Forget Sunday’s matchup between D.C. United and the New England Revolution.
During United’s third game of the week, the Revolution come to Audi Field. It is an important match, but not quite do or die. Forget it.
What makes Sunday’s match unique, is the fact that for the first time in the history of U.S. Soccer, and possibly the five major U.S. men’s sports leagues, a team of all women will bring the game to the viewers of Fox Sports 1.
“Best case scenario was that there would be no press about this,” reporter Katie Witham said. “We made history by being allowed to call this game as an all-female broadcast team and then afterwards hopefully there would be no publicity because we did a good job.”
Accomplished broadcaster Lisa Byington will provide play-by-play alongside former U.S. national team defender Danielle Slaton in the booth. Witham, an Emmy award winner, will report from the sideline.
“Part of the push when we all signed on was, ‘How can we make this as regular as possible and how can we keep the game the main story.'” Slaton said. “We are glad to be a part of history, but look forward to the day that this isn’t such a historic event.”
The world’s all-time leading scorer, Abby Wambach, asked fans to do the same in a 2015 Gatorade campaign on the heels of her retirement from playing soccer.
“I want to leave a legacy where the ball keeps rolling forward,” Wambach said in the commercial. “Where the next generation accomplishes things so great that I am no longer remembered. So, forget me because the day I am forgotten is the day we will succeed.”
The best players think two plays ahead. They know where the ball is going and they know where to be to make the next move. Soccer is a chess game. Sunday’s broadcast team is looking two steps ahead.
“Fox Sports wanted us to do this broadcast. They pulled together three women, who, not only love this sport, but are dedicated to covering it. This is one small step in the right direction,” Witham said. “We are just here to help lay the groundwork, and hopefully somebody in the future comes up and absolutely blows us away and keeps that ball rolling.”
Fox Sports first approached members of their current MLS coverage team, asking Slaton and Witham to join the team for Sunday’s match.
After her career in soccer as a player ended, Slaton moved to Northwestern to start coaching before joining the newly formed Big Ten Network. Slaton worked for NBC Sports, Fox Sports and Pac-12 Networks as a Soccer Analyst and Sideline Reporter starting in 2014.
“The Big Ten network started while I was coaching. That is how I made the jump. I was in the right place at the right time,” Slaton said. “Broadcasting wasn’t ever something I thought about when I was playing because there really weren’t a lot of women on television. Julie Foudy was one of the first ones that you were seeing and was really breaking down those barriers in women’s soccer.”
Slaton was most recently at Audi Field last Sunday, interviewing United forward Wayne Rooney after his astonishing 96th minute game-winning assist in United’s victory over Orlando City SC.
“She picks up on stuff people don’t see,” Witham said of her broadcast teammate. “The other part of broadcasting that flies under the radar is that you can be the smartest person in the room, know everything about soccer and see the game in a different way, but you have to be able to execute what you are seeing so that your viewers can understand it. She does that seamlessly.”
Witham is the MLS coverage veteran of the group. Like Slaton, she got her start thanks to a combination of hard work and right timing. While interning with the Columbus Crew in 2005, Witham got her first chance to do the sideline report as a wide-eyed junior college soccer player. She quickly moved through the system in Columbus and expanded her coverage league-wide and into other sports. Witham has worked alongside Revolution coach Brad Friedel at Fox Sports and interviewed United coach Ben Olsen as both a player and a coach.
“I am always impressed with the quality of insight and analysis that she gets from the sideline. It is not just fluff when she is overhearing the coach,” Slaton said. “She is not just a reporter, she has a little bit of an analyst brain. I am always impressed with the tactics and analysis that she brings from the sideline.”
The missing piece
With Slaton and Witham in place, the remaining question was, who would do play-by-play.
“When I was approached by Fox about this game, they told me they already had Danielle and me lined up and asked who I thought should be play-by-play. Lisa’s name was the first one to come out of my mouth.” Witham said. “It is tough sometimes in this business to be so professional and to be so well prepared yet also let your personality shine through. She is able to do all of that.”
Byington has covered countless games across multiple sports, but will get her first taste of MLS coverage on Sunday. She was a double athlete at Northwestern, playing basketball and soccer.
“You cannot ignore that we are all women,” Witham said. “I hope that people can look past that. Yes, our voice is an octave higher than John Strong and JP Dellacamera, but what they have to see throughout this broadcast is the quality.”
Forget the milestone. Forget who is describing the game. Forget the sound of their voices.
If Sunday’s FS1 broadcast team had its way, you would solely focused on a high stakes midseason match as one team led by an international superstar makes a desperate, last-minute attempt to make the playoffs.
They acknowledge it is important to give more women a chance to participate in broadcasts, embracing their unique roles while still trying to keep the focus on the two MLS teams.
“The greater diversity of opinions and voices and perspectives that we hear and see on television the better we are,” Slaton said. “It is a big moment. I personally don’t take that lightly.”
Women have a greater presence in sports than we have seen before. Reporters like Doris Burke in the NBA and Jessica Mendoza in Major League Baseball have headlined their respective leagues. Aly Wagner made history for Fox Sports earlier this year after being the nation’s first female reporter providing commentary for the men’s World Cup in Russia.
This publication’s staff is an example as well. The co-founder and editor of this website is a woman and nearly half of the staff are qualified women covering the sport across the country. There are more qualified women out there creating content and covering soccer. You likely already read their articles, watch their work and listen to their words.
I have covered nearly 100 games during my young career and I hope to cover hundreds more. I won’t remember all of the games in full detail — that’s just part of the poetic beauty of sports — but I won’t forget Sunday when three women make broadcast history.