ESPN's Beth Mowins set to continue a story that started 30 years ago

Football has long been a male-dominated domain, but women are gradually putting their own stamp on the sport. This week, Yahoo Sports will examine the inroads that women have made at every level of the game.

Anytime someone mentions that she’s the first woman to do play-by-play on an NFL broadcast, Gayle Sierens always makes the same joke.

The retired Tampa news anchor inevitably pokes fun at herself for three decades going by without another woman following in her footsteps.

“I always laughingly say, ‘Boy, I really kicked that door down for women, didn’t I?'” Sierens said. “I apparently kicked it down and it sprung right back up when I turned around and walked away.”

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At last, another female announcer has managed to bust through that same door, and it’s someone who credits Sierens with having a significant influence on her career. ESPN’s Beth Mowins will become just the second woman to do play-by-play for a regular-season NFL game when she and Rex Ryan call Monday night’s clash between the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers.

Beth Mowins has called Oakland Raiders preseason games the past few years. (AP)

When Sierens called a Seahawks-Chiefs matchup on the final Sunday of the 1987 NFL season, Mowins was just a college student with big dreams and a booming voice. Mowins kept a small memento to mark the occasion, cutting out a newspaper clipping about Sierens as a reminder to herself that calling an NFL game was an attainable goal.

The two women crossed paths for the first time during the 2010 NCAA women’s volleyball tournament when Mowins called a national semifinal match that happened to feature Sierens’ daughter. They said hello, exchanged phone numbers and struck up an instant friendship, bonding over Sierens’ tales of her one afternoon as an NFL play-by-play announcer and Mowins’ lifelong quest to reach the same heights.

Mowins, 50, has become a mainstay of ESPN’s college football play-by-play lineup over the past decade and done some Oakland Raiders preseason football. She also continues to call men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and softball. When she learned this past spring that she’d finally get a crack at a regular-season NFL game on a Monday night stage no less, Sierens was one of the first people she called.

“I wanted to share the good news with her and also give her a heads-up because I figured there would be a little attention coming her way,” Mowins said. “She’s the one other woman who sort of had an understanding about the emotions, excitement and energy that I was experiencing. It was a cool moment to be able to say thank you and to let her know she’s not the only woman in the club anymore.”

Opportunities scarce for women

A second woman finally breaking into NFL play-by-play 30 years after the first underscores one of the glaring inequities in American sports television. It’s common for female on-air talent to host studio shows or report from the sideline, but few women in marquee sports have found success actually broadcasting games.

While Doris Burke (basketball), Jessica Mendoza (baseball) and Pam Ward (college football) are among the exceptions to that rule, the history of women in play-by-play or analyst roles on NFL broadcasts is especially brief. Lesley Visser served as a radio analyst for a CBS/Westwood One game in 2001 and eight years later did color for a preseason matchup between the Saints and Dolphins. Kate Scott also called a pair of preseason 49ers games last year on KNBR 680 in San Francisco because one of the team’s usual announcers was in Rio working for NBC during the Olympics. Throw in Sierens’ lone game in 1987 and the preseason Raiders games Mowins has called, and that’s the entire list.

At a time when the NFL estimates 45 percent of its fans are female, the dearth of women calling games is especially confounding. None of the qualities that make a revered football play-by-play announcer require playing experience. Al Michaels, Jim Nantz and Joe Buck never snagged a touchdown pass or picked up a blitzing linebacker.

One explanation TV executives offer for the dearth of female play-by-play announcers is that networks have been reluctant to risk alienating viewers uncomfortable with a woman calling a game or unaccustomed to hearing a higher-pitched voice in that role. On the rare occasions a woman has received a prominent play-by-play assignment in a major sport, the social media backlash tends to be swift and scathing.

TV executives open to hiring women for play-by-play jobs also lament the lack of qualified female applicants. Aspiring female sportscasters often gravitate toward sideline reporting or hosting panel-discussion shows since women have previously found success in those roles.

