'Breaking glass ceiling into sports broadcasting as a woman was not without pitfalls' - How Sally Jones helped pave way for other pioneers 

Sally Jones (top right) and Helen Rollason (centre) and Gabby Logan 
Sally Jones (top right) and Helen Rollason (centre) paved the way for female sports broadcasters such as Gabby Logan Credit: PA

Women now play a prominent role on the front line of TV sports coverage. But, as broadcasting pioneer ­­­Sally Jones recalls, it was a tough battle to make the breakthrough.

As Britain’s legion of armchair pundits prepare for a packed summer of sport on television, women are taking centre stage, and not just as competitors. These days, some of our best-known presenters and commentators – on men’s as well as women’s sport – are female, accepted without question as being there on merit, masters of their craft.

Take Clare Balding, famed for her punchy style and the exhaustive research which carries her through even when the autocue freezes, the studio link breaks down and the emotional winning jockey or tennis prodigy turns tearful and tongue-tied. Or Gabby Logan, a consummate professional, empathetic and focused, equally at ease fronting athletics, football, rugby or her first love, gymnastics.

It is a world away from the days when women first began battling against the odds for acceptance as sports broadcasters. Women such as pioneering football journalist Mary Raine, a Sunderland fanatic and “walking Who’s Who of football” according to her BBC colleagues. She made news when her editor, impressed by her depth of knowledge, sent her to cover Chelsea’s 5-1 win over Sunderland on the flagship radio show Sports Report in 1969.

After an accomplished performance, she was picked to report on the 1970 FA Cup final when a senior editor informed her he could not use a football report on such an important match by a woman. Undeterred, she continued writing for the “rip and read” news service chattered out by BBC teleprinters around the world – though not under her own name. It was not until the 1990s that Eleanor Oldroyd became Sports Report’s first female presenter. I have first-hand experience of the phenomenon. 

Sally Jones with the BBC Breakfast News team back in 1986, Sally was the first female sports anchor on the programme Credit: PA

In the mid-1980s, as a former BBC News trainee, I was happily presenting the evening news at Central TV in my home patch of Birmingham. A lifelong sports nut, I was also writing a women’s sport column for the Today newspaper, doing cricket and tennis reports for ITN, fronting occasional ITV gymnastics coverage and obsessively playing Real Tennis.

Then came the momentous call from the BBC in 1986 asking me to join the revamped Breakfast News as a sports presenter, alternating with former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, alongside Jeremy Paxman, Kirsty Wark, Frank Bough and Sally Magnusson. I accepted with alacrity, quite unaware that, as the BBC’s first networked woman sports anchor, my life was about to change forever.

The sheer volume of publicity was daunting. In the first few weeks I was made to pose endlessly in revealing football strip or wielding a selection of rackets and cricket bats (as a sporting jack-of-all-trades). 

Male interviewers grilled me about whether a woman could be taken seriously talking about sport. Women reporters asked about clothes, boyfriends and whether I was really dating Robbie Coltrane.

Public reaction ranged from ecstatic to horrified. One Labour MP hailed me as a “sporting suffragette”, then unwisely tried to put his hand on my knee during lunch in the Commons. When I started reading the rugby league results, letters poured in containing pages of invective in green ink, mainly from old blokes in Batley and Castleford, furiously demanding what a “slip o’lass” could possibly know about rugby league. A shifty-looking young man from a tabloid rummaged through the dustbins of my north Kensington flat and asked my elderly neighbour if I had many boyfriends. (Chance would be a fine thing, getting up at four in the morning.) 

In those days, the male-dominated media still treated much women’s sport as a joke. In April 1986 I went to cover the first England v France women’s rugby international at Richmond, to find a smirking Richard Keys reporting for TV-am, asking these highly-trained athletes whether they were going to swap shirts after the match and whether they enjoyed a communal bath like the men. Grr!

Clare Balding has blazed a trail for female sports presenters in tennis and racing  Credit: BBC

“The innovator has for enemies all who did well under the old regime,” wrote Machiavelli, sagely. He was not wrong. Some male colleagues were encouraging; others not so much. Bob Wilson was unfailingly warm and friendly, while the great sportscasters Frank Bough and Des Lynam, who made fronting Grandstand, the toughest live show on TV, look easy, mentored me affably. Others felt threatened.

When I presented daytime coverage of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, one high-profile presenter charmingly put it about that I had only been offered the gig because I had slept with a BBC editor: infuriating, particularly as I was famously prudish and the editor, a portly chain-smoker, provided little temptation.

