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

The World Cup will sound different this year.

Jacqui Oatley will become the first female play-by-play commentator for US World Cup broadcasts and will lead one of Fox’s five broadcast crews for the tournament in Qatar, which opens on Sunday.

Pien Meulensteen, Vicki Sparks and Robyn Cowen are among the broadcasters of games on the BBC in the UK.

“A lot of people are going to have negative comments about women and female commenters and that’s because that’s just how they think. They are not open to hearing otherwise,” said Meulensteen, the 25-year-old daughter of former Fulham coach and current Australia assistant coach René Meulensteen.

“I have loved football since I was a kid. I grew up in a footballer’s house, my father works in football. Both my brothers play football and we’re all talking about the same thing, so why not let a woman talk about it?” said Pien Meulensteen. “And I also hope that we will be accepted in time. It’s not seen as, ‘Oh wow, there’s a woman commenting. It should be normal for women to talk about football as much as men.’

Oatley, 47, worked for Britain’s ITV at the 2018 World Cup as a studio presenter and part-time reporter. She and Meulensteen have become regulars on the Premier League’s World Feed, which can be heard on NBC’s networks in the US.

“I especially loved the American audience,” said Oatley. “They seem so much more worldly and up to date and modern in their thinking and their acceptance of women. And I guess that’s because you’ve had such a successful national team over the years and you don’t have that history of gender bias that we have in the UK and traditionally in parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world, in South America, Africa , also.”

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

FIFA is using color commentators for the first time on its English-language World Feed. The six teams include San Diego Wave coach Casey Stoney and Lucy Ward, both former England players.

Oatley is paired with former England defender Warren Barton at Fox, starting with Denmark’s game against Tunisia on Tuesday.

“They bring knowledge and expertise with them,” said 77-year-old Martin Tyler shortly before the broadcast of his 12th World Championship. “They only get the job because they are very good. It’s very important to connect 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 in six in 2018, Derek Rae. This time three out of five are British, with Rae joined by Oatley and Ian Darke.

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

Oatley grew up in Wolverhampton and listened 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 tore her ligaments trying to keep a ball in play. She walked on crutches for 10 months.

Around Christmas 2001, she decided that her job as an account manager for an intellectual property firm was unfulfilled. She searched the Internet for avenues into broadcasting, took a job as a sportscaster for hospital radio, and enrolled in evening classes in radio production and print journalism. She left her job and apartment and stayed with friends while she learned her new profession and enrolled in a postgraduate journalism program at Sheffield Hallam University in September 2002. Oatley wrote to local BBC radio stations and, on a visit to Leeds, made contact with radio sports editor Derm Tanner

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

She began freelancing, covering non-league match reports and broadcasting her first game for BBC Radio Leeds in 2003 between Wakefield & Emley and Worksop Town in the seventh division of the Northern Premier League.

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

“Unfortunately, it became a bit of a news story because there was a difference between the others and me,” she recalled. “It was extremely stressful. During my training as a journalist, with the match reports, with the commentaries, my whole focus was always on telling a story to the audience. That’s what I wanted to do and I worked hard on it. And suddenly going into the story from there and having the camera lenses on me instead of the pitch was something I found really difficult to deal with and something I wasn’t really ready for and didn’t enjoy made a second.”

She became a presenter for the BBC’s Euro 2015 coverage and was hired as a commentator for Sky’s English Women’s Super League coverage in September 2021. In preparation for Qatar, she brings her own printer, ink cartridges, two phones and two iPads.

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

A 2019 University of Salford graduate, Meulensteen worked for BBC Manchester while at school, broadcasting the Manchester United women’s team for MUTV. She began broadcasting the Premier League last December and her first World Cup broadcast will be televised on BBC One on Tuesday between Poland and Mexico.

“Women like watching football, listening to football and playing football just as much,” she said. “20, 30 years ago it was not an option for women to watch football and have a female voice. If you go to a football game, go to Old Trafford, there are a lot of women who watch football and are interested in it. Women should also be allowed to comment on men’s soccer games. It just allows other people to hear a different voice.”

While many are happy with the breakthroughs, there are uncomfortable critics.

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

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