Kelli Underwood’s voice has always stood out from the crowd in her pioneering career as a sports broadcaster.
She was reluctantly thrown into the commentary box early in her career and became the first woman to call AFL competition matches on TV and radio, following the example set by the likes of Jenny Williams, who commentated on the SANFL in the late 1980s.
She has endured significant challenges along the way but is now a well-respected commentator and host of Offsiders on ABC TV, as well as the co-host of The Back Page on Fox Sports.
Underwood shared her career journey with Niav Owens as part of Grandstand’s Trailblazing Women in Sport series.
There have been trailblazing female sports hosts, especially on the ABC, but commentary is a really different skill, an area where female voices are still really rare. What sparked your desire to call the action?
You’re right. We’re talking about ball-by-ball commentators here, which is very different to hosting, boundary riding or special comments in a commentary box. I’ve only ever been able to count half a dozen other women that do it in the world.
As for my desire, I would love to be able to tell you a great fairytale story that when I was five, I dreamt of being the first woman doing it in the AFL, but that wasn’t the truth at all. The truth in simple terms was, I was working at 3AW going back about 18 years ago, and I worked for two years in a commentary box with Rex Hunt.
I had a nice night with friends the night before, so I was a bit tired and I was sitting at the back of the commentary box and it was a boring game at the MCG and Rex is — as we know — out there and crazy and he said, ‘Why don’t you jump in and call a quarter with me?’.
Before that moment I had never ever thought about calling play-by-play commentary because I’d never seen it, I’d never been exposed to it, I didn’t even question why I couldn’t do it. As bizarre as it sounds, Rex Hunt planted the seed.
Did you hesitate in the moment when he did plant that seed? Because a huge amount of preparation goes into what you do week to week, and in that moment with no preparation, you would have been stepping into a really foreign environment.
I had seen behind the scenes what sort of preparation goes into it and how difficult it is to do, so of course, I said ‘no’. But he’s [Hunt] tall, he’s intimidating, and he got his way.
Honestly, I did it for a quarter and I hated it, and I drove out of the MCG and I think I rang my mum in tears and I said, ‘I’m never doing that ever again’. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that the ABC approached me around the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and they were short of all their great commentators and they needed a game called in Sydney.
The then-executive producer Susie Robinson basically shouted me coffee and begged me to do this game. I remember her saying back then, ‘One day you’ll be a broadcaster and not a reporter’ and I never believed her, I thought she was crazy as well. I did the game and it has been baby steps since then, really.
There’s extra pressure that comes with being the first female to give play-by-play commentary a crack on what is a very public stage, so that is a serious pressure cooker.
I’ll be brutally honest, initially, it was terrifying and intimidating and overwhelming, and the most pressure I felt was [not to] stuff it up because I didn’t want to make it harder for the women that would follow me.
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I knew that if I didn’t do a good job in the end that it would make it a lot tougher for the next group coming through.
Like anything you improve with practice, I’ve been doing it now for a decade, so it’s become fun. I buzz when I walk into a commentary box now, I absolutely love my colleagues. I commentate every Friday night during the AFL season with Alister Nicholson, who’s not only an impressive colleague but a great friend.
And bottom line — sport’s meant to be fun. It should be fun, and the early days for obvious reasons it wasn’t fun, and I was a little relieved after two years with the television broadcast that I didn’t go on.
I grew up loving sport, I got into radio and I wanted to be a good radio reporter, and then I got into TV and I wanted to be a good TV reporter. And then I was thrown in the commentary box and I discovered what I wanted to do. It was electric, it was live, it was thrilling, it was unpredictable.
How hard was it early in your career as a female broadcaster in that space to maintain your own personality, your own style?
It’s you trusting yourself because it’s all instinct, so I remember the early days going on air and thinking I don’t know if any words are going to come out.
I sat in a commentary box for two years with Rex Hunt, so early days there’s a lot of copycat commentating happening. I would use phrases like ‘higher than Joe Cocker’, which was ridiculous, I sounded stupid.
But that just takes time to develop your own style and often you’ll say a phrase and think, ‘Why did I say that? That’s so not me’. And that’s where I talk about learning to have fun with it and learning to be yourself and that’s when I truly felt comfortable in the role.
I still remember in those early days having a conversation with a mate, because I was so excited to hear a female calling the footy, and he said, ‘Yeah, but don’t you think it sounds a bit weird to hear a chick calling the footy?’ and it was different, it was new, it hadn’t been done before.
What kind of a response did you get in those early days when you were starting out?
I knew exactly what I was in for and to be honest the first time I heard it back, it did sound different because we hadn’t heard it before, people weren’t familiar with that female voice, but it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with it.
@Natasha Johnson tweet: "#ABCBackstory As a young sports journalist Kelli Underwood was locked out of some footy clubrooms – she went on to be first woman to call AFL on radio & TV & now hosting @OffsidersABC"
I’d been getting feedback in my early days of my career from male bosses in radio and TV that women don’t like women and to me, that was always a cop-out, it was a myth, because where was the evidence?
It really was just an excuse for male radio and TV execs to not put women on radio and on TV and have to deal with any of the complaints.
There are plenty of men on radio who have voices that grate but maybe because they’re blokes or they played the game they are much more readily accepted.
But I have a look at the cricket these days and the three wonderful female play-by-play commentators in Alison Mitchell, Melanie Jones and Isa Guha, who are all in the commentary box and suddenly it does become familiar.
People become more accustomed to it and it becomes comfortable, and then they’re welcoming them into their lounge rooms to a point where you don’t even bat an eyelid.
Is there a real camaraderie between female play-by-play commentators knowing that you are unusual still in that space?
There’s about six that I know around the world. I know in New Zealand Rikki Swannell is a play-by-play commentator for the Super Rugby. In the UK, Jacqui Oatley has done some play-by-play commentary for match of the day in the EPL [English Premier League].
There’s a woman in America that has done play-by-play for the NFL and the three female cricket commentators. I’ve had quite a bit to do with Alison Mitchell and Melanie Jones, and we do share tips along the way. To me, they’re an inspiration. They give me the kick along to keep going.
Particularly in my sport AFL, AFLW changed everything when it came to broadcasting because years ago just getting your foot in the door was tough and you couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
But the flow-on effect from having women’s AFL is that now people are taking women more seriously on our TVs and radios, so women are no longer there because of what they look like, it’s because of what they’re talking about.
Even in rugby league, you look at someone like Yvonne Sampson and Tara Rushton in football, and Daisy Pearce [in AFL], and Lauren Arnell we use on ABC Grandstand, who is excellent with her insights.
Any opportunity with a lot of them that I get a chance to sit down and have a coffee or compare notes, or women that approach me and want to get involved in that area of media and sport broadcasting, I want that.
I want more opportunities for more women, so I meet with quite a few regularly and give advice or get advice of people, and there is a bit of a sisterhood.