Opportunity amid knocks

Rigoll_Molan When females can outnumber males in the newsroom, it’s time to get over the idea that sports reporting is dominated by men, writes Erin Molan. Cartoon by Mike Rigoll

My journey from a school holiday McDonald’s job to co-host of The NRL Footy Show is in many ways a typical journalist’s story – dogged perseverance, countless hours of study and research, self-belief (a hide as tough as an elephant helps), and working a 60-hour week doing whatever needs to be done, enthusiastically and professionally.

There is still a heavy focus on and interest in what I do because of my gender. This is understandable.

Sports reporting and presenting was once a male-dominated environment, but “the times they are a-changin’”. The landscape has shifted dramatically over the past decade or so and there are times in our Nine Network Sydney newsroom when the female sports reporters outnumber the men.

So this is a snapshot of my story – a woman involved in sports journalism, who has experienced the highs and lows that I’m sure many of my male counterparts can relate to … and maybe one or two they can’t.

My career began in a fairly conventional way. I saw an advertisement in a suburban paper for presenters for a new Canberra community network starting up on pay TV. I pulled up outside the studio half an hour before my interview, wearing grey jeans and a shirt. I was incredibly nervous and had sweat marks the size of Queensland (no disrespect given my allegiance to NSW in Origin, I promise), which I was desperately trying to dry with the car’s air conditioner. As I got out of the car the seam of my jeans ripped open. Let’s just say it was all downhill from there. I was horrendous at reading the autocue, absolutely robotic and, unsurprisingly I didn’t receive a call back.

I sent the executive producer multiple emails begging him to give me a chance, as I knew I could do this job if I had the opportunity, and annoyed him to the point where it was easier for him to give me a five-minute weekly segment on the Food Show than deal with my correspondence any longer. I soon started hosting all the shows on Channelvision, including sports, business, tourism, entertainment and travel.

I spent three wonderful years working parttime at Channelvision, honing my skills in writing, producing and presenting. This led to a position at the Office of the Governor-General of Australia, with Major General Michael Jeffery, and his wife Marlena, in the speech writing department.

The writing experience here was superb, providing briefs and speech drafts for their community visits, and through the rich tapestry of the governor-general’s diary I also had a very privileged glimpse of quintessential Australian life.

But I wanted more. I wanted to work in news and I wanted to break into a commercial network. WIN TV was the goal and it took over a year to get an opportunity with them.

I remember Phil Small, the sports presenter at the time, arranging for me to do a test voice. Once again I was pretty ordinary – this was a whole new level and whole new ball game. I think Phil asked when I walked out if I’d looked at the Public Service as a career path, though thankfully he recognised my ambition, and after a while my potential, and soon became a very supportive mentor.

After a few years at WIN – in Wagga Wagga, Wollongong and Canberra – I got my break nationally. For some time I’d been sending my showreel to various news directors – including Peter Meakin, Darren Wick and Ken Sutcliffe. I had collected over 80 rejection letters, but these three had taken the time to send me feedback. I was offered a sports producing and reporting role at Nine in Sydney – the pinnacle for me. It was all I had ever wanted. It was the most exciting day of my life getting the call from Darren Wick offering me the job, and I moved to Sydney in November 2010.

If I thought the learning curve from community TV to WIN was steep, this leap was Mount Everest. The move to Nine was tough. It’s a frenzied, exciting and emotional environment, a fast-paced, intense, professional place where you have no option but to keep up.

I struggled at times but I loved every – well, almost every – second of it. I was sitting in a newsroom next to Damian Ryan, Mark Burrows and Simon Bouda. Listening to these pros in action was incredible. Having a legend like Ken Sutcliffe giving me voice lessons and teaching me how to take all the crap out of my scripts, to keep it simple until I developed the intuitive ability to be subtly clever, was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given.

I watched ultimate professionals including Georgie Gardner and Liz Hayes make amazing TV, and I knew within days that this was the only workplace I wanted to be in.

I started in News but one Saturday, at Ken’s recommendation, I got a call from the head of the Sunday Footy Show – Sean Burke – asking me to do a live cross from a football game for the next day’s show. I was seriously the last option – no-one else was available. (I soon learnt that you can never be precious about how your opportunities arise, you just take them.)

I had never done a live cross. Most of my time in the newsroom thus far had been producing and writing scripts for others. But I practised and practised and did it, and it was such a thrill, live crossing to Sterlo [Peter Sterling], Joey [Andrew Johns] and Freddy [Brad Fittler].

Five years later, I’m still part of the Sunday Footy Show – it’s one of my favourites. Four years ago the Thursday night NRL Footy Show gave me an opportunity to do the late mail, a five-minute segment each week, and as I’d grown up watching the show this was an incredibly special milestone.

The next year I started getting a few more opportunities on The NRL Footy Show, an interview here and there or covering an event, and the following year I became its first full-time female panellist. I was proud because I had worked so hard and it had been an exceptional though difficult time.

The job isn’t easy and people aren’t always supportive – in fact some can be downright nasty. Twitter – don’t even get me started. The first couple of years I couldn’t check my feed after the show because it was so hurtful and vile.

Some people could not contemplate a woman playing any role on the show that wasn’t Lady Luck or an “at home” piece with the partner of a player. Viewers would criticise my appearance, my contribution, my credentials, my right to sit alongside former players who had achieved incredible feats on the field. Some people even tweeted that I should die. But these days the nastiness has virtually disappeared.

This year I became co-host, a wonderful opportunity and show of faith from Glenn Pallister, The Footy Show’s executive producer, and David Gyngell. I am not ashamed to admit the overwhelming amount of work I put into each show. I write pages of notes so I can talk intelligently about the NRL. Not being a former player, I had to develop my expertise in other ways, and four years on I’m confident that the value I bring to the program is recognised and appreciated – first and foremost by our loyal fans, who are the entire reason we do this show every week in the footy season.

I have been fortunate to work alongside amazing people, both on and off air, and I couldn’t sit on that panel if I thought the men sitting either side of me didn’t respect me or have my back. The way they accept and relate to me on air influences the, way the viewers accept me, and building strong relationships with my colleagues has proved beneficial on and off screen.

Fatty [Vautin] and I are great friends. We speak a couple of times a week when he calls to tell me a story or a joke, or to ask if I know anyone who can hook him up with golf balls. Big Marn [Darryl Brohman] is one of my favourites – we did radio together over the summer on 2GB after he asked me to be a part of his show – and Beau [Ryan] and I are great mates. I spend a lot of time with him and his wife, Kara. It really is a brilliant family we have at The NRL Footy Show.

At the moment I have a perfect balance between Nine News and both footy shows. I also do radio every week and write columns for the NRL website. I love being able to do everything, including my charity work as an ambassador for Bowel Cancer Australia, Defence Cares and Save Our Sons – it’s a huge passion, made possible through the profile I have developed at Nine.

I never lose sight of how lucky I am, being rewarded for hard work with such exceptional opportunities. I plan to make the most of everything that continues to come my way.

Erin Molan is co-host of Channel Nine’s The NRL Footy Show, and presents and reports for The Sunday Footy Show and Nine News
Mike Rigoll is a freelance illustrator born and raised in Perth; facebook.com/mike.rigoll.illustration