If truth be told, Lisa Byington probably would prefer this article not be written.
But we’re not there yet as a sports nation. So, when Byington is hired by the Milwaukee Bucks and Bally Sports Wisconsin to be the first female full-time NBA -- or any men's professional sports team, for that matter -- play-by-play announcer in history, well, it deserves more than a few words.
Perhaps one day in the future it won’t be a big deal. In 2021, however, it’s something worth talking about.
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take. Five years, 10 years, maybe it’s a generation change, but we have to get to that point where -- I always say I can’t wait for a female voice to become background noise,” Byington said. “What I mean by that is this, think about how many times we have a sports game on in the background and we’re not thinking about who the announcers are. … When we can stop trying to figure out who that female announcer is then we’ve arrived. That’s across the board, from men to women, but you’re right, we’re not there yet. But hires like this and opportunities like this is one way we can get closer to that.”
This isn’t the first time Byington has been tabbed as the “first woman to do play-by-play for …” Among the job descriptions which have been attached to that phrase are Big Ten football and men’s March Madness. She’s also called games at this past Olympics for men and women, as well as the World Cup in 2019, for the Chicago Sky of the WNBA and at times filled in doing Chicago Bulls games.
“I always say now it’s more everyone else’s reaction because I’m used to this being my story,” Byington noted.
The path which led Byington to the Milwaukee Bucks began long ago, when as a child she had no problem joining the boys playing soccer during recess – even if she were the only girl on the field.
Eventually, Byington would move onto Northwestern University where she lettered in basketball four years – and was a three-time All-Big Ten Academic selection – and two as a soccer walk-on.
“I feel grateful I grew up with a mom and a dad who never made goals gender specific,” she explained. “But only because they put that mindset into me when I was very young you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it. Set your goals and go for them. It’s new to everybody else but I was raised that way, that’s why I don’t flinch when these opportunities come up because this is the way it’s supposed to be. I want to be in the NBA. I want to work for a great franchise like the Milwaukee Bucks. I don’t look at it as being the first female. I look at it as doing my job as a broadcaster and being the best voice for the Milwaukee Bucks that I can be.”
Before she went from playing hoops in the Big Ten to calling games on television, Byington began at tiny WBKB-TV in Alpena, Mich. Her next stop was WLNS-TV in Lansing, Mich., where she started getting work with the Big Ten Network as well.
She’s been a sideline reporter for basketball and football – Byington has done the “Jump Around” at Camp Randall Stadium and said she was blown away walking into Fiserv Forum in 2018, when the arena opened, while covering a Marquette game. “The first time I walked in there my jaw just dropped,” she said.
Eventually, the opportunity came to do play-by-play for soccer, basketball and football. Ultimately, it led to Milwaukee and the Bucks.
I don’t look at it as being the first female. I look at it as doing my job as a broadcaster and being the best voice for the Milwaukee Bucks that I can be.
“I think it’s important for people who are following my story is that I didn’t just wake up one day and say I want to be a play-by-play in NCAA March Madness, or be a play-by-play in the Olympics or I want to be the voice of the Milwaukee Bucks,” Byington said. “You have to be patient, you have to grind through the work. I always say you kind of have to do the grunt job to get the glory job. This is not an overnight thing, so I think that’s important for people who are trudging through things right now wondering if it’s all worth it. If you work hard, if you set your goals and you treat people the right way, then there’s always a chance for that silver lining and for that glory job to come your way.”
When Byington was growing up, playing sports at Northwestern or even at her first job in Alpena two decades ago she didn’t necessarily dream of being a play-by-play announcer. It wasn’t necessarily because she couldn’t imagine it, but partly also because it wasn’t imaginable.
Turn on a sporting event in 2000 or the many years previous and the chances that a woman was calling a major collegiate or professional sporting event would have been close to nil. There were a few instances here – Gayle Sierens doing an NFL game in 1987, Gayle Gardner calling an MLB contest in 1993 and Pam Ward taking on a college football play-by-play role in 2000, for example -- but by and large the sports broadcasting landscape, at least in the booth, was male dominated.
Is male dominated.
But people like Byington are changing what we see and hear on television.
“That’s what’s great about what the Bucks are doing, because it’s time,” Byington said. “It’s time to not hire based on gender. It’s time to hire based on your accomplishments, based on your resume, based on what kind of broadcaster you are. I had nothing to go off of. And that was me just growing up as a sports fan or an athlete as well. I was growing up in the ‘80s and the ‘90s and when I turned on the television it was only men’s sports that I could watch. There were very little examples.
“I am very humbled that lately there’s been more great, strong female examples. But I am very humbled and honored to be one of those to help pave the way for another little girl – and more importantly don’t forget about the little boys who are going to grow up and watch this and it become their norm as well.”
What will you hear when Byington takes over this season as Bucks’ play-by-play announcer? Don’t expect any catch phrases – at least not just yet. If one comes organically, fine, but otherwise Byington just tries to be authentic and live in the moment of the game.
Byington also noted that she played point guard in college and that’s how she treats her role on the air (side note: Can any broadcast crew top a 3-on-3 lineup of Byington at point, Zora Stephenson at shooting guard and Marques Johnson at power forward?), deftly setting up others to score, so to speak.
“I like to think I was a pass first, shoot second kind of point guard, so I’d like to think as a play-by-play there’s a lot of assists you can hand out to your analysts, to your producer, director, sideline reporter, we’re all one team, right?” Byington explained. “Everybody in the truck to the people in front of the camera, and I believe that I’m always looking to set up someone to make them look good. I’m not thinking about myself I’m thinking about the rest of the team. I feel like that point guard mentality helps a bit so I can accrue some assists on the broadcast.”
As related above, Byington doesn’t feel any pressure being the first woman to be a full-time NBA announcer. Getting to call games for a team coming off an NBA title isn’t a bad place to be either and a Midwest girl getting to be in Milwaukee suits her just fine as well. She knows she also has some big shoes to fill but is excited and ready to show Bucks fans she’s the right person for the job.
“I’m just looking forward to getting started. I appreciate what Jim Paschke did in many, many decades as the voice for the Bucks. I’m just going to say I’m not Jim Paschke, I’m a different person, I have a different voice, I have a different style,” Byington said. “But I will say this: I will bring the same passion and enthusiasm to this year and I will dive all in. Because when I am committed, I am more than knee-deep committed and I am more than excited to be a part of a first-class organization, a first-class fanbase and I’m ready to get started now.
“I don’t look at it as pressure coming in, I just look at it as an exciting opportunity to help be a part of the process of continuing and riding along with the success that the Milwaukee Bucks have built.”