Live sport is never short of drama. From penalty shoot-outs to points scored in the last remaining seconds, the excitement only stops at the sound of the whistle. As the World Cup begins, the world readies itself once again for a potential series of upsets, tantrums and shock defeats – and fairytale winners (here’s looking at you, Iceland).
But off the pitch, the behind-the-scenes of live sport coverage can be just as dramatic and controversial. And in recent years, none more so than at Sky Sports, where back in 2011 football presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys were pilloried for making sexist and derogatory comments about female match official Sian Massey. The emergence of an off-air video from the previous year in which Gray made sexist remarks to co-presenter Charlotte Jackson led to him being sacked, while Keys was forced to resign soon afterwards following a failed attempt to excuse his own behaviour during a radio appearance.
Their highly publicised departures, later described by Keys as “one of the biggest carve ups in TV history”, has had a profound effect on Sky Sports, which this summer has partnered the Women’s Sport Trust for a new campaign, #ShowUp, encouraging the public to support women’s sport by watching, attending or playing.
Behind the campaign are a roster of influential women from both sides of the camera at Sky, from leading producers to Sky Sports presenters. Speaking to RadioTimes.com, they reflect on the legacy of Keys and Gray’s departures.
“I suppose across Sky it was a turning point,” says Sarah Cheadle, match director for Sky Sports’ football coverage. Cheadle started at Sky as a runner in 1998, before moving onto the football team in 2000. She always got on well with both Keys and Gray, describing a relationship defined by banter: “They would take the mickey… I used to wear a long coat when I first started, a beige coat, and they used to call me Columbo. No one ever called me Sarah.”
“If I’d have been pregnant and announced it when they [Keys and Gray] were there, they would have taken the mickey out of me, of course… Like, ‘ooh what’re you going to be doing, you’ve got ‘time off’ now’,” she says, putting on a sarcastic tone to mimic the presenters.
However, she says that their “shock” sacking “showed Sky in a good light for saying this isn’t the right thing to do anymore.”
“It was a clear indication that Sky aren’t going to accept that sort of behaviour anymore. So it was a definitely a turning point for Sky. It’s like a different generation now… when I look back at those years, it’s very different now, to how it was before.”
“[Keys and Gray] were tolerated in various environments, definitely, before,” says Sara Chenery, senior director of boxing at Sky, “just because it was the way that it was, and I think that was a huge statement at the time [their departure]. A massive culture shift.”
“We’re in a lot more positive environment now.”
During the 2011 incident, Gray expressed disbelief at one point during a live game that a woman (Sian Massey) was an official, saying “Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule”. Keys then concurred: “Course they don’t.”
“We’ve done quite a few interviews with Sian Massey,” says Sky Sports TV presenter and reporter Jane Dougall, who joined Sky after Keys and Gray’s departure, “and the thing with that particular incident is that every time I’ve watched Sian Massey, she’s got it spot on. I’ve never seen her make a mistake, ever.”
“She’s never wanted to make a big deal about it [the 2011 incident] so I think all she’s done is prove them [Keys and Gray] completely wrong by just being really, really good at her job.”
Andy Gray making derogatory comments to his co-presenter Charlotte Jackson before going on air
Georgina Faulkner, Head of Multisport productions at Sky, was on maternity leave at the time of the 2011 incident but recalls texting the office, trying to find out what had happened: “You’d see them [Keys and Gray] in the office and they were obviously very high profile.”
When it’s suggested that the derogatory comments might not have been a complete surprise, Faulkner nods. “Yeah, I’m sure that there is that feeling [that Keys and Gray’s comments weren’t a surprise to the general public]… I always find it quite interesting, I think that there is quite a male perception of Sky Sports.”
Of course, that perception is precisely what Sky Sports and the #ShowUp campaign are trying to combat. All the women I speak to are eager to list the various initiatives the company is undertaking to encourage women’s sports and to turn front page wins, like England’s netball success at the Commonwealth Games, into regular viewing numbers.
Faulkner holds out her phone to show me that netball now has its own separate icon on the Sky Sports app. Chenery says her team has “made a real active effort to make sure that [Sky] get… [female boxers]… on the bigger boxing cards”, while Dougall stresses the need for more sponsorships to help women’s teams.
Netball, Commonwealth Games (Getty)
Several Sky women regale me with stories about the sport and media industries when they first started their careers, revealing how far both have come. Chenery, who started working on boxing at Sky in 1996, recalls being frequently mistaken for an assistant, or else the tea girl, when she was in fact a director. Usually she’d respond with teasing: “I’d be like, ‘it’s amazing; I can cook, I can clean, I can do housework and I can direct television’,” she says. “And then they’d be really embarrassed and go, ‘oh I didn’t mean that!’”
“What has really filled me with a lot of… positivity is to see a lot of my peers move up into those senior roles,” Faulkner says, “and I think potentially that’s what we didn’t see so much of before [twenty years ago].”
Following a standout couple of years for women’s sports – the netballers’ Commonwealth Games success, the Lionesses, England’s women’s cricket teams multiple wins – it’s the perfect moment to encourage more people to watch and participate in women’s sports, while celebrating the female producers and pundits avidly following them.
“Let’s get more girls into sport,” Faulkner says. “It doesn’t have to be professional level, does it? Let’s get more women participating in sport.”
Sky Sports and the Women’s Sport Trust have partnered to encourage everyone to show up and support women in sport by watching, attending or playing this summer. Be a part of the campaign by sharing your experiences of women’s sport on social using #ShowUp