For women in sports production, support is the name of the game

by Dakota Palmer

April 10, 2019

Three Newhouse alumnae discuss their career paths during March 29 panel.

Professor Olivia Stomski with Elyse Noonan '04, Marissa Boyajian '08 and Alexa Ainsworth '07
Professor Olivia Stomski with Elyse Noonan '04, Marissa Boyajian '08 and Alexa Ainsworth '07 Photo by Hieu Nguyen

Alexa Ainsworth ’07, Marissa Boyajian ’08 and Elyse Noonan ’04, alumnae who all work for NBC Sports Group, came to the Newhouse School March 29 to participate in the panel discussion, “Sports Media: A Diverse Playing Field.” The event was sponsored by the Newhouse Sports Media Center and moderated by professor Olivia Stomski.

“Newhouse teaches you everything from the nuts and bolts of what journalism is all the way through,” said Boyajian, a feature producer with NBC Sports.

Finding their way through the industry as women in sports media presented challenges, the panelists said. Noonan, now vice president of talent development and negotiations at NBC Sports, said it’s important for women in male-dominated industries to not only be able to talk to each other but bring the men along.

“If you’re going to a women’s event, bring a man because they need to understand as well,” she said, adding that a coworker at NBC Sports refers to this as the “Sadie Hawkins strategy.”

Ainsworth is a coordinating producer for the Paralympic Games at NBC Sports. When she first started her career, she found that some women in leadership positions seemed to feel that since it was difficult for them to build their careers, it should be difficult for other women as well.

“Now that I manage people, too, and my team is all women, it’s really interesting to be on the other side of that and want to protect them, but at the same time give them the skills that will make them succeed in the industry,” Ainsworth said.

Stomski said when she first started working in sports production, there weren’t a lot of women around, so men served as her mentors.

“That being said, it’s so important for women in sports to realize there’s not a finite number of successful spots for us,” Stomski said. “The more of us that are working hard, that are kind to each other, that are supporting each other—then it’s easier for the ones that are behind us.”

Boyajian echoed that sentiment and noted the importance of men and women working together. When writing about people and their backstories, she said, “it’s important to have both men and women sitting at the table.”

Each of the women talked about breaking into the industry, which often starts with internships.

“I was getting people food and throwing out trash and sitting in a production truck, observing everything,” Noonan said of her first internship at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “It was the highs and the lows, but you see both when you’re an intern.”

Boyajian started out in the NBC Page Program, with rotations including the “Today” show, “Saturday Night Live” and CNBC.

“The greatest part about the page program is you really get to see all the different departments at NBC,” she said.

Boyajian went through “five years of entry-level positions” before finally finding a long-term position. After finishing as a page, she became a coordinator for Bravo, then an assistant for Dick Ebersol, a senior adviser for NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. After that, she accepted another entry-level position as a production assistant in the features group, where she eventually worked her way up to feature producer.

“I did a lot of entry-level work,” Boyajian said, “and it was all very much worth it.”

Ainsworth stressed the importance of not taking any job, but waiting for the right one to come along, if you can.

“I turned down a production associate job in college football and kept interning that summer (after graduation) and taking two-week things here and there,” Ainsworth said. “Then, sure enough, I moved out to Bristol [Connecticut] in September to do figure skating research [for ESPN] and got to travel the world for one year.”

Noonan’s advice was to say yes to what comes your way whenever possible. “Never pass up an opportunity, even if it’s taking out the garbage. Be kind to people. It really will get you a long way.”

Dakota Palmer is a graduate student in the magazine, newspaper and online journalism program at the Newhouse School.