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So What Do You Do, Lesley Visser, CBS Sports Reporter and Hall of Fame Sportscaster?
'Knowing the game and having a passion for sports are really nonnegotiable for a long career'- January 27, 2010
When it comes to history-making sports coverage, there's pretty much nothing Lesley Visser hasn't done. She was the first in-game female NFL commentator in the booth and on the sidelines, has covered everything from the Final Four to Triple Crown Horse Racing, and was voted the No. 1 Female Sportscaster of All Time. This Pro Football Hall of Famer lives and loves sports so much that she married it, or rather someone with a passion equal to hers.
You may have noticed the story of how she met her husband, fellow sportscaster Dick Stockton, at Fenway Park in an Oscar-winning film, in which Stockton gets a credit. "In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams meets his girl at the sixth game of the '75 World Series," Visser recalls. "I met Dick that evening. He doesn't remember meeting me, of course, [laughs] because of [his] calling Carlton Fisk's home run. Can you imagine? That meeting your wife is not even the greatest thing that happened to you that day?" As she gets ready to cover Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, Visser spoke to mediabistro.com about maintaining longevity in a male-dominated field and why her favorite story was more than just fun and games.
Name: Lesley Visser
Position: Hall of Fame Sportscaster and CBS Sports Reporter, The NFL Today
Resume: Became the first female NFL beat reporter when she joined The Boston Globe in 1974. While at ABC Sports for nearly seven years, she served as the first female sideline reporter on Monday Night Football. Now on her second stint as a reporter at CBS Sports, she became the first female color analyst in an NFL game earlier this season. Also reports for HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel and worked the NCAA Final Four and Super Bowl for ESPN. Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and became the first female sportscaster recipient of the Gracie Allen Award by the American Women in Radio and Television in 2006.
Birthday: September 11, 1953
Hometown: Quincy, Mass.
Education: Bachelor's degree in English and honorary doctorate of journalism from Boston College.
Marital status: Married to Basketball Hall of Fame and Fox/Turner sportscaster Dick Stockton
First section of the Sunday Times: "We go right to the sports."
Favorite TV show: Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and Inside the Actors Studio.
Guilty pleasure: "Breyer's Butter Almond ice cream and thinking I can sing."
Last book read: Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America's Pastime, by Mark Frost.
Twitter handle: "I don't Twitter. I don't really care who's going to the dry cleaners."
How has the field of sports reporting changed since you first started?
When I first started, The Boston Globe was very progressive and made me the first NFL female beat writer in the mid-'70s. And at that time, the credentials said, "No women or children in the press box." It was really brave of The Boston Globe. They said she's going to be the beat writer and everybody had to make accommodations, which they did. Then CBS made me the first woman to handle the post-game trophy, so I have to say, I've always sort of been at the front of history, but behind me there have been so many talented women, and it's fantastic for women now. Women can grow up saying I want to cover a Super Bowl, I want to cover a Final Four, I want to be a sportscaster, and I want to have all the opportunities. I think sports and Wall Street were the last areas that men were going to give up.
|"The Boston Globe was very progressive and made me the first NFL female beat writer in the mid-'70s. And at that time, the credentials said, 'No women or children in the press box.'"|
What advice would you give to women looking to succeed in sports TV?
I would say there are two kinds of women who do this: There are women who love sports and end up in TV, and there are women who want to be in TV and end up in sports. My advice is the same for men and women: Knowing the game and having a passion for sports are really nonnegotiable for a long career. If you want to have decades, then those two are nonnegotiable: knowledge and passion.
What are your thoughts on the Erin Andrews "peeping Tom" incident?
Erin is a friend and a colleague, and I've sort of promised her that the less we say about it, the less we'll keep it alive. And she was really such an unprotected victim in this. That is my thought on it.
Besides knowing the sport and being able to communicate on-camera, what are some necessary but not-obvious skills aspiring sportscasters should have?
