Eleanor Oldroyd has worked for BBC Radio since 1986, when she was the only “lass in the press box”. She’s worked at BBC Radio 5 Live since 1991, when it was plain old Radio 5, and she currently hosts Thursday 5 Live Sport, the Friday Sports Panel and the Saturday Breakfast show.
Elly, How did you wind up in sports broadcasting – has sport always been a passion?
I was not a sporty child at all, [but] I had two younger brothers too, who were very into sport and my dad loved sport. It was the kind of house where sport was on the TV all the time, so I just grew up following football – having Shoot League Ladders. You had these little team tabs and you had a slotted ladder and so after each Saturday, you would rearrange your ladder depending on where they were on the table – it was the most fantastically low-tech thing you’d ever come across, but people of a certain age will remember them.
I didn’t have a football team I actively supported – my brothers supported Birmingham City, but I didn’t really have a team that I fell in love with. I used to go and watch Birmingham play in the 70s, when I was about 14, 15, 16, and then I fell in love with cricket and that was the life-changing thing, really. My dad absolutely loved cricket, and I thought it was the most boring thing in the world. But it was that point where I sat down one summer with him and I just got gripped by it.
So that was it really. My Dad got tickets to a test-match at Lords in 1978, and it would have involved a day off school – because it was Friday – and so he wrote to my headmistress and said “Eleanor has expressed a desire to be the first woman cricket correspondent at The Times, so I think this would be an educational visit for her.” Credit to the school, they said “Wellm of course.” It was an all-girls school and their view was that, “all girls should be able to do whatever they want, so any career is a suitable career for one of our girls.”
So she gave me the day off school, and this was at a time where there were no female sports journalists at all, and I don’t think I had said I wanted to be the first female cricket correspondent at all – it was a complete invention by my dad – but afterwards I thought “actually, that’s a really good idea – if I could get paid to watch cricket all day, that would be brilliant”, or watch sport all day. So that’s where it came from.
When I graduated [from university], I went to work in my local radio station in Worcester and my first news editor at Radio Wyvern, when I said “I want to cover cricket,” he said “Yep, ok, here’s a telephone, get on your bike, here’s a tape recorder, go down to New Road and phone in a match report on the hour, every hour.” That was the first sports reporting I did, and that was 1985. A friend told me he remembers me sitting there in the open press box – rows of seats in this great box, all men – and I sat there and would phone in. Every time I phoned in, the whole box would fall completely silent, and I’d do my 30 second match report and put my phone down – and this went on throughout the whole day. Then at tea, the guy sitting next to me turned round and said “I’ve been listening to you all day – you do know what you’re talking about, don’t you?” with that air of surprise, and I thought “Yeah actually, I do know what I’m talking about.”
So how did you segue into football? It must have been quite hard being pretty much the only woman?
I moved to BBC Local Radio in 1986 – Radio Shropshire – I was part time sports producer for them, really, so I was doing everything for them, reporting on Shrewsbury Town, presenting their Saturday afternoon sports programme, minor counties cricket (Shropshire only has minor counties cricket), covering Telford Tigers Ice Hockey – so I did some commentary on the Telford Tigers which is extraordinary, really. I’ve never listened back; I must have been unbelievably bad.
It’s easy to develop a narrative where you say, “Gosh it must have been so difficult for you – the 1980s – when people wouldn’t have given you a chance.” Actually I had lots of chances – my bosses at Radio Wyvern and Radio Shropshire never said, “You can’t do it.” They always said, “Yes, of course you can do it”.
Occasionally you’d get side-long looks, you’d get the odd person in the press box who would look at you – you’d always feel slightly uncomfortable, or slightly on your own, or you’d just sit there quietly in the corner and not rock the boat, I think it’s probably a less lonely existence now for [a woman]. I do remember feeling isolated in press boxes and at press conferences on a Friday afternoon, but then I knew that my bosses knew I had a right to be there – I was backed professionally.