“There have not been many trailblazers to show women you can do play-by-play,” said Stephanie Druley, ESPN’s vice president in charge of production. “In every profession, you look for people who look like you and say, ‘OK, they’re doing it, I can do it too.’ Women haven’t had many to choose from.”

Sierens feels like she is partially to blame for that problem. She believes she might have been a role model for aspiring female NFL play-by-play announcers had she chosen a different career path.

A bittersweet play-by-play debut

After Sierens showed promise in her inaugural play-by-play assignment in 1987, NBC offered her the chance to call six more NFL games the following season. The opportunity was enticing but abysmally timed since Sierens was in the midst of transitioning from sportscaster to news anchor at the Tampa TV station where she worked.

Executives at the station permitted Sierens to call the Chiefs-Seahawks game so long as it didn’t air in the Tampa market, but they refused to allow her to do any others out of fear it might damage her credibility as a news anchor. Newly married and two months pregnant, Sierens couldn’t jeopardize a stable paycheck, so she passed on the chance to forge a new career as the lone woman doing NFL play-by-play.

“If all this had happened before I was married or before I was going to start a family, it would have been a different animal,” Sierens said. “Two or three years earlier, I would have done it in a heartbeat, but timing in life is everything. My job in Tampa wasn’t going to let me do both. I had to make a decision. My decision was to have a normal life with a baby on the way.”

For Sierens, the toughest part of declining NBC’s offer was that she had exceeded expectations in her play-by-play debut.

When forward-thinking NBC executive Michael Weisman had the audacious idea to hire a woman to call an NFL game on the final Sunday of the 1987 season, Sierens was at the time a controversial selection. She had extremely limited play-by-play experience doing soccer and equestrian.

Mindful that coming across unpolished or uninformed might undercut other women seeking play-by-play gigs, Sierens prepared for the matchup between the last-place Chiefs and playoff-bound Seahawks like she was calling the Super Bowl. Veteran broadcaster Marty Glickman tutored Sierens, breaking down film with her, teaching her to create a spotting chart and serving as her color analyst during mock broadcasts.

On the day of the game, Sierens arrived at Arrowhead Stadium to find a throng of reporters four deep surrounding her broadcast booth. She blocked out the frenzied backdrop, suppressed her stomach-churning anxiety and delivered a credible broadcast, even drawing unexpected halftime praise from Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt.

“I had to go to the bathroom at halftime, and my husband was leading the way for me trying to move me through the crowd,” Sierens said. “He’s got a forearm in a man’s chest, and the guy goes, ‘I’m Lamar Hunt. I just want to tell her what a good job she’s doing.’ I’m like, ‘OK, Mike, you can get your elbow out of the poor man’s throat now.”

Tough as it was to decline NBC’s offer, Sierens took solace that the positive reviews she received would create opportunities for other women. Never would she have guessed that she’d be two years into retirement by the time another woman did NFL play-by-play.

Gayle Sierens poses with her spotting chart from her NFL play-by-play debut in 1987. (AP)

Chasing a lifelong dream

Whereas Sierens needed a crash course to prepare for her NFL play-by-play debut, Mowins has ample experience. Monday night’s game will be the culmination of decades of preparation that began way back in elementary school.

Every autumn Sunday in Syracuse, N.Y., Mowins and her three older brothers would rush home from church in time to watch the first set of NFL games. Mowins quickly took notice of pioneering female sportscaster Phyllis George, who from 1974 to 1983 co-hosted CBS’ pregame show, “The NFL Today.”

“I said to my mom, ‘Hey there’s a woman on TV and she gets to talk about the NFL. That looks kind of cool. Can I do that?’” Mowins recalled. “My mom was an adventurous soul herself and she said, ‘Yes you can.’ That was all I needed to hear. I loved sports, I loved to talk and I had a little bit of a ham in me, so that seemed like a pretty good path.”

