender, cultural, and playing perspectives were excluded from or minimized in the broadcast.

It is possible that WCBU presented the rare situation where the male commentators had so much more broadcasting talent and experience than the available women, and the planned use of the finished product was so important to WFDF, that it was an appropriate decision to put a man on play-by-play for each of the finals. However, based on my observations of the week, it appears likely that unintentionally discriminatory factors also influenced that decision and will continue to influence other broadcasting decisions, unless the following suggestions are also heeded.

Suggestion #2: Carefully Examine your Criteria for Determining who the “Best” Commentators Are, to See if They Involve Potentially-Discriminatory Factors

When the schedules came out for the last couple days of games at the arena, my name had dropped off altogether, and I was sent to try to get on some of the Field 2 & 3 games being streamed on Fanseat. This may be a red flag for readers, believing I must have taken this apparent demotion personally. Of course, I don’t like any form of rejection, and I am not eager to be reminded of my shortcomings or discover new ones in the wake of this article. Nevertheless, I can honestly say I have no trouble accepting that I was not chosen to represent WFDF in its most high-profile games. Rather, because some of the reasons that were shared with me or which I suspect were behind the decision to have such a limited female voice in the WCBU finals may reflect gender bias, I am speaking out to try to prevent those reasons from keeping other female voices off future broadcasts.

I received feedback about my commentating from three different men involved with the livestream at WCBU. From one, it was consistently positive, praising my pacing, tone, and content. From another, it was almost all negative (though noting some improvement over time) and included noting my apologizing on-the-air for misstatements, showing emotion at big plays (demonstrated back to me with a high-pitched voice), speaking too quickly or “too legato,” and interrupting the play-by-play commentator’s pauses. The third provided a direct response to my eventual request for feedback about the scheduling decision, which he explained had just come down to a narrowing of the field of too-many commentators, and I had dropped off the end. The only reason he identified for why Gee-Gee Morrison was chosen to represent our gender for the two women’s divisions finals was that Gee-Gee had a relatively low-pitched voice. (The other female commentator, Ange Wilkinson, was playing in the Mixed-Masters Division and was understandably put on that final.)

While non-gendered factors may well have been enough to move me off the big games, I invite producers to carefully consider whether any of the notes I received may reveal gender bias that could haunt future broadcasting decisions.

I’m sorry…

Gender differences in apologizing habits were famously lampooned by Amy Schumer, and have even led to apps aimed at helping women ditch apologies. Nevertheless, some feminists embrace the habit as an effective communication method. While male broadcasters may apologize less on the air and some viewers may prefer that style, the assumption that avoiding apologies is an objectively-preferable broadcast model to all viewers is open to debate. (Of course, not making the error in the first place would be objectively preferable.)

No sopranos (except for the National Anthem).

Unrealistic expectations about vocal pitch are well-recognized as a potential factor in gender inequity in the broadcasting profession.1 Perceived preferences for lower-pitched voices in female broadcasters vary according to the forum, but appear to be connected to how “authoritative” a particular gender is perceived in that forum. (Think Sports Center versus Home Shopping Network.)

Thus, it is hard to separate a perceived preference for male voices from an assumption that men know more about sports, including ultimate. Furthermore, studies show that listeners incorrectly associate women’s higher vocal pitch as signaling a faster rate of speech, which suggests that even the note I received for speaking too quickly may have been skewed by gender bias.2 If only women with relatively-low voices are encouraged to be broadcasters, then an already shallow pool is needlessly reduced to a puddle.

Don’t get excited!

Closely-related to vocal pitch is the apparent disapproval of my female voice expressing excitement on the air. This is a particularly difficult factor to objectively assess, since listener preferences for the degree of excitement expressed by a commentator can have both cultural and gendered components. The European producer at ECBU2013 encouraged me to voice more excitement. (“This isn’t tennis,” I was told.) Sitting between the English and French broadcasting teams in Royan, I enjoyed hearing more-dramatic expressions of excitement by the all-male French broadcasting team, who had no prior experience with ultimate. But even at the English-speaking table, I frequently heard exclamations of excitement by male commentators in both the play-by-play and color roles.

Trying to reconcile this particular note with what I observed behind the mic, I believe it may have been influenced in two gendered ways: 1) discomfort with or exaggerated perceptions of women as being emotional or excitable; and 2) perceptions of my excited exclamations as interrupting the play-by-play commentator.

Womanterruption?

As explained above, the color commentator is not meant to speak until it is clear the play-by-play commentator is done with the point or invites him or her to do so. It generally takes a new pair a few games together to get the play-by-play commentator’s pacing down, so that the color commentator can avoid interrupting him or her in a manner which detracts from the broadcast experience.

Many readers who are less familiar with broadcasting roles may recognize interruption as a familiar topic in discussions of male and female interactions. For example, female Supreme Court justices are more often interrupted by male attorneys than their male colleagues are. What may be less discussed is how men perceive being interrupted by women.

Linguist Deborah Tannen has explained that men’s conversational patterns tend to be more competitive and their interruptions typically function to assert rank in a conversation.3 By contrast, women may have a more cooperative style, which includes “speech overlap” to indicate agreement in a point and encouragement. Because men may anticipate competitive one-upping as the communication norm, speech overlap meant to indicate agreement may be incorrectly perceived as a hostile interruption.  In such circumstances, and also when women utilize a more-competitive conversational approach to assert opposing views, women may be socially penalized as “bossy.”

