ASA Advisory Board Member Lesley Visser is part of Sports Business Journal's 2016 Class of "The Champions: Pioneers and Innovators in Sports Business"
January 27, 2016 - Lesley Visser’s outgoing personality — punctuated by her distinctive and infectious roar of a laugh — was on display in early December as she hobnobbed with a who’s who of the Boston sports scene at the city’s annual Sports Hall of Fame event held on the TD Garden floor.
The trailblazing print and broadcast journalist stopped Danny Ainge and his wife at the coat check to say hi. She reminisced with Dave Cowens during the event’s reception, remembering Celtic great Jim Loscutoff, who had died the day before. Visser grabbed a moment with Joan Benoit Samuelson and laughed as they recalled one of their interviews from nearly 40 years ago after Samuelson won the Boston Marathon.
Visser entered the event with Stephen Lewinstein, part-owner of the Celtics and a member of the board of the Tennis Hall of Fame. And she spent a good part of the evening trading war stories with old Boston Globe colleagues Dan Shaughnessy and Jackie MacMullan.
This picture of Visser as the life of the party — breezy, knowledgeable and connected — is the one that’s most often used to describe her by the people who have come into contact with her through her four-decade career in sports journalism.
But the people who know Visser best also describe a side of her that is more intense. She takes her position as a pioneering woman in sports media seriously and goes out of her way to be a mentor and offer encouragement and advice, even to strangers who seek her out.
Visser’s résumé as one of the most accomplished sports journalists in the business is well known. She’s the first woman the Boston Globe hired as a sports reporter. She is the first woman to cover the NFL on a regular basis for any media outlet. She is the first woman to be recognized by the NFL Hall of Fame.
It’s her role in helping other women grow in the business that is not as publicized. But Visser’s closest friends cite it as quickly and forcefully as any of her many professional accomplishments.
“It’s her willingness to help people and give her time and energy that sets her apart,” said Vince Doria, Visser’s editor at the Boston Globe in the 1970s and ’80s. “If you can find somebody that she ever blew off, let me know. It would be the first one that I’ve heard about.”
At one point during the December reception in Boston, Visser sat quietly off to the side with Alex Corddry, a 20-something sports reporter for Boston’s ABC affiliate. Corddry told Visser that she considers her a role model and wanted to meet her.
During a cordial conversation that took a couple of minutes, Visser offered some of her timeworn advice, telling the young reporter that if she wanted a long career, she should focus on her craft more than her appearance.
“Your looks will fade; there’s a short window for that,” she recalled telling Corddry. “When that happens, you’re going to need something else to fall back on.”
That piece of advice — focusing on substance over style — is one that Visser has tried to follow throughout her own career. Though she traded newspapers for television, she still considers herself a writer, which is one of the lessons she tries to impart to younger TV reporters. She compared her on-air reports with being on deadline — speaking instead of writing.
“I replaced people like Jack Whitaker on the Triple Crown — people who really knew the language,” she said. “When I got to TV, I did all my own hair and makeup. I really cared about what I said. It must have worked because I lasted for a long time. Lots of people are in the makeup room a long time, then they can’t remember the quarterback.”
Sports journalism was different in the mid-1970s when the Boston Globe hired Visser as a full-time reporter. There were no women — literally not one full-time female sports reporter — at the biggest daily newspaper in one of America’s most liberal cities.
Visser caught the eye of the Globe’s sports editors in college. While studying at Boston College, Visser used a Carnegie Foundation grant to write stories on the high school beat for the Globe. The job — which entailed covering games from the state’s smallest high school division in Martha’s Vineyard — enabled Visser to get her foot in the door. By the time Doria came to the paper, in late 1975 as assistant sports editor, he wanted to add diversity to the newsroom and decided to give Visser a shot as a full-time reporter.
“Frankly, we were looking to hire a woman because we had no women on the staff at the time,” Doria said. “She was just out of college. But she had that something that attracted people to her. It was useful in her job. Athletes that were used to seeing a long litany of white males suddenly had an attractive female.”
Doria had Visser share the Patriots beat with legendary writer Will McDonough — McDonough primarily wrote for the morning edition and Visser wrote for the afternoon one.
In a newsroom dominated by men — “It was the original ‘PTI,’” Visser says — the rookie reporter learned how to report and write from established veterans like McDonough, Bud Collins, Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan. There were no women around to show her the ropes. That’s one reason Visser has decided to be so generous with her time with up-and-coming women throughout her career.
“It was all men who helped blaze my career,” Visser said. “It was Vince Doria giving me a chance. It was going to Wimbledon and saying, ‘I work with Bud Collins.’”
Her male colleagues could only help to a point. At the time, sports leagues and teams had no idea how to deal with women in the press box, let alone the locker room. In fact, many of Visser’s early media credentials said, “No women or children allowed in the press box.” As Visser says today, “It was diminishing me on the credential.”
Because women were not allowed in locker rooms at the time, Visser was forced to wait in the parking lot to interview players. Sometimes a team’s PR person would help bring some players out. Other times, she had to wait until players were walking to their cars or team buses. On several occasions, the players mistook Visser for a fan. She related a story about standing outside of Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh when Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw emerged.
“He took my pad, signed an autograph and walked away,” Visser said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘No! I’m a reporter!’”
Doria said he often wonders if the Globe should have fought harder at the beginning to get the team and the league to allow Visser into the locker room along with all the other male reporters.
“The reality of it was that you didn’t have a lot of leverage,” he said. “Your only leverage with teams like that was to say, ‘OK, we’re not going to cover you.’ That would have been, obviously, a disservice to our readers. That’s where your first loyalty has to be.”
