For this series, Julia Adams spoke to women from various positions around the league — from play-by-play broadcasters, to analysts, to producers — in order to capture how the NBA is supporting women to enter roles on a league-wide basis.
It was a Friday afternoon when play-by-play broadcaster Kate Scott was in line to board a flight to call a college football game and got a phone call that would change both her life and the NBA as we know it.
Scott just auditioned for the open play-by-play position for the Philadelphia 76ers with little belief that she landed the role. As she was just about to scan her boarding pass, she noticed a call from a Philly area code, the “no thanks” call she thought she had been waiting for. Instead, it was a call she had been working towards answering for the past 16 years.
“They said … ‘usually we call your agent and let them break the news, but you had such an impact on us and you knocked your audition out of the park. We wanted to tell you first ourselves that we would love for you to be the next voice of the Philadelphia 76ers,'” she recalled.
At a similar timeline in the offseason, play-by-play broadcaster Lisa Byington was going through the audition process for a role with the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks. She was in the middle of calling a college football game when she noticed her agent was calling — but she couldn’t pick up while working.
“He then texted me with a Giannis [Antetokounmpo] GIF, and under it just said, ‘it’s a good thing you’re wearing green,’ because that night just ironically, I was wearing a dark green kind of Milwaukee Bucks green blazer,” Byington said. “I joke that green is my lucky color now because I was wearing that blazer when I found out that I had the job in the second quarter of a college football game.”
This season Scott and Byington’s lifelong dreams came true in becoming the two first females to hold full-time TV play-by-play roles for a major men’s professional sports league. They join a roster of women around the NBA who continue to break barriers by finding career success in a traditionally male-dominated space.
Both Scott and Byington were drawn to sports from a young age and their experience playing sports helped influence an interest in pursuing a broadcasting career.
Scott played four varsity sports in high school, wrote for her school’s newspaper and was the public address announcer for the men’s soccer team. However, her original plan was to pursue teaching. It wasn’t until her high school advisor, Ed Schmalzel, encouraged her to look into sports broadcasting. She graduated with a communication degree from UC Berkeley in 2005.
“There were so few women working in sports even in ‘99 that I just didn’t put things together. Mr. Shmalzel told me, ‘I know there are not very many women doing it, but it is the perfect combination of everything you love and everything you are,'”Scott said. “It was not until that moment that the light bulb went on.”
Byington grew up in Michigan and played two sports at Northwestern University. She received two degrees at Northwestern — a bachelor’s with a print journalism concentration and a master’s with a broadcast concentration. Her passion for sports, especially basketball, has been with her since the beginning.
“In the winter sometimes [in Michigan] when it was too cold or my parents hadn’t shoveled the driveway, I would blow up a balloon and have that be my basketball,” Byington said. “I would dribble in the kitchen and slam dunk against the wall much to my mother’s dismay.”
Despite possessing a love for sports along with years of broadcasting experience, both women would tell you that the journey to where they are now has not been easy. Byington spent 12 years in local news covering events such as the Brown Trout Festival and Alpena Community College Lumberjack Games, in Alpena, Mich. One of Scott’s first jobs out of college was reporting on sports and traffic for a variety of Bay Area radio stations.
“From my days of playing sports, I’ve learned that failure is just a part of it … you need to be resilient and if you don’t succeed, try to learn something from that,” Scott said. “I’ve known in my bones since the first time I called a game that this is what I wanted to do … so that’s what I’ve told myself in those dark times.”
Byington added that pursuing a career in the industry means dealing with rejection often.
“I think people who don’t know me or haven’t followed my story think Lisa has gotten yeses, right? Lisa has gotten a lot of noes,” Byington said. “In fact, the noes completely outweigh and outnumber the yeses that I’ve gotten. I’ve just gotten a lot of big yeses in the last few months. Don’t let those noes discourage you. All you need is one person to say yes. One person to believe in you. One person to open that door and give you that opportunity.”
What has been key for these women in making it in this industry is having a community of supporters, role models and mentors — both male and female — who have helped support them along the way.
Some names they mentioned included Robin Roberts, Doris Burke, Linda Cohn and Beth Mowins. Byington added that her own mother is her role model as she taught her to not set goals based on gender stereotypes.
“I believed when I was a little kid I could do anything in the world if I wanted — a doctor, a lawyer or an NBA broadcaster,” Byington said. “My parents never made me think anything about being the only female in a certain space.”
Scott mentioned that male supporters in the league are very important, especially as more females come onto the NBA scene.
“I saw Mike Breen in the cafeteria before a game,” Scott said. “He gave me a fist-bump and said, ‘Hey, anything you need?’ Kenny Albert, Brian Anderson, Mark Jones, so many national voices have reached out and said ‘we’re excited to have you here.’”
And of course, they have each other. This is not the first time these two women have made history together as they were also the first women to call football games for their respective networks — Big 10 [Byington] and Pac 12 [Scott].
“It can be very lonely here, so it’s really wonderful to have somebody who understands,” Scott said. “It’s hilarious that we’re still getting asked, are you the stage manager? Are you a statistician? All we can do is laugh, because we’re the first. You can’t fault the person for asking that because for the past 30 or 40 years, they’ve only worked with men.”
“Kate was one of the people to text me congratulations when the news came out with the Bucks,” Byington said. “We follow each other’s games and we shoot each other a couple of encouraging messages, so we’re definitely supporting each other a lot in that way.”
Scott and Byington are now a few months into their play-by-play roles, and both agree the support they have received from the teams, the staff and the league has been incredible.
“I’m still waiting for those first speed bumps and challenges,” Scott said. “The fans have been so welcoming and the crew that I’m working with, I cannot say enough about them. The support from the 76ers, the communication staff, Doc [Rivers], the players, everybody seems to truly want me here. They’re not happy to have me here because I’m a woman, but because every single one of them has told me we saw your audition and you were the best.”
Byington said it has been even easier coming into an organization that just won The Finals.
“It actually makes my job a lot easier … you’re dealing with a happy fan base,” Byington said. “Everyone is on cloud nine.”
Her eventual goal is that she won’t be labeled by the adjectives “first” or “female” or even “pioneer,” but instead be seen as just a broadcaster like her male counterparts.
“I like to say the phrase ‘background noise’ … One day a female’s voice on a men’s game will just be background noise,” Byington said. “Every time you hear a female in a space where it’s a men’s game where you don’t normally hear a female, people are always trying to figure out who it is. If we can help that … that’s success.”
Both Byington and Scott hope to inspire younger generations to follow in their footsteps. They leave these parting words of advice for any young women who dream of working in sports broadcasting one day.
“Don’t let other people, don’t let society, and don’t even let your bosses tell you what you’re capable of,” Byington said. “You make those definitions for yourself. If you do that, I think you will be happy with the results. It might not happen tomorrow. It might not happen five years from now … be patient and persistent in believing what you want to get done.
And Scott believes women have the opportunity to be the future behind the league, as long as they want to be there.
“We want you here,” Scott said. “There is a place for you here. It is not going to be easy. There are going to be a lot of moments where you’re gonna doubt yourself and wonder if this is what you really want to do … listen to your heart and your gut and if the answer is yes, keep going. Who knows, maybe one day you can find yourself calling games for the Philadelphia 76ers.”