The Pioneers of Female Commentary

Written by James Whitehead

Commentary and sport. I dare you to name a better combination than that. You can have your beans on toast, your Batman and Robin, your pepperoni on pizza (ok, hands off of this one, it’s all mine), but to me nothing beats sport with commentary.

See, commentary is helpful in a number of ways: viewers/listeners get insight into the tactics of the game and the mindset of the athletes when a co-commentator has experience in the sport they’re watching; you get to hear some quite iconic and passionate commentary (think Peter Drury and “Roma have risen from their ruin” or “the whole of Bengal are on their feet” or even the simplicity of “Johnny Wilkinson – he’s done it!”); it enables a larger number of fans to to access sport (those who are visually impaired, for example).

There’s also another reason why I see commentary to be so important – until fairly recently, you only ever heard men’s’ voices.

Apparently for the last seventy years, the only people capable of pronouncing names like Dzagoev, the only people who could identify that a player as been sin-binned for an off-the-ball incident, the only people who could express sheer delight at an astonishing boundary catch, were people like me: men.

There’s nothing wrong with Eddie Butler’s voice, nor Rob Hawthorn’s or Alex Jacques. Far from it, as these three commentators provide excellent insight and are truly gifted at what they do. Yet men aren’t the only people to have an interest in sport, and men aren’t the only people who are interested in providing their insight.

That’s why for this article, I wanted to draw attention to some truly exceptional women in commentary. I should distinguish between pundits and commentators, of course. The former are typically ex-professionals from the sport being covered (think Tamsin Greenway or Ebony Rainford-Brent; all of whom deserve their own articles) providing more in-depth analysis of tactical decisions during post-and-pre-match segments.

Most commentators will have a background in sports journalism and work for a broadcaster, or freelance, on any given event. Typically, they’ll provide facts and figures relevant to what’s being covered while also discussing events in-and-around the fixture, whether it’s absentees, the form of a given athlete or team, or news that has implications on either side or set of athletes.

In short, they are effectively the sporting equivalent of David Attenborough; they give flavour to the events unfolding before us, something that the following women do, or have done, extraordinarily well.

Here we celebrate some of the amazing commentators who have made their mark in the industry.

Sara Orchard Rugby

Would you believe me if I said that the BBC didn’t have a woman lead commentary on rugby coverage until 2016? Sadly it’s hardly an unbelievable statistic. Qualified referee and coach Sara Orchard made history during England’s match against Fiji in November of that year by doing just that. Like many who will be featured in this article, despite Sara’s exceptional credentials she’s been targeted by misogynists on social media for her existence as a commentator. Has that stopped her? The opposite, in fact – she’s become a staple of the BBC’s coverage of the Six Nations, which given the overall lack of coverage of women’s rugby and women in rugby, is an incredible achievement.

Donna Symmonds, Chandra Nayudu, Marjorie Pollard – Cricket

Cricket is yet another sport where women have not been visible enough. Despite the England Women’s Cricket Team winning the Women’s World Cup four times (1973, 1993, 2009 and 2017) and the T20 World Cup in 2009 (the first edition of the tournament), the Windies (the West Indies female cricket team) winning the T20 and One Day Test World Cup once apiece, and India’s women’s cricket team winning the One Day Test World Cup once, coverage of women’s cricket remains lacklustre. This fact remains astonishing when you consider the sheer might and reputation of these three cricketing powerhouses.

Even more lacklustre are the number of opportunities for women, especially women of colour, outside of the sport which makes Barbadian lawyer and commentator Donna Symmonds’ achievements that much more fascinating. In an interview with Caribbean Beat, Donna mentions that she ‘meandered’ into commentary – it was evidently one heck of a meander as she became the first woman to commentate on The Test Match Special in 1998.

📸: Donna Symmond

Chandra Nayudu, meanwhile, blazed her trail in India in the 1970s, becoming the first female Indian cricket commentator. Working as both an English teacher in Indore and a cricket commentator, Chandra brought life to the sport that she came to love thanks to her father’s own playing days. Chandra was praised by those in the game for having an understanding of the game that the male players didn’t have, and was invited to address the crowd at the 1980 Golden Jubilee test match at Lords.

Of course, any discussion of women’s’ achievements in history need to recognise the early pioneers, the first women to break through the glass ceiling – Marjorie Pollard was one such woman. Marjorie represents a rather interesting story in the history of women in commentary, having played 37 times for England’s hockey team. In 1926, in the middle of her international hockey career Marjorie helped establish the Women’s Cricket Association which up until 1998, was the main governing body of women’s cricket in England. Continuing to make history, Marjorie then went on to become the first female commentator in the BBC’s, and likely British sport, history by commentating on a men’s match in 1935 and then commentating on England women’s 1937 international test match against Australia (the first international tour the women’s team had embarked on).

Jacqui Oatley, Vicki Sparks – Football

It took until 2005 for broadcasters to recognise that women make excellent commentators when Jacqui Oatley made her debut for BBC Radio 5 Live covering the Lionesses’ fixtures at the 2005 UEFA Women’s Euros. Jacqui quickly made a name for herself when she interviewed then-UEFA President Lennart Johansson who suggested sponsors could cash-in on the women’s game by making use “of a sweaty, lovely looking girl playing on the ground, with the rainy weather.” I wish I was over-exaggerating, but that’s a direct quote from this interview.

In 2007, Jacqui made further history by becoming the first female commentator on Match of the Day and has since gone on to become a regular fixture on the show and for the BBC as a whole.

📸: Jacqui Oatley

Another woman who has gone on to become a regular fixture in football commentary is Vicki Spark, who unfortunately rose to prominence after David Moyes’ patently offensive remarks in 2017 which can be found here. A year later, Vicki was commentating on a 2018 World Cup Group Stage match between Portugal and and Morocco – the first time a live football broadcast on the BBC had lead commentary presented by a female commentator. Of course, being a woman, it wasn’t long after that match (heck, it wasn’t long into the match) that misogynists took umbrage with the fact that a woman dared to commentate on their precious sport.

You can always predict that anyone writing about women in sport will say the following: these women are pioneers, exceptional at their jobs and clearly love what they do, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Media broadcasts are featuring more women as co-commentators (Karen Carney has been doing an exceptional job on BT’s coverage, as has Sue Smith for the better part of half a decade, Danielle “Nolli” Watermann provided excellent co-commentary in the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Six Nations for ITV, Pam Schriver’s illustrious tennis career has seen her take a deserved place in the commentary box) but very few have women as their leads.

If broadcasters are more worried about the impact of social media trolls than supporting and empowering women, commentary will continue to sound like the same five men over and over again. Until there is greater help to get more female aspiring commentators into their dream role, we have to do everything we can to support, empower and promote the women already doing an exceptional job.

- James Whitehead

Thanks for reading 💚

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