My friend Helen Rollason and I were among a tiny handful of women covering Seoul for British television, Helen, a former games teacher, reporting for Channel 4. Loyal, brave and mischievous, she joked about the mix of adulation and outright envy we encountered. We had ringside seats for every great sporting occasion, from the Ryder Cup to the Wimbledon finals and met everyone from Muhammad Ali and Billie-Jean King to Princess Diana and Ian Botham. If we made the slightest slip, though, chauvinist critics had a field day, concluding that all women must be useless sports presenters. If Steve Ryder made a blooper, no one said all men were rubbish, just that Steve was having an off-day.

As a single mother with a young daughter and little money, Helen faced tough times early in her career. She later confided that male producers deliberately tested her dedication, making her bring in her passport every day in case a foreign story cropped up, knowing this would be virtually impossible, given her difficulties with child care. Her confidence was almost destroyed by the criticism she endured after becoming the first woman presenter of Grandstand amid enormous fanfare, though given little preparation for its unique demands. Within a couple of shows she was told she was inept – while being directly compared with Des Lynam, probably the greatest sports broadcaster of his generation, who had done it for decades. She was rapidly removed from the show and although later recognised as a gifted broadcaster, never forgot the ignominy of that episode.

My old tennis contemporary Sue Barker, who cut her teeth at Australia’s Channel 7 and Sky Sports before getting the nod from the BBC, lasted only a handful of shows presenting Saturday Grandstand. She attracted a familiar chorus of derision when she momentarily confused the Scottish side Queen’s Park with Queens Park Rangers and was swiftly shuffled sideways, though deservedly went on to become the doyenne of female sports presenters.

We kept striving. I began presenting tennis and NBA basketball despite often feeling alienated. Co-presenting the world sports show Transworld Sport, I discovered I was being paid only two thirds of what my male co-host was getting and left in disgust.

During the early 1990s the superb former Daily Telegraph sportswriter Sue Mott and I presented and reported on the sports politics series On the Line from Manchester. Sue, who had a small baby, was allotted a microscopic edit room to breastfeed and treated as though carrying a highly infectious disease. When eight months pregnant with my daughter in July 1992, and commentating on Wimbledon for Radio 5 Live, I was invariably given the furthest commentary perches, up ladders or in steepling eyries above Centre Court, as though to test my stamina and stickability.

In the 1990s, I presented sports bulletins on BBC World, getting up at 1am to drive to London from Warwickshire for the 3am graveyard shift, so I could get home in time to collect our kids from school. When, catatonic with exhaustion, I fell asleep face first into a bowl of taramasalata at teatime, I realised it was time to call a halt, so began building a portfolio career of writing, documentaries and media training that dovetailed with family life.

In 1995, the young racing expert and former leading amateur jockey Clare Balding was picked to anchor TV coverage of Royal Ascot, having previously been jokingly passed over as “having a good face for radio” by someone in BBC Sport.

I secured the first interview with her and was charmed by her outspoken admission that she had no interest in fashion and was dieting harder than Lester Piggott because, “TV puts 10 pounds on everyone”. This chimed with me. At my thinnest ever – an unaccustomed size 10, following an unhappy love affair – and a whisker under six foot, one BBC bigwig told my agent I should lose weight. (How? Cut my head off?) After years of expectation that all women on TV, including sportscasters, should look like simpering Barbie-doll CNN anchors, Clare’s arrival was hugely refreshing. So, too, was her say-it-like-is style, enthusiasm and deep knowledge of the sports she fronted. 

Kelly Cates has become a regular presenter on Sky Sports' football coverage Credit: PA

It was Clare, Helen and the likes of Sue Barker, Hazel Irvine and the authoritative radio host Eleanor Oldroyd who were central in opening the heavily-guarded gates of sports broadcasting to today’s female talent. Scottish golf and football presenter Eilidh Barbour has credited Hazel Irvine, one of the first women to cover football and famed for her gung-ho presentation of everything from golf to curling, with firing her ambition to become a sports presenter. Former international gymnast Barbara Slater, an unflappable assistant producer when I arrived at Breakfast News, now the BBC’s hugely influential director of sport, has also inspired thousands.

So who will I be watching this summer? Clare and Gabby, of course. Other favourites include Sky’s relaxed, no-nonsense golf presenter Sarah Stirk, perceptive tennis pundit Annabel Croft and the poised, articulate Tamsin Greenway, the former England netball wing defence. Greenway, smart as a whip and architect of the all-conquering Coventry-based Wasps Netball franchise, is lighting up Sky Sport’s coverage of the Vitality Superleague with her forensic analysis of a sport once laughably dismissed as too girlie and feeble for TV. Watch the hugely physical Netball World Cup from Liverpool in July to see just how girlie it really is!

And while admiring the women pundits, spare a thought for the early pioneers who kept battling away, determined to show thousands of sports-mad young girls that whether on screen or behind the mic, there was a place for women in sport after all.