A Q&A With CBC Sports Signa Butler

CBC Sport’s Signs Butler is making waves in a. field dominated by men.

Growing up in Halifax, NS, Signa Butler was used to being the only girl on the soccer field, basketball court or baseball diamond. She was always “one of the guys,” which is probably why she was so comfortable being the only woman on staff for the Saint Mary’s University newspaper and, eventually, the only woman in the newsroom for the better part of a decade.

It’s no secret that journalism has traditionally been dominated by men. While opportunities for Canadian women in journalism have improved during the past 50 years, women are still far fewer than 50% of people working in the field, and there still are not many women journalists in top roles.

And then there’s sports journalism where the men have almost always ruled the roost. As Paola Boivin, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, noted in a recent Global Sport Matters feature, just 10% of sports editors and 11.5% of sports reporters in the United States and Canada are women.

None of this was a secret when Butler decided that sports journalism was what she wanted to do, despite attempts to dissuade her.  In this Q and A, we learn how Butler persevered despite the inequity, how she worked her way to Olympic play-by-play, and how she thinks women in journalism and coverage of women’s sports have evolved over the course of her career.

Q: You must have known going in that it was male-dominated environment. Why did you choose to pursue sports journalism?

SG: I just knew it was what I wanted to do, and I knew it was possible because I had seen women in other roles. Very few, but I had seen them. I wanted to do sports, I didn’t want to do news. That was just the way it was. In university, I was actually discouraged from going into sports. I don’t know whether that was because the jobs are very few and far between or because I was a woman. 

Q: Is there pretty intense competition for the broadcast jobs?

SG: I worked in a digital environment for 10 years, and then moved in front of the camera. That was eye-opening just because I was maybe only the third woman at CBC doing a sports role at that time. There’s more now. Even our Olympic coverage, between play-by-play, hosts, and colour commentators, there was quite a few. It’s CBC’s mandate to be 50% gender equity in terms of our coverage, and behind the camera as well. We’re working towards that. And I think our coverage is close to 50/50 now.

Q: You come from a sports family. Growing up, you always played sports. How does that affect your coverage and play by play?

SG: I still have that sense of wonder. I know what it’s like to play, and I know what it’s like to coach, and to see athletes accomplish their goals. For a viewer at home seeing something for the first time, if I’m not showing excitement over that, they’re not going to feel it. 

Q: How do you cover a sport that you’ve never played? 

SG: I try to be as authentic as I can. For example, I’m not a freestyle skier, but I work with an Olympic champion, Jen Heil. I’ll pick her brain and be like “Okay. What’s the right terminology here?” We’ll watch stuff together beforehand so I have an idea of what’s good and what’s not. I’m over prepared for pretty much everything I do.  I call the coach, call the athletes, have all the bio notes on everybody. You never know when you’re going to have to talk through an hour weather delay, right? So, you have to have everything in your back pocket ready to go. 

Q: What would you say is your favorite part about this job? 

SG: I love it all but especially play-by-play. I’ve always been a fan and I’ve always been sitting on the couch talking throughout the game about what’s at stake, what’s the strategy and what’s going to be the end result?  

Sports are the ultimate reality show! You don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s certain things you try to predict on paper but it never goes that way. There’s always some curve ball in the middle of it, some ebb and flow of the game that changes things. That’s what makes it exciting.

Q: How would you describe the quality and quantity of coverage of women’s sports? 

SG: I remember an old stat that 4% of mainstream media covers women’s sports, and that’s in an Olympic year. That hopefully has changed. It’s our responsibility as female journalists to make sure that women stay in the spotlight. It’s not hard to find the stories, it’s just that people aren’t looking. There’s professional women’s leagues in North America. There’s professional women’s leagues in Europe. I think people are more aware of them with the WNBA and  their whole social and political movements and the NWSL being the first North American league back after the pandemic safely.

The Olympics is the greatest show on earth, right? I think more people are paying attention, and the women did so well. But we need to keep that focus and attention on them once the Games close.

 And the other thing, too, is it does have to do with the makeup of newsrooms and with the makeup of people making decisions. If they’re just looking around the room at the sports that they like, and the sports that they cover, and the sports that they’re passionate about, then women may be on the sidelines.

Q: Is there a misconception that people don’t want to watch women’s sports?

SG: Yes! And then Olympics come along, and the two most watched events are the women’s gold medal hockey game and the women’s gold medal soccer game. The argument can’t be there. And I think the engagement and the television audiences for the WNBA and the NWSL over the last year also showed that. You can’t use that argument anymore.

Q: How has the landscape changed for you over the years?

SG: I work at the public broadcaster, so part of working there is that we’re champions of Canadians coast to coast and we have to reflect our audience. If we’re not showing 50% women on our network, we’re not doing our job. But the other networks are changing too. SportsNet has a woman on their panel in all of their hockey coverage now. Having women do play-by-play at the highest level, like the NHL or the NBA, that’s huge. And it’s not just because they’re over-correcting themselves, it’s because the women are qualified to do it.

Q: What’s the most tired narrative about coverage of women’s sports?

SG: I think the big one is that no one will watch. That’s got to be the number one thing. It’s just like there is not a single person that didn’t talk about that gold medal soccer game. I’m tired of that. Or “women’s professional sports won’t work in Canada, in the United States. Well, that’s not true. First of all, you haven’t given it a shot. And secondly, if you look in the States, it’s actually very successful. When you look at Portland, Christine Sinclair’s team sells out stadiums, right? People go to watch, and people will watch.

Q: How do you balance wanting to further your career and be that woman chosen to cover the Olympics with having your young boys at home?

SG: I waited to have my kids. I turned 40 two weeks after they were born. And the reason that we waited so long was probably because I had just started doing TV and I didn’t want to take myself out of the equation.  That was a career decision. Had I waited any longer, I wouldn’t have been able to have children. That’s the tough part about the industry: a lot of women feel like they have to wait to have a family because they don’t want to sacrifice their career.

I did burn myself out trying to do it all. I was forced to take three months off of work. I used to work a morning show, so I would get up at 3:30 a.m.  and do the sports highlights. Iit was an absolute dream job and I was able to do my play by play on the weekends. But it got to the point where I’m also a full-time mom. And my kids weren’t in school yet, so we had a caregiver, but I was still shouldering a lot of that responsibility at home. It was really, really hard. It took me getting burnt out to take a step back and be like, “Okay. You need to take better care of yourself.” 

Q: Do you feel like you’ve settled into a groove now?

SG: Definitely.  I do four days a week now instead of five. I have a better balance now. And it’s just prioritizing sleep and doing the things  I need to do to be healthy, like working out and taking that time to myself. 

Q: What would you say to young sports journalists and how would you recommend they advocate for themselves?

SG: Oh, I’m the classic person who doesn’t advocate for themselves. I just think my work should speak for itself. But you do have to advocate for yourself. You need to remind people that you’re there, and you need to remind people what you’re capable of. 

I would say to a young journalist just get that experience in any way you can, whether it’s writing for your high school or your university newspaper, or digital space, having your own podcast, or volunteering at a TV station. 

I would say don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, and I still continue to make them, and I grow from them. You’re always growing. 

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