Make 'Football Girl' a reality
"The read option is absolutely shredding this defense," the female NFL game analyst says. The girl knows her stuff; it's clear. Terry Bradshaw turns to her in the anchor booth and says sternly, "Look, are you trying to take my job?" to which she says with a shrug, "Maybe."
The female is a spunky 8-year-old named Ella, and the scene is from an ad campaign by Verizon called "FiOS Football Girl" that debuted last week in prime time and showed up in the Giants-Eagles game I was watching. As a longtime advocate for women in sports media, I was floored. While pitching their high-speed broadband product to football fans and general TV viewers, the company has also cast a welcome and bright spotlight on the continuing absence of female anchors for NFL games. Women reporters abound on the sidelines -- commenting from the field in the rain, the wind and the snow. But the anchor booth remains an all-boys' club.
The "Football Girl" story line, a one-minute tour de force, starts with a scene all too familiar to many girls. Ella skips up to her older brother and his friends in a backyard game. "Can I play?" she asks, to which her big brother disdainfully replies, "No. You don't even get football." (You're a girl is only implied.) The friends laugh.
Spurred by the insult, Ella sets out to learn, using the Internet to bone up on football terms and strategies -- she even has a video chat with former QB Joe Theismann, who explains to her the difference between the "shotgun" and "pistol" formations, and then she handily beats him in a football video game. By the end of her intrepid quest, she is an expert.
Next scene, Ella's brother and friends look on in awe as she's behind an NFL anchor desk, dressed in a blazer, and analyzing the game with Bradshaw and another male anchor. "Is that your sister?" one friend says. The brother nods wordlessly. Another friend remarks, "I follow her blog. It's so good, dude."
A happy ending, a smart, empowered girl and the respect of her personal male football audience. But this is not the real story.
Among all the major men's sports leagues -- NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL -- not one has a regular female game-time analyst in the booth. While individual sports such as tennis and Olympic events have integrated women into the anchor booth, the TV networks that broadcast male team sports remain intransigent. One argument heard is that women have never played these professional sports, so they can't know the game as well.
Many women reporters are as savvy as Ella's character and could occupy the NFL anchor booth tomorrow. Maybe it's not the career ambition for these women; perhaps they prefer the immediacy of the field to the arid studio atmosphere of the anchor booth. Still, the anchor booth is where the prestige and money lie; it was presented as the pinnacle of achievement in the Verizon ad.
Shall I name names? How about Pam Oliver, Michele Tafoya, Suzy Kolber or Tracy Wolfson? The award-winning Lesley Visser, the dean of sideline reporting, was an obvious anchor-booth choice for decades before her recent semi-retirement. (She was tapped for one stint in the booth during an NFL preseason game in 2009.) And while we're at it, how about naming names of male analysts who never played football? Greg Gumbel, Al Michaels, Kenny Albert, Chris Berman ...
But Verizon did not set out to make a statement about hiring decisions by the NFL and its network partners. The Verizon marketing team was just looking for a premise that had some "seasonality and was topical" and reflected the company's "brand belief," said Deirdre Robinson, Verizon's executive director of brand management and marketing communications.
That belief (a marketing term), she explained, is that "broadband is the great equalizer and can open worlds to people." Her company, she said, provides a powerful technology that can make users more powerful. In creating a commercial, "We were looking for people needing a boost of strength ... an underdog story."
Gathering data on the seasonal sport of football, Verizon learned that the NFL attracts a remarkably broad demographic, with more than 70 percent of Americans saying they were either a casual or avid fan of football. The underdog story of a ponytailed girl who wants to impress her older brother evolved.
The creative team comprised four women on the Verizon side and two male directors on the ad agency side from McCann-Erickson, both of whom have daughters and identified personally with the subject matter, Robinson said. "You start out with all the negative stereotypes about girls -- even for her brother and his friends. We wanted to show how she has really broken all the stereotypes, having her in the booth. It's more the bigger story that she reached a pinnacle that's difficult for women to reach."
Their campaign includes not only a one-minute and a 30-second version of Ella's triumph in the anchor booth, but also several short web-only clips that are both hilarious and pointed. Remarkably, Robinson says they were improvised by Bradshaw, Theismann and the confident young actress, Ella Anderson.
In scenes with the former football stars, Robinson said, "It was important to us that they didn't talk down to her." When describing football strategies in the web clip "Football 411," Theismann "takes the time to explain to her in adult language."
In "Bubbles," Bradshaw detours from game analysis into a juvenile joke about "big tight ends," which Ella tries to ignore. The spot encapsulates the insufferable "yuck it up" atmosphere that often takes over the NFL all-male halftime shows.
Another web clip, "Take My Job," has Ella in a Bradshaw-like, bald wig. When Bradshaw asks, "Hey, you trying to take my job?" and Ella says, "Maybe," he leans into her and blusters, "I got a mortgage; I have kids ..." She yells back at him, "How does that have anything to do with it?" I could only think about women historically denied jobs because men were the presumed breadwinners and women were merely working for "pin money." Ella is right: Expertise and talent are the correct measures of who should be hired.
As a former sportswriter and breaker of locker room barriers back in the day, my hope is that this ad campaign punches through the complacency of the NFL and the networks that broadcast their games. For every fictional Ella, there are millions of real girls and women who play or watch sports. We shouldn't have to wait another generation -- until Ella grows up -- to see one of them analyzing games from the anchor booth.
Robin Herman is a writer and artist, and recently retired as an assistant dean at Harvard University. She was the first female sportswriter at The New York Times and also wrote for The Washington Post. She was featured in the ESPN documentary on pioneering female sportswriters "Let Them Wear Towels," part of the Nine for IX series.