Vocabulary and sincere interest in the person he or she is speaking to. A healthy dose of humor. In 35 years, I've really called upon it many times. Just having an understanding that this is part of the fabric of who you are. You may not think a game is that big or small, but it's important to those people. It's important to retain the humanity and the perspective of what you're looking at.
|"Men aren't born knowing a safety blitz; somewhere along the way they've learned it."|
Do you think women will find sustained success as play-by-play or color commentators in male-dominated sports such as football and baseball? History has, for the most part, relegated them to the sidelines, with the exception of announcers such as Suzyn Waldman and Mary Carillo.
Suzyn Waldman is really the fantastic example because baseball is hard-core in this country. Baseball, football, basketball...
Is it okay that I get just a little bit defensive? You know I was the first woman on Monday Night Football. It had been 28 years of Monday Night Football before a woman was on there, and they've had women ever since. It's like they just put women on the sidelines, but that was an enormous achievement for women. It's like it's already been discounted. I just think, of course it will happen with play-by-play. And of course it will happen with [color analysis]. Now with color analysis, I became the first woman to do analysis in an NFL game earlier this year. I replaced Bob Griese on the Dolphins preseason, and I was really careful to stay within my experience. That's one thing I would counsel both men and women who have not played the game. There are certain aspects that we cannot know. I've never been in a huddle. I don't know what that is. But I know what questions to ask, and I've watched an awful lot of film. I rode the bus with John Madden for years, and even when I first started with the Patriots, I watched film. Men aren't born knowing a safety blitz; somewhere along the way they've learned it. Either they've learned it as observers or they've learned it as players. You have to be careful to know what you are and what you aren't. You have to have a sense of humor, too. That really goes a long way.
How do you prepare differently for sidelines reporting compared with in-booth commentary?
A lot of it is reacting to the moment, but it has different responsibilities. It was very important to know which players and what was being expected of them. Preparation is different, though asking the questions and knowing the game are still at the heart of both jobs. And, by the way, the women that you see doing it right now at the highest level are fantastic. I haven't done this myself in about five years, but Michelle Tafoya, Suzy Kolber, Andrea Kremer, Pam Oliver. These women -- they have lasted for decades. They are the real deal.
From the Final Four to the U.S. Open, you've covered pretty much every major sporting event. What has been the most rewarding gig?
I have ... multiple times. I would say the most rewarding was when CBS sent me to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was to do a story. There were two producers we had: Ted Shaker and Ed Goren. Ed Goren runs Fox, and Ted Shaker's retired. This was so forward-thinking: They wanted to do a story on how sports would change in East Germany. They were the original Big Red Machine. All the swimmers came out of there, a lot of the track stars. They were state government–supported. Obviously East Germany was opening up, so that's why we went. We talked to Katarina Witt. She was performing in East Germany. We went to her training facility. She had grown up behind the wall. My father's name was Max. He had grown up in Amsterdam during the German occupation and was under the German boots for six years. So this was personally and professionally a very, very powerful story for me to do. It was a joyous scene. People had walked for days just to taste freedom. There were people up on the wall and singing. I actually chipped off pieces of the wall and gave them to all my friends and family for Christmas presents.
Do you and your husband, fellow broadcasting legend Dick Stockton, exchange pointers regarding your on-air work?
No. We're really supportive, but it's so great because we can talk in shorthand about Donovan McNabb or Brett Favre. It's really great, and we're married 28 years. It's good because we understand that people work weekends. I think I spent two Thanksgivings on the Madden Cruiser. And he's done many NBA games on Christmas. So we really understand the calendar. We go to Europe. We have a few days off for the Super Bowl before NBA and college basketball begin, so we're going to Budapest in February. [laughs] I mean who goes to Budapest in February, but that's when we have a little time. We have a lot of frequent-flier miles as you would imagine.
If you could give all women one tip or tool for succeeding in male-dominated fields, what would it be and why?
My one tip would be: Believe that you belong. I had to grow into that. I would say as my experience grew, my confidence grew -- and also respect from others.
Brian T. Horowitz is a freelance writer based in New York.
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