I remember going to cover Sunderland against Shrewsbury in about 1987 and I was sitting in the press box and the guys from BBC Radio Newcastle were just in front of me. They were bemused by me being there, and one of them said “So you’re from Radio Shropshire?”, So I said yeah, that’s right, so they were on air and they said [in Geordie accent]“You’re not going to believe it lads, there’s a lass in the press box!” So they got me on Radio Newcastle, describing why I was a lass in the press box – but they were being very lovely about it, they just thought it was unusual – which it was in those days.
I didn’t have the sense that there was a glass ceiling, in terms of promotion. Obviously, you’ve got to prove yourself – and I think that’s the one thing I’d say, probably still now, as a woman you’ve got to prove yourself 15% more than the men – at least. And I think that’s true in a lot of professions – you’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to not make mistakes. I think you’re less forgiven for mistakes than men are, and I’ve often felt like that when I’ve done sports programmes.
Did you ever feel like being a woman went in your favour?
I went to work at BBC Radio Sport [in 1991], on the old Radio 5 – before 5Live – and then there was definitely a feeling that more women needed to be involved and we needed to have equal opportunities or better opportunities for women and actually I wasn’t the first on BBC Radio Sport. Charlotte Nicol came before me, who was football producer for many years, but she was the first female football reporter and I was the second. But I was the first to regularly present – and the first to do Sports report on a Saturday afternoon – and so far the only woman to present sports report on a Saturday afternoon though hopefully that will change at some stage.
That was one of the most amazing moments of my life the time I sat down and said “It’s five o’clock – time for Sports Report” and you hear the famous [hums theme tune] “de de, de de, de de, de de, de diddley de, de de”, I just remember my heart was thumping through my chest the first time I did that.
Was there anyone in particular who you considered an ally when you got into this line of work and was there anyone who made your life a bit difficult?
I can’t think of anyone who made my life difficult, and I think that maybe I’ve been very lucky, but I think the point at which I came into it people were beginning to be more accepting of women in sport.
Did you hear any horror stories?
Oh yes, Julie Welch, who was the only sports reporter on a national newspaper in my early days, she tells some incredible stories. Lynne Truss as well, who wrote a great book called Get Her off the Pitch. I think the newspaper world is probably more unaccepting. Actually Charlotte, when she was football producer for BBC Sport, she was asked at a press conference “Are you here for the press conference or are you here to serve the drinks?”
I suppose knowing Julie was doing it made me think, “Right, ok, it is something that a woman could do.” The most difficult thing was being patronised by older blokes, mansplaining: managers of an older generation, sometimes, for whom women in football meant the chairman’s wife sitting in the director’s box in her fur coat, or the person serving the teas, and not really a woman sitting in press box writing about it. I suppose it was quite a solitary existence for a while, it did take me quite a while to feel confident on a Saturday afternoon if I was doing a football match – at the end of each match, I would read all the Sunday papers the next day and read the match reports to see if they agreed with what my verdict had been because I didn’t have the confidence that I’d interpreted it right.
There have been some very high-profile sexist incidents involving female sports broadcasters in recent years, have you ever experienced anything like that with colleagues in your time?
It’s very interesting the way sexual politics have changed over the 30 years I’ve been in sport, because actually the things that Andy Gray and Richard Keys did, 20 years ago would not have caused any comment whatsoever and I often think when these things happen it’s an indication that we’ve come a long way because they get called out straight away. And what Gray and Keys did was unacceptable. I had things similar to that when I was in my 20s, particularly the Charlotte Jackson thing: “just tuck it down here, love,” which is so gross. But I think attitudes have changed and I think there’s more of a sense that it’s unacceptable to behave like that.
The one thing I thinks has changed from when I was a young reporter is social media, and when you’re a young female football reporter now, there are probably still people out there – fans, guys in football – who will use social media to yell abuse at young women trying to forge careers in football, which I can imagine would destroy your confidence. If somebody strongly disagreed with me being a woman in football in the 1990s, they had to sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and find a stamp and write a letter and send it to me care of the BBC, so most of them probably wouldn’t bother. There were probably people out there who thought it was a disgrace and the BBC was going to hell in a handcart that they were allowing women to broadcast on football, but I didn’t get that in my face in the way that you do now if you’re on Twitter.