Visser earned a good deal of name recognition in sports media circles during those Boston Globe days, especially when she was the only woman covering the NFL. That led local papers and TV news crews to request interviews whenever she followed the team on the road.
The publicity caught the eye of Ted Shaker, who then was an executive producer at CBS Sports. In 1984, Shaker offered Visser an on-air role, telling her, “We had a woman who did television in Phyllis George. But she didn’t know sports. Now we’re going to hire a woman who knows sports, and we’ll teach her TV.”
Visser decided to try her hand at the television gig while remaining a sports reporter at the Globe. Even as a part-timer, Visser impressed, and CBS executives kept trying to convince her to give up newspapers to move to television full time. At first, Visser demurred, unsure if she wanted to leave a job that she loved with the Globe.
It took Shaker a couple of years to convince Visser to move to CBS. While she loved writing and adored the Globe’s newsroom camaraderie, she soon decided that a television career had more upside. By 1987, she decided to leave newspapers and join CBS full time.
“Ted responded by saying, ‘Lesley, there are only 20 of these jobs in the country,’” Visser said. “All writers are on TV now — you can go on a number of talk shows. I was proud of the fact that when there were only three people on a broadcast, I was one of them.”
Visser almost immediately became one of the network’s most recognizable faces on the NFL. She worked with CBS' top broadcast team of Pat Summerall and John Madden, and has memories of watching game film on Madden’s bus in the mid-1980s to help her understand the nuances of the game.
“We’d be riding through Utah on our way to San Francisco,” she said. “He would put up a tape of the [Redskins’ famed running play with John Riggins called the] ‘counter trey,’ and I would have to say exactly what was happening.”
Visser was content with CBS until 1994, when the network lost its NFL rights to Fox. Rather than moving over to the new broadcast network, Visser ventured over to ABC. By 1998, Visser had become the first woman to be featured on “Monday Night Football,” where she worked as a sideline reporter until 2000, when she was replaced by Melissa Stark, a woman 20 years her junior.
Almost immediately, CBS brought her back to work on the NFL and college football.
Visser was an obvious choice to bring back to CBS, especially given her experience covering the country’s biggest sports events, CBS Sports President Sean McManus said. Visser has worked Super Bowls and Olympics; she’s worked the World Series and the NBA Finals; and she’s worked the Final Four and the Triple Crown.
“Lesley Visser epitomizes the word innovator,” said Leslie Moonves, president and CEO of CBS Corp. “Throughout her career she has been a pioneer in the broadcasting industry. She has done it with style, grace, toughness and a resolve that has paved the path and defined roles for women and men. We are proud of her achievements and have always considered her as one of our champions both on-camera and off.”
Visser remains connected to CBS today, producing feature stories and appearing on CBS Sports Network’s talk show, “We Need to Talk.”
“When we had the opportunity, we were anxious to bring Lesley back to CBS,” said McManus. “She’s got a great sense of storylines. She’s a good interviewer. She’s good under pressure. She’s got a wealth of knowledge about the world of sports that is truly impressive.”
Visser says that she has a long-running argument with another pioneering woman sports reporter, Christine Brennan, about whether press boxes have become more diverse. According to Visser, Brennan believes sports media has made strides. Visser is not nearly as optimistic. She says that press boxes don’t look much different now than they did in the mid-1980s, when she would sit next to women like Sally Jenkins, Brennan and MacMullan.
“I go to the NFC Championship, and I’m telling you that in the press box there are maybe three women out of 2,000 credentials,” she said. “I think we’re at the same percentage as in the 1980s. There was a little burst, and it kind of went away. It didn’t go forth and multiply.
“It’s not happening fast enough for me.”
That’s one of the main reasons why Visser goes out of her way to be a mentor for young women like CBS’s top NFL sideline reporter, Tracy Wolfson. Wolfson says she benefits as much from Visser’s support as she does from the wisdom Visser offers.
“When I first started out, I didn’t know where to look — I had no idea,” Wolfson said. “This business is so cutthroat. You are always looking over your shoulder, and Lesley was never like that. It seemed like she is proud to have women she respects come into these roles.”
Wolfson said Visser has lent support on everything from preparing for cold-weather games (“sock, baggie, sock — which is something I learned from assistant coaches,” Visser said), to small notes of encouragement during games.
For example, Visser emailed Wolfson during a Sept. 8 airing of “We Need To Talk” with the message, “If you’re not careful … you’ll be Diane Sawyer. You are so natural, so genuine, so informed. … Yikes! Next wine on you. XOXO.”
Visser also texted Wolfson during an AFC playoff game last year with the note, “Mid-game, but must tell you your reports are fantastic. On the money, informative, confident. And you look fantastic. Smooch.”
“It’s those little things that she sends out that just make you laugh and mean a lot,” Wolfson said. “There’s so much negativity and not enough positivity in this business. And she always provides the positives.”
Others have taken notice of Visser’s role as a veteran TV reporter. McManus said he is impressed by how Visser has made it a mission to help as many young broadcast journalists as she can.
“She’s a role model and an inspiration for them,” McManus said. “I’ve seen Lesley around our remotes talking to our younger broadcast talent — not just on-air broadcasters but also behind-the-scenes production personnel. She has good advice, and the way she has conducted herself and handled her career is a great template for any young broadcasters.”
Visser believes the longevity she’s had in the business puts her in a unique position to offer advice to younger reporters.
“I’m 62 years old,” she said. “Do you know how many women have come and gone? They get to be 35 and the networks start looking for the next replaceable part. But I am 62 and Les Moonves and Sean McManus keep re-upping me.”
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