Friday March 31st, 2023 3:54PM

Women break through as World Cup play-by-play voices

By The Associated Press
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The World Cup will sound different this year.

Jacqui Oatley will become the first woman play-by-play commentator for U.S. World Cup telecasts, heading one of Fox’s five broadcast teams for the tournament in Qatar that opens Sunday.

Pien Meulensteen, Vicki Sparks and Robyn Cowen are among the broadcasters for matches on BBC in Britain.

“Loads of people will have negative comments about women and women commentators and that’s because that’s just the way that they think. They’re not open to hearing anything different,” said Meulensteen, the 25-year-old daughter of former Fulham manager and current Australia assistant coach René Meulensteen.

“I’ve loved football since I was a kid. I grew up in a footballing house, My dad works in football. My two brothers play football, and we all talk about the same thing, so why not have a female talking about it?" Pien Meulensteen said. "And I’m hoping in time, as well, that we’ll just be accepted. It won’t be seen as like, ‘oh, wow, there’s a woman that’s doing commentary.' This should be a normal thing to have females talking about football, just as much as men.”

Oatley, 47, worked the 2018 World Cup for Britain’s ITV as a studio presenter and sideline reporter. She and Meulensteen have become regulars on the Premier League’s world feed, heard in the U.S. on NBC’s networks.

“I found the American audience in particular are fantastic,” Oatley said. “They seem to be so much more worldly wise and up to date and modern in their thinking and acceptance of women. And I guess that’s because you have such a successful national team over the years and that you don’t have that history of gender prejudice that we have in the UK and traditionally in parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world, South America, Africa, as well."

World Cup broadcast booths were long dominated by male voices. That started to change four years ago, when in-game analysts included Aly Wagner on Fox, Viviana Vila on Telemundo, Sparks on BBC and Claudia Neumann on Germany’s ZDF.

FIFA is using color commentators for the first time on its English-language world feed. Its six crews include San Diego Wave coach Casey Stoney and Lucy Ward, both former England players.

Oatley will be paired on Fox with former England defender Warren Barton starting with Denmark’s match against Tunisia on Tuesday.

“They bring knowledge and expertise,” said 77-year-old Martin Tyler, about to broadcast his 12th World Cup. “They only get the work because they’re very good. It’s very important to have the connection with the audience, and they bring their own connection. The most important thing is how good they are.”

Five of ESPN’s six play-by-play announcers in 2014 were British but Fox used just one among six in 2018, Derek Rae. This time, three of five are British, with Rae joined by Oatley and Ian Darke.

“We want the best person available regardless of their gender, regardless of their nationality. Jackie has operated the highest level in the Premier League in England. You don’t have to convince anybody of her qualifications,” said David Neal, executive producer of Fox’s World Cup coverage. “She captures the emotion of the moment. Some play-by-play people are so good and so focused on the technical aspect of what they’re calling that they don’t pay enough attention to what’s going on in the building.”

Oatley grew up in Wolverhampton listening to Barry Davies, Brian Moore and John Motson. She attended the University of Leeds and was a midfielder for Chiswick’s women's team when she dislocated her left knee and ruptured ligaments when trying to keep a ball in play. She was on crutches for 10 months.

Around Christmas in 2001, she decided her job as an accounts manager for an intellectual property company was unfulfilling. She searched the Internet for how to get into broadcasting, took a one night-a-week job doing sports report for hospital radio and enrolled in evening courses in radio production and print journalism. She gave up her day job and her apartment and stayed with friends while learning her new trade and in September 2002 enrolled in a postgraduate journalism program at Sheffield Hallam University. Oatley wrote to local BBC radio stations and when visiting Leeds made contact with the radio sports editor, Derm Tanner

“I’m a mature student in a hurry,” she told him.

She started freelancing, giving match reports on non-league matches and in 2003 broadcast her first game for BBC Radio Leeds, between Wakefield & Emley and Worksop Town in the seventh tier Northern Premier League.

Charles Runcie hired her for BBC Radio 5 Live, first for women’s matches and then the 2005 Women’s European Championship. On April 21, 2007, she became the first woman to broadcast BBC One television’s “Match of the Day,” between Fulham and Blackburn.

“Unfortunately it became a bit of a news story because there was one difference between the others and me,” she recalled. “It was extremely stressful. All my focus through my training of being a journalist, through the match reports, through the commentaries, had always been on telling a story to the audience. That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I worked hard at. And to go from that to suddenly becoming the story and to have the camera lenses trained on me instead of on the pitch was something I found really difficult to deal with and something I wasn’t really ready for and something I didn’t enjoy for a second.”

She became a presenter for the BBC’s coverage of the 2015 European Championship and in September 2021 was hired as commentator for Sky’s coverage of England’s Women’s Super League. Her preparation for Qatar includes bringing her own printer, ink cartridges, two phones and two iPads.

“I don’t like to rely on anybody else’s technology,” she said.

Meulensteen, a 2019 graduate of the University of Salford, worked for BBC Manchester during school and broadcast Manchester United’s women’s team for MUTV. She started Premier League telecasts last December and her first World Cup broadcast will be Poland-Mexico on BBC One television on Tuesday.

“Women just as much enjoy watching football, listening to football, playing football,” she said. “Twenty, 30 years ago that wasn’t an option for women to watch football and have a female voice. Whereas, you go to a football match, you go to Old Trafford, there are loads of women that are watching football and are interested in it. Women should be allowed to also commentate on men’s football matches. It’s just allowing that option for other people to be able to listen to a different voice.”

While many are pleased with the breakthroughs, there are unpleasant detractors.

“I turn off all of my notifications on my phone just because there are so many negative comments from all over,” Meulensteen said. “You don’t want to see something that is going to affect you.”


AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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