ESPN’s historic broadcast of Jazz vs. Warriors meant something simple to the women involved: ‘Representation matters’

Beth Mowins, Doris Burke, and Lisa Salters served as the broadcast crew for ESPN’s first national game led entirely by women on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Doris Burke, left, and Beth Mowins call the game between the Utah Jazz and the Golden State Warriors at Vivint Arena, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. The two were part of an all-female broadcast and production team on ESPN.

For Beth Mowins, Doris Burke, and Lisa Salters, Wednesday night’s Jazz-Warriors game presented something of an impossible conundrum: How could they possibly approach it as something simultaneously mundane and historic?

“Is it something special?” Mowins sarcastically asked during an exclusive interview conducted with the trio.

You might say that. And she knew it, of course.

The Western Conference matchup at Vivint Arena marked ESPN’s “first NBA game on a national scale led by all women, both on camera and in pivotal roles behind the scenes,” as the network described it in a news release. Mowins handled the play-by-play, Burke was the analyst, and Salters the sideline reporter, while 33 other women performed various production roles on-site in Salt Lake City and in the control room back in Bristol, Conn.

The thing is, for those three women who were lending their faces and voices and years of expertise to the broadcast, it was a delicate balancing act of acknowledging the singular nature of the event, while also trying not to make too big a deal of what technically amounts to professionals simply doing their jobs, they all acknowledged in the lead-up.

“This is what we do every day. So for us, it doesn’t feel like something different; this is what we do two, three times a week,” Salters said. “And yet, the significance of the moment isn’t lost.”

They knew some people — let’s be honest, some men — would complain about it, view it as a gimmick, wonder why a basketball game and its broadcast had to be turned into some political spectacle about gender, question why it couldn’t simply be about qualifications.

Does it count as irony for a bunch of armchair critics to call into question the credentials of these women?

Salters is an award-winning journalist who is the longest-tenured “Monday Night Football” sideline reporter ever, as well as ABC’s sideline reporter for the NBA Finals since 2005. Burke won the Curt Gowdy Media Award in 2018, and became the first woman to serve as a game analyst for the NBA Finals in 2020 when she joined the ESPN Radio team. Mowins, who has been with ESPN since 1994 and made her NBA play-by-play debut with the network earlier this season, made history in 2017 when she became the first woman in 30 years to call an NFL game during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”

“What I like the most is that we’ve all been doing this — no one was elevated to do anything they don’t already do,” Salters pointed out. “We’ve been doing this forever, and we just now get to do it all together.”

Whose brainchild it was, none of them knows. They didn’t ask for it, didn’t suggest it, didn’t pitch it.

The “why” of it, on the other hand, is pretty easy to understand.

Those same people who complain about women in sports media somehow never seem to realize that there aren’t actually very many women in sports media.

“One of the most exciting parts of this for me is there’s a group of women who will never be seen tonight in various roles: tape, graphics, audio, operations … I guarantee you each and every one of them — just like the three of us — have been in a position at some point where the only person in the room who was of your gender was yourself,” Burke said. “So now it’s unique that this entire broadcast is basically filled with women. And so maybe for the first time in their career ever, they can feel like they’re not the minority. Representation matters, no matter what.”

That’s why this broadcast, done this specific way, mattered.

Why not make a point of women doing this job, and doing it well?

It was certainly on Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell’s mind — both when the achievement was mentioned in the arena and shown on the jumbotron, and also in his postgame media session.

“That’s just a special moment. It’s been too long — I said that to Doris and to Lisa. It’s special. I’m definitely honored to be a part of the game, and to be part of that story,” he said. “Women in our world are typically given a backseat for no apparent reason, in my opinion. They have a harder climb — in sports, in business. When you look at tonight, this shouldn’t be just a one-off.”

Salters likened the event to an NFL game she covered last year where the league “assembled the first all-African American officiating crew.” She noted the juxtaposition of their responses to her questions about the occasion then (”This is what we do. But it is cool.”), and her reaction, as a Black woman, to them.

”I was taking pictures and had them all get together so I could be in a picture with them, and I tweeted it out — and I never really tweet anything. But it was so cool for me to see, and I was so proud for them,” Salters said. “I’m sure that it’s going to be that way for so many other people tonight when we walk into the gym, for so many other people to see us. We don’t feel like we’re cool, but little girls and other women, other people are going to look at us and think, ‘That’s really cool.’”

Mowins added that the three of them getting to be the faces of a very public and historic moment is meaningful.

“It accentuates the influence that we can have on other people,” she said. “It’s fun working with these guys, but it’s really the reaction that you get from other people that may send you a text, or you look up in the crowd and there’s a mom and dad at the game, and their little daughter, and they’re pointing down at you. That is what brings us joy about this, other than we get to work together and do something that we love to do.”

All three said they were trying to keep their focus on the game, on Donovan Mitchell vs. Steph Curry, and then afterwards, maybe they’d all assemble at their hotel and talk about the significance of what they just did.

To some degree, after all, as Mowins said, it was just a basketball game, and just three people talking about a basketball game.

“We’re just like all the men and women that are watching at home that love the game, and we just happened to pick this as our profession so we could get a courtside seat and a microphone,” she said. “And now we get a chance to do something we love, and to do it with people that have been around sports and around ESPN and ABC for a long time, and it’s pretty cool.”

As much as they tried to take themselves out of the equation, though, they knew that the significance of it simply couldn’t be ignored.

“Knowing that this team has been assembled, we understand what the reason is,” Salters said. “And I think the response that we’ve been getting from other people just kind of underscores the celebration of what can happen when you give women opportunities.”