An N.B.A. Female ‘First’ Hopes It’s Not Such a Big Deal Soon
MILWAUKEE — It had the feel of the first day of school for Lisa Byington, who was learning her way around Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks play …
MILWAUKEE — It had the feel of the first day of school for Lisa Byington, who was learning her way around Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks play their home games. A couple of television production trucks were stationed in a corridor not far from the court, but Byington faced a dilemma: Which belonged to Bally Sports Wisconsin, the team’s broadcast partner?
She took her chances and poked her head inside one of them and was excited to see some familiar people, including John Walsh, the director of the Bucks’ broadcasts. Walsh welcomed her by pointing to a box of cookies. “We still have some left!” he said. Byington had arrived early on Sunday for her first home game as the team’s new play-by-play voice.
“Everyone’s made me feel like family,” Byington said later. “It’s been a super easy situation to walk into for a situation that shouldn’t be easy.”
For 35 years, Jim Paschke provided the soundtrack for the Bucks as their play-by-play voice, as well-worn and beloved as a La-Z-Boy recliner. When he retired last season in the wake of the team’s first championship since 1971, he was replaced by Byington, 45, who made history as the first female full-time play-by-play broadcaster for a major men’s professional sports team. About a week later, Kate Scott was hired to do play-by-play for the Philadelphia 76ers.
The hiring of both women this season is a sign of incremental progress in a predominantly male industry, though Byington is well aware that not everyone will be accustomed to hearing a woman relay the theatrics of Giannis Antetokounmpo soaring for a dunk.
“You learn how to work with it, and you learn how to laugh about it,” she said. “And if there are fans who have concerns and don’t quite get it, I can listen. But ultimately, I don’t think of myself as a female broadcaster. I think of myself as a broadcaster, and the goal is to do the job well enough that people start thinking that way as well.”
Growing up outside of Kalamazoo, Mich., Byington learned from her parents, Linda and Bob, both educators, that she could dream big, that she could be ambitious in school and excel at sports and that her gender would not hold her back. “They made me feel like I could do anything in the world,” she said.
At Portage Northern High School, she helped lead the girls’ basketball team on a run to the state semifinals. Her father was the coach, and as she came off the court following the team’s season-ending loss, they shared a tearful embrace. The moment was filmed for a story on their father-daughter connection by WWMT, the CBS affiliate in Kalamazoo.
“It was amazing to see, and that was the first time I realized the impact of broadcasting,” Byington said. “I always go back to that, because that’s really the first moment I started thinking, ‘Oh, that impacted me, and maybe someday I can impact others in the same way.’”
At Northwestern, she played varsity basketball and soccer while majoring in journalism. (“I’m always better when I’m busy,” she said.) Armed with a master’s degree in broadcast journalism, she broke into the business as a sports anchor and reporter for modest-size television stations in Michigan.
She was working her second job in local TV when she overheard a conversation on sports talk radio about how Pam Ward was set to become the first woman to be the play-by-play voice for a college football game on ESPN. Byington was on her way to cover a high school football game at the time.
“I remember it being such a big deal,” she said of Ward’s trailblazing assignment.
A few years later, Byington was moonlighting as a sideline reporter for the Big Ten Network when one of her bosses there called with an unusual request. The network needed someone to do play-by-play for a women’s basketball game. It was unusual because Byington had never done play-by-play. She was unfazed: How much different could it be than anchoring a sportscast? Turns out, a lot.
“It was horrible, but I must not have screwed up enough because they kept asking me to do a bunch of different sports,” she said.
Byington went on to do play-by-play for softball and field hockey and football. She did men’s and women’s soccer. And gymnastics. And volleyball. Earlier this year, she was the first woman to do play-by-play of the men’s college basketball tournament for CBS and Turner Sports, and her call of Oral Roberts’ second-round upset over Florida drew media praise.
And as the Bucks began evaluating candidates to replace Paschke in the weeks after the Bucks won last season’s championship, Peter Feigin, the team president, found that he was particularly impressed by about three consecutive hours of coverage that Byington supplied of the Big3 League playoffs. Byington was new to the Big3, but there she was, live from the Bahamas, working an hourlong pregame show followed by both semifinals.
“If you can do that, you can do anything,” Feigin said.
Byington was broadcasting a college football game on Sept. 4 when her agent, Gideon Cohen, tried to call her, which struck her as odd: He knew she was on the air. When Byington opted not to pick up, Cohen resorted to sending a text message that featured a GIF of Antetokounmpo. She had landed the Bucks job.
“Everything was kind of fuzzy after that,” she said.
Women have been broadcasting men’s sports for years now, Byington said, but not every game for one team and for one fan base.
“That’s the big difference, and that will be the big shift,” she said. “Because fans can handle a voice coming in and out for a national network. But now you’re based in the community, you’re going to events, you’re interacting with them, and it’s your voice on highlights and on social media — all of that.”
And while Byington is not naïve to the significance of her gender, she does hope the story line has a short shelf life.
“It’s a part of the process,” she said. “But if you’re asking me the same questions 10 years from now — or even next month — then there’s a problem.”
On Sunday, the Bucks were in Milwaukee for their first preseason game at home, and as Byington walked toward the court about an hour before the tip, she took out her phone to capture the moment. The stands were still empty, and a couple of ushers did double-takes: Was she the new announcer?
Byington chatted with Zora Stephenson, the Bucks’ sideline reporter, then made her way across the court to greet Beth Mowins, who was preparing for her play-by-play duties with ESPN, which was also broadcasting the game. The moment was not lost on either of them: two women calling the same game for different networks.
“Probably a bigger deal than people realize,” Byington said.
Before long, Byington was seated with Marques Johnson, her broadcast partner, near the scorer’s table as their show went live.
“So happy you could join us,” she said.