I rarely tweet anything about football unless it’s unbelievably bland, because you’re almost guaranteed to piss people off, and I think it’s easier not to fish in that pond, really. I mean, I’m quite bland on social media anyway, to be honest. My rule on social media is that I wouldn’t say anything that I wouldn’t say on air.
I think football is judged in a very different way to other sports. There is such a massive body of interest, knowledge – or perceived knowledge – a lot of people think they know. There are so many self-appointed experts on football. There are a lot of experts, and there are a lot of self-appointed experts. I’ve had conversations about football… it’s still this mansplaining thing… There are so many men who feel they’re obliged to explain to you the nuances of football and you think “actually, I know more about this than you do, but I’m going to keep my mouth shut,” or “I’m going to choose my moment to put you away.”
Do you think as it’s becoming more standard for women to be involved – that will change the coverage, it’ll change the voices, and that will speak to more women and girls in the general public? That can only be a good thing in terms of women’s sports?
It’s all about role models, isn’t it? And rising standards. So the more women broadcasters there are, the better quality – because it’s about choosing from a good talent pool. In the same way the more women’s sport is shown on TV, the more girls want to play the game, and so quality and standards rise and I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn to say 10-15 years ago, the quality of women’s team sports wasn’t as good as it could be, because there weren’t enough women doing it, but now there are more, there’s a bigger talent pool to choose from.
There are more opportunities for women to make sport a career, but it’s still not a very well-paid career. I think choices for women and girls is a massively important thing. I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve been able to have my career and have my kids. But I want my girls to be able to have that choice as well.
Do they like sport?
Funnily enough, my eldest is a Leicester City fan, having been born a Leicester City fan because her dad gave her Filbert Fox when she was born – it was the first toy she ever had – so she’s in dream land. Actually, we had a real amazing moment last week because of Vardy’s goal against Liverpool. I came down for breakfast, and I’d been out the day before so I’d not seen the match, and she said “Oh my god, mum, did you see Vardy’s goal?” I thought – she’s seen it, you know – she gets it. She’s in love with sport – this is huge for her! I texted her dad and said “you’d be so proud of what she’s just said.”
I remember being in the car towards the end of last season when Leicester were going on their great run and avoided relegation, and just sitting there listening to the commentary on the Leicester game on 5Live, and my daughter leaping around in her seat and punching the air, and I thought “this is fantastic.”
What do you think about this season – it’s very exciting. Do you think Leicester can win the league?
Of course they can.
Do you think they will?
I don’t see why they shouldn’t. People are expecting them to fail.
What do you think it would mean if Leicester won the league? What do you think it would do for the game?
If you look at the paper, it’s all football, football, football. It eats sport coverage, basically. And also Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City… it’s great to hear about teams that aren’t Man United, Man City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal.
I’d love to make it more simple and I’d love to bring everything back to the just the simple enjoyment of playing the game and not being obsessed with massive big money transfers, all the time, and which incredibly expensive Brazilian Man City are going to blow squillions on in the transfer window. It’s the kind of narrative which is all about money, and this kind of sense of entitlement that the top clubs have, that they’re always going to be the top five. It’s as simple as we love underdogs, I think. You know, we love the unexpected – sport should be unexpected. It’s boring to have the same five teams – or the same three teams – always winning the Premier League. You know, if you look at the years in the Premier League, the problem is people don’t remember an era before the Premier League started. Since Blackburn Rovers, the only teams that have won the Premier League are Man City, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Who do you want to win the league?
I shouldn’t say this – I’m really torn. Obviously I want Arsenal to win the league, but I think we’ll be lucky at this stage. If it’s not Arsenal then I want Leicester to win, partly for my daughter and extended family in Leicestershire and partly because I love the story and the honesty about it. I love the refreshing way that story has unfolded this season.
You can follow Eleanor Oldroyd on Twitter (but don’t expect her to say anything too controversial @ellyoldroyd)
You can follow Jennifer Offord on Twitter (@inspireajen)