Whenever she and her friends would play backyard games of kickball, whiffle ball or Nerf football, Mowins would provide running commentary to anyone within earshot. It was a habit that Mowins continued during practices as a three-sport athlete at Cicero North High School and as a standout point guard at Lafayette College.

After receiving a master’s degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse in 1990, Mowins worked in radio and TV in her hometown market for the next few years before ESPN offered her regular freelance opportunities doing women’s basketball, softball and volleyball. By 2005, Mowins received the chance to add some college football to her repertoire.

Since the opening week of the NFL season has featured a Monday night doubleheader for the past 11 years, ESPN has used the late game to test out some nontraditional announcing tandems. The broadcast has been everything from a promotional vehicle for ESPN radio co-hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic to a reward for Chris Berman’s three decades of service.

Asked why ESPN gave Mowins this year’s Monday night play-by-play assignment, Druley painted it as a merit-based decision rather than one designed to attract attention. Druley cited Mowins’ impeccable track record and 12 years of experience calling college and professional football.

“The fact that she’s a woman factored in, but not as much as that she has earned this opportunity,” Druley said. “Her depth of knowledge is amazing, her preparation is on par with anyone and I think she calls a good game. She was just the best person for the role.”

Other female voices emerging

Some recent hiring decisions suggest it won’t be another 30 years before another woman does NFL play-by-play. Kate Scott became the first woman to do football play-by-play for the Pac-12 Network when she called Arizona’s opener on Sept. 2 and Lisa Byington will make similar history at the Big Ten Network on Saturday when she calls Northwestern’s matchup with Bowling Green.

Gravitating toward calling football is natural for Scott, 34, since the California native began honing her play-by-play skills while she was still in grade school. Scott’s father had the misfortune of working at his accounting job on Sundays during the fall, so he’d bring his daughter with him to the office, park her in front of a TV during 49ers games and instruct her to return with all the pertinent details anytime something significant happened.

Play-by-play became a more realistic career goal to Scott as a student at Cal when she heard Mowins and Pam Ward calling college football on ESPN. She has since called high school football for NBC Sports Bay Area and done a variety of play-by-play assignments for the Pac-12 Network, but her career highlight remains receiving an unexpected phone call last summer from 49ers director of broadcast partnerships Bob Sargent.

“I was expecting him to offer some sort of sideline opportunity or to host a pregame show in the parking lot,” Scott said. “When he asked if I had interest in calling a couple of preseason games, I think my brain almost exploded. I knew this was a massive opportunity that was going to garner a lot of attention. I consider it an honor to have the opportunity to hopefully impact the play-by-play opportunities that women get in the future, and I didn’t want to screw things up.”

As women continue to fight for more play-by-play opportunities, Sierens occasionally thinks back to her decision to decline NBC’s offer. The award-winning news anchor wonders if she could have found a way to balance the demands of the job and her new family, grow into an unfamiliar role and pave the way for other women to have landed play-by-play gigs sooner.

The Pac-12 Network’s Kate Scott (Getty Images)

“It would be fun to know how it would have all turned out,” Sierens said. “If it had turned out well, it would have been better for women in our business. That’s probably my biggest regret is I had an opportunity to open doors that then did not open because of the choice I made not to do it.”

There’s reason to believe Mowins can have the lasting impact Sierens didn’t.

Mowins is impeccably prepared, so much so that the practice telecasts she and Ryan did this preseason were far more for his benefit than hers. She also will call multiple games for CBS this season in addition to her “Monday Night Football” broadcast, giving her hope of doing NFL play-by-play beyond this year. Whereas ESPN broadcasts only “Monday Night Football,” CBS has a handful of games each week.

Nobody would be more excited than Sierens if her friend becomes a play-by-play fixture for years to come on Sundays in the fall.

“I was the one-shot wonder. She’s the real deal,” Sierens said. “If ever there was someone who can open doors for women in play-by-play, it’s her.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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