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My battle for acceptance as the BBC’s first woman sports presenter

BY Sally Jones

6th Oct 2022 Sport

My battle for acceptance as the BBC’s first woman sports presenter

As Britain's sportswomen, from the Lionesses to the women's hockey team, enjoy a golden moment, Sally Jones reflects on being the BBC's first woman sports presenter

Britain’s sportswomen are enjoying a golden moment: England’s Lionesses basking in unaccustomed stardom after their stunning triumph in the Euros, England women’s hockey team snatching their first Commonwealth Games gold medal in August. The prodigious Emma Raducanu is bringing tennis to a whole new generation thanks to her jaw-dropping US Open victory. Meanwhile Kate French, the ultimate all-rounder, is putting Modern Pentathlon on the map after Olympic gold in Tokyo.  

But it’s not just our athletes taking centre stage. Increasingly many of our most accomplished sports reporters, pundits and presenters are female—and there on merit, not misplaced tokenism.  

"I feel proud that so much has changed in just three decades"

Leading the charge, national treasure Clare Balding deftly fronting Wimbledon, the Paralympics and even Cruft’s, the ultra-professional Gabby Logan and the ubiquitous Alex Scott twinkling her way through the Olympics, plus football—men’s and women’s. Watching them, I feel proud that so much has changed in just three decades.

As the BBC’s first woman TV sports presenter in the late 1980s, I and fellow-pioneers Helen Rollason and my old tennis contemporary Sue Barker, battled to be taken seriously, as women in sports broadcasting were rare as hen’s teeth, often treated as amusing novelties rather than “one of the lads”. 

Tough beginnings 

In the 1980s, as a sporting all-rounder and former BBC news trainee, I became an ITV news presenter and reporter in Birmingham, and wrote a women’s sports column for the Today newspaper. But when BBC Breakfast offered me a sports presenting job, alternating with former Arsenal goalie Bob Wilson, alongside Kirsty Wark and Jeremy Paxman, I was unexpectedly catapulted into the spotlight. 

Sally Jones with the BBC Breakfast team

The BBC Breakfast News lineup 1987. Left to right: Sally Jones, Frank Bough, Francis Wilson (Weather), Bob Wilson (Sport), Jeremy Paxman, Sally Magnusson © Sally Jones

Amid a bewildering initial publicity blitz, I was made to pose endlessly in football kit or wielding a tennis racket. Male interviewers questioned whether woman could be taken seriously talking about sport. One insisted I explain the offside rule: luckily I knew it thanks to my brother, a passionate Villa fan. The women interviewers asked about clothes, boyfriends and whether I was really dating Robbie Coltrane.  

"When BBC Breakfast offered me a sports presenting job, I was unexpectedly catapulted into the spotlight"

I occasionally went dancing with my driver, Errol, a handsome, apparently unattached hunk with a flashy BMW but declined his kind invitation to arrive early to “run my shower”. Another less guarded colleague made front-page news under the headline “TV Patti stole my Black Stallion”, after Errol’s common-law wife sold the story of their dalliance to News of the World. I had had a narrow escape. 

Persistence paves way for progress 

One Labour MP hailed me a sporting suffragette then fondled my knee during lunch in the Commons. In the pre-“Me Too” era, I edged away from him and kept talking as if nothing had happened. When I read the rugby league results, outrage ensued and invective-filled letters arrived, mostly in green ink from furious old blokes in Wigan and St Helen’s questioning what a “slip o’lass could possibly know about rugby league.” 

Sally Jones TV presenting

Sally Jones TV presenting © Sally Jones

Some colleagues, like Bob Wilson and Des Lynam, were hugely kind and encouraging. Others resented a woman encroaching on “their patch”. When I presented daytime coverage of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, one high-profile presenter falsely put it about that I was sleeping with one of the editors, a chunky, red-faced chap who presented little temptation.  

"We kept battling for acceptance, however, and bit by bit, more women joined our ranks"

My loyal, funny friend Helen Rollason, provided great support. We compared notes on the extra pressure of knowing that if we made the slightest slip, chauvinist critics would have a field day, declaring that all women were rubbish sports presenters. If Steve Ryder made a blooper, no one said all men were useless, just that Steve was having an off day. A cash-strapped single mum, Helen faced tough times early in her career and later told me male producers deliberately tested her dedication. They insisted she bring her passport every day in case a foreign story cropped up, knowing this would be a massive challenge, given her childcare difficulties.  

When eight months pregnant in 1992, and broadcasting at Wimbledon, I was invariably given steep, high commentary perches miles above Centre Court, as though to test my stamina and stickability. We kept battling for acceptance, however, and bit by bit, more women joined our ranks and more opportunities cropped up. I started presenting NBA basketball, tennis, radio documentaries and sports participation features. 

A difficult decision 

In the 1990s, fronting sports bulletins on BBC World, I opted for the 3am graveyard shift. I'd get up at 1am to drive to London from Warwickshire so that I could get home in time to collect the children from school.

When, catatonic with exhaustion, I fell asleep face-first into a bowl of taramasalata at teatime, I felt torn between a full-on broadcasting career and being a hands-on mum: there at every speech day and cricket match. I called a halt and began building a portfolio career of writing, freelance punditry and devising ways to promote women’s sport.

Sally Jones playing tennis at Oxford

Sally Jones playing tennis at Oxford where she captained the tennis team and won Blues for 5 sports © Sally Jones

Do I miss my old life? Now and then, especially at moments of high drama at the Olympics, Ryder Cup or Wimbledon. But watching sport remains one of life’s great pleasures! While admiring the assured presentation skills of the rising generation of women sports presenters, I’m reminded of the early pioneers who kept battling, determined to show sports-mad young girls everywhere that there was a place for women in sports broadcasting after all. 

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