A listener attuned to speech overlap may find its use conducive to a congenial sports broadcast, while competitive interruptions would seem jarring to listeners of both genders. It could be revealing to evaluate and compare WCBU matches with male and female color commentators to see who, in fact, interrupts the play-by-play commentator the most in a manner detrimental to the broadcast or what is simply congenial speech overlap between various gender (and cultural) pairings, and to what extent this factor is reflected in the pairings assigned to the finals.

***
Thus, within the notes I personally received at WCBU, I can recognize several factors which feminists have identified as potentially discriminatory. Regardless of whether they were actually employed in a discriminatory manner in my case, or whether non-discriminatory factors governed the casting decisions, I suspect that gender-biased broadcasting standards and assumptions have been playing some role in the relative paucity of “experienced” female ultimate broadcasters. If the producers of high-profile ultimate broadcasts are committed to gender equity, they should think carefully before basing casting decisions on these factors.

Suggestion #3: Support Female Broadcasters Who Voice Their Opinions On and Off The Air, Even if You Personally Disagree with Them.

Women often experience playing ultimate differently than men do, and that experience is as important to the broadcast as the kinds of hands-on experience broadcasters get calling games. Ironically, while the three female commentators may have had less on-the-air experience than the men at WCBU, I believe we were the only ones with actual playing experience in Worlds events. Ultimate broadcasting can benefit from our on- and off-the field experiences in ways which may not always be recognized or shared by our male counterparts.

For example, in one of my post-game notes, a male commentator criticized my applauding the tenacity of one of the top women in European beach ultimate, Inês Bringel of Portugal, for making an unsuccessful play on the disc against Isaiah Masek-Kelly, one of the top male Canadian players (but playing for Russia). He told me that Bringel hadn’t done anything in that point, and I shouldn’t have noted it. The male producer heard the conversation and agreed. I told them both that I had a different perspective: making the decision to follow the disc, hold your position, and make a bid as a much larger man is running straight at you, is doing something, and it was something that none of Bringel’s male teammates were doing at that moment. Re-watching this point at a later date, I understood why they had their concerns – it did not look like she did anything at that moment. But, having personally been in that position before, I knew exactly what she was doing and why it mattered, and it was important to me to say it.

Maybe not every woman playing at this level would have found it noteworthy (and Bringel had plenty of more-dramatic on-field moments that were noted). But, what is clear is that I had an opinion about something that happened on the field that the male broadcasters did not share, and if I hadn’t been there, the only story that would have been told about that point was what the male receiver did. And, there is so much more to ultimate than that.

I do not know whether the content of my commentary influenced the finals’ casting decisions, but I would expect it to be a factor, for good or ill. I recommend that producers carefully evaluate content-based decisions for gender bias and err on the side of allowing commentary that does not closely align with one’s personal perceptions of what is important. If it is significant to that commentator, it may be significant to other viewers with diverse cultural and gender perspectives.

Suggestion #4: Seek Out and Include Women in Ultimate Broadcast Management.

Having diverse cultural and gender perspectives within the broadcast management team could help enable diverse perspectives, styles, and vocal traits in the commentators they are managing. Such diversity was not present at WCBU, where the broadcasting management was entirely male and almost all American (a distinctly-relevant concern for an international competition, in my opinion). As a female commentator slipping down the casting totem pole, I did not feel empowered to inform those making the casting decisions about the gender bias I believed was influencing their decisions. While I may have felt more comfortable approaching a female manager with my observations, ideally, this kind of attention to gender bias would come from within the broadcast management making the casting decisions.

Given that sports broadcasting has been a notoriously hostile environment for women over the years, it may be understandably hard to find women with significant broadcasting experience who are available for ultimate broadcast management. To rectify this situation, it is important to take proactive steps to support and promote the women trying to break into this field. Bringing in female managers without specific broadcasting experience, but who have other valuable experience in media and/or the ultimate community and share its commitment to promoting gender and cultural diversity, could provide a valuable second-choice, until today’s female broadcasters gain the experience needed to become management.

Afterword

While working on this article, I learned that USA Ultimate and Fulcrum Media made gender equity a top priority for their livestreaming of the recent US Open tournament and had lined up majority female commentators. I shared a draft of this article with Fulcrum Media producer Luke Johnson, who was also at WCBU, and he said it had a significant impact on him and renewed his commitment for the tournament.

Unfortunately, I did not realize that the livestreamed games on ESPN had separate management, and the two games I watched suffered from many of the problems I had witnessed at WCBU. Watching the Women’s final, I found it especially ironic that the male color commentator frequently interrupted the male play-by-play commentator (including with expressions of excitement) and apologized at least once for an error, while the female color commentator covering the Women’s semifinal stayed cautiously in her lane. I would not place the occasionally rogue male commentator as a detractor in my listening experience; however, the fact that two men were calling the game was a huge disappointment.

I am inspired by the women and men who are speaking out for gender equity on the field and in the broadcasting booth, and I hope this article provides a useful tool to help us get there. It’s an upwind battle, full of personal and institutional challenges; but, I can’t think of anyone better equipped to fight that battle than ultimate players.


  1. See, e.g., here or here

  2. Anne Cutler & Donia R. Scott, “Speaker Sex and Perceived Apportionment of Talk,” Applied Psycholinguistics 11 (1990), 255-256, available here

  3. Deborah Tannen, Gender Discourse, “Interpreting Interruption in Conversation” (Oxford Univ. Press, 1994) 61-63, 73-76, available here

  1. Liz Garfinkle
    Liz Garfinkle

    Liz Garfinkle is a retired ultimate player, occasional livestream commentator, criminal-defense appellate attorney, musician, improviser, and hobby farmer, living in Oakland, CA.

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