Are women broadcasters still in a man’s world?

So, how far have we come since Underwood called her first game? While significant progress has been made, Barham said there’s still a long way to go.

In hindsight, he would have done things differently when first hiring Underwood, including rounding up more support, having “strong conversations” with media people who were harsh on her and letting the AFL know beforehand about the move.

‘If I had anticipated the amount of feedback and the grief that she was going to get, I wouldn’t have done it.’

David Barham

“Looking back now, I was …pretty naive. I think I just really didn’t think there would be a massive reaction to female callers in an AFL game.

“What I couldn’t believe most was the lack of people understanding that she was a new caller. You know, anybody who calls their first few games, go back and listen to any of the great callers’ first few games and they won’t be as good as what they are [and] Kelli wasn’t as good back then as what she is now.

“But the judgment on it was so harsh. Early days, it was incredibly unfair, and I was absolutely shocked at the time … She was just a young caller trying to do a job.

“It also made it so much harder for her because no other commentator that I’ve ever worked with, ever, has had to perform under such pressure as Kelli, ever. In my 40 years no one’s had to deal with the pressure. So, there are so many young women today that should be so thankful to her.

Underwood in the 3AW commentary box with Rex Hunt in the early days.Credit:Ray Kennedy

“Because if she had chucked it in and given it up, where would everyone be now? Where would we be on the scale of this thing? She’s a trailblazer, she’s an absolute trailblazer.”

Many women and non-binary people have since stepped into commentary roles in Australian sport, including Pearce, Lauren Arnell, Jessica Webster, Stephanie Brantz, Chyloe Kurdas and Georgie Parker, while Lisa Sthalekar and English women Alison Mitchell and Isa Guha are now regulars during the summer of cricket.

Pearce is a champion footballer and a sharp analyst

Pearce is a champion footballer and a sharp analystCredit:Getty Images

“It’s changed a lot, but there’s still a fair way to go. I still don’t think there’s enough opportunities for talented women, young women in the media … I still think a lot of the jobs held high up in television are held by men in sport,” said Barham.

Notably, there are even fewer women of color in commentary and sports broadcast roles.

As Barham notes, there’s a huge advantage to having diverse callers and experts in the coverage, as they bring a different view that attracts a different, and potentially bigger, audience.

“So if you’re commercially focused, I would have thought it’s a really good way to go, but we’ve still got a fair way to go, unfortunately.”

Fox Footy and ABC AFL and AFLW play-by-play commentator Jessica Webster is among those who have followed in Underwood’s footsteps, after idolizing the likes of Bruce McAvaney and Dennis Cometti growing up.

“But as I got older, I was like, ‘Hang on a minute, there’s no women doing this, how am I going to do this?’ and then Kelli came onto the scene when I was at uni studying journalism, and that was obviously a huge moment because just seeing somebody on TV who was like you, I thought to myself, ‘if she can do it, I can do it’ ,” Webster said.

“She made a lot of women believe that it was possible, and I’m one of them.”

Webster says she expects to be criticized as a commentator, but gendered comments can hurt.

“Sometimes I sit here I think we haven’t progressed at all like when I saw comments about Kelli or I saw what happened to Daisy the other day, and it’s just kind of a bit deflating,” says Webster.

“I think what you genuinely hear a lot from women in the industry is, ‘Yeah, we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.’


“The women that we do have in the industry are all really just dedicated to the sport, dedicated to the craft… We all want to do our jobs [and] we all want to do our jobs well, and probably the only other thing that I want the public to think about is this is only the beginning.

“The next wave of broadcasters that are coming through, they [the industry and public] all better get ready. ”

ABC AFLW special comments expert Gemma Bastiani says some improvement has come from women’s sport gaining more prominence.

“There’s no way I would be in this position. I probably wouldn’t have even pursued it if AFLW didn’t become a thing,” Bastiani said.

She adds that women can be siloed into hosting or boundary riding, while more are needed in analysis roles.

“I think the big thing is we’re seeing a lot of women in roles that aren’t necessarily part of the in-game broadcast. So, we’re seeing a lot of women in hosting roles, or we’re seeing women in boundary-rider roles. Very few, and I think Kelli and Daisy are the only ones that I’m aware of, have regular gigs as either a play-by-play caller or a specials caller during men’s games.

“Daisy’s a superstar, but she’s not the only woman who can do that. Lauren Arnell has done it for a really long time on radio.

“My big thing is getting women into roles, the right women, not just any woman, because not anyone could do it, just like not any man could do it. But getting the right women into roles that allow them to actually speak about footy is really important.”

Fox Footy’s Sarah Jones says one of the biggest shifts in the past five or six years has been women in more central and powerful roles, such as hosting and moderating footy panels, which has led audiences to expect female faces on football broadcasts.

“People want to see themselves reflected when they watch their football and we know so many women are massive football fans,” she said.

“So if I’m hosting on the weekend, I’m there as me, but I’m also representing the millions of people that love their football and happen to be women.”

Yet a tweet from Hawthorn AFLW player and Triple M’s Kate McCarthy earlier this year served as a reminder that the commentary box is still largely a man’s domain. “Hey @marvelstadiumau is there any chance there could be a female toilet in the radio box area? Would make things a lot more comfortable for us female callers. #GirlsCallToo.”

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