MILWAUKEE – It felt like the first day of school for Lisa Byington, who was learning her way around the Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks play their home games. A few TV production trucks were parked in a hallway not far from the courthouse, but Byington was faced with a dilemma: Which one belonged to Bally Sports Wisconsin, the team’s broadcast partner?
She took a chance and dipped her head into one and was overjoyed to see some familiar people including John Walsh, the Bucks’ director of shows. Walsh greeted her, gesturing to a box of cookies. “We still have some left!” he said. Byington had arrived early Sunday for her first home game as the team’s new play-by-play voice.
“Everyone made me feel like family,” Byington said later. “It was a very easy going situation for a situation that shouldn’t be easy. “
For 35 years, Jim Paschke provided the Bucks soundtrack as a play-by-play voice, as worn and beloved as a La-Z-Boy recliner. When he retired last season following the team’s first championship since 1971, he was replaced by Byington, 45, who made history as the first full-time female broadcaster for a great male professional sports team. About a week later, Kate Scott was hired to play the game with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Hiring the two women this season is a sign of gradual progress in a male-dominated industry, although Byington is well aware that not everyone will be used to hearing a woman take over the theatrics of Giannis Antetokounmpo rushing for a dunk.
“You learn to work with and laugh about it,” she said. “And if there are fans who have concerns and don’t quite understand, I can listen. But ultimately, I don’t see myself as a female facilitator. I see myself as a broadcaster, and the point is to get the job done well enough that people start to think that way too. “
Growing up outside of Kalamazoo, Michigan, Byington learned from her parents, Linda and Bob, both educators, that she could dream big, that she could be ambitious in school and excel in sports and that her gender wouldn’t hold her back. “They made me feel like I could do anything in the world,” she said.
At Portage Northern High School, she helped lead the girls’ basketball team in a race to the state semifinals. Her father was the coach, and as she walked off the pitch after the team’s loss at the end of the season, they shared a tearful embrace. The moment was filmed for a story about their father-daughter relationship by WWMT, the CBS affiliate in Kalamazoo.
“It was amazing to watch, and it was the first time I realized the impact of the broadcast,” said Byington. “I always come back to that, because this is really the first moment I started to think, ‘Oh, that touched me, and maybe one day I can make an impact on other people. the same way.'”
At Northwestern, she played basketball and college football while majoring in journalism. (“I’m always better when I’m busy,” she said.) Armed with a master’s degree in broadcast journalism, she broke into the industry as a sports presenter and reporter for television stations. modest size in Michigan.
She was working her second job on local television when she heard a sports radio conversation about how Pam Ward would become the first woman to be the play-by-play voice of a college football game on ESPN. Byington was on his way to cover a high school football game at the time.
“I remember it was a big deal,” she said of Ward’s pioneering mission.
A few years later, Byington was moonlighting as a secondary reporter for the Big Ten Network when one of his bosses called with an unusual request. The network needed someone to play-by-play for a women’s basketball game. It was unusual because Byington had never done a play-by-play. She was unfazed: how different could it be to anchor a sports show? It turns out that a lot.
“It was horrible, but I mustn’t have screwed up enough because they kept asking me to do a bunch of different sports,” she said.
Byington continued to play by play for softball, field hockey, and soccer. She played in men’s and women’s football. And gymnastics. And volleyball. Earlier this year, she was the first woman to appear in the men’s college basketball tournament for CBS and Turner Sports, and her second-round appeal to Oral Roberts’ anger against Florida garnered praise from the media.
And as the Bucks began evaluating candidates to replace Paschke in the weeks following the Bucks’ championship win last season, team president Peter Feigin found he was particularly impressed with roughly three straight hours of coverage Byington provided from the Big3 League playoffs. Byington was new to Big3, but she was there, live from the Bahamas, working an hour-long pre-game show followed by the two semi-finals.
“If you can do this, you can do it all,” Feigin said.
Byington was broadcasting a college football game on September 4 when his agent, Gideon Cohen, tried to call her, which struck him as odd – he knew she was on the air. When Byington chose not to pick up, Cohen resorted to sending a text message containing a GIF of Antetokounmpo. She had landed the Bucks job.
“It was a bit of a blur after that,” she said.
Women have been broadcasting men’s sports for years now, Byington said, but not all games are for a team and for a fan base.
“This is the big difference, and it will be the big change,” she said. “Because fans can handle an inbound and outbound voice for a nationwide network. But now you’re community based, you go to events, you interact with them, and that’s your voice on highlights and on social media, all of that.
And while Byington isn’t naive about the importance of her gender, she’s hoping the script will have a short lifespan.
“It’s part of the process,” she said. “But if you ask me the same questions 10 years from now – or even next month – then there is a problem.”
On Sunday, the Bucks were in Milwaukee for their first home preseason game, and as Byington made her way to the field about an hour before the tip, she pulled out her phone to capture the moment. The stands were still empty and a few ushers did double duty: was she the new presenter?
Byington chatted with Bucks lineman reporter Zora Stephenson then made his way across the pitch to greet Beth Mowins, who was preparing for her play-by-play duties with ESPN, which was also broadcasting the game. The moment was not lost for either of them: two women calling for the same game for different networks.
“Probably a bigger deal than people think,” Byington said.
Shortly thereafter, Byington was sitting with Marques Johnson, his broadcast partner, near the goalscoring table as their show went live.
“So glad you were able to join us,” she said.