January 15, 2023
Lisa Byington Q&A: Broadcasting the first Big Ten women’s college basketball game on FOX
'If you don't know something exists, how are you going to try to find it?'
On Jan. 7, veteran broadcaster Lisa Byington called the first Big Ten women’s college basketball game on FOX with Stephanie White as Iowa took down Michigan in Ann Arbor, 94-85. The Next caught up with Byington to discuss what it was like to be part of the broadcast, how it showed the continued growth of the sport, and how television networks can help bring more people to appreciate the game.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
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The Next: What was it like for you to be part of the first Big Ten women’s college basketball game on FOX?
Byington: Not to downplay it, but I think for everyone involved — and maybe this is a sign of progress — from the coaches to the players to myself to Stephanie White, the only time we thought about it is when I would say it on the air. I’m not even sure it was really addressed with the coaches and the players, and I think that’s just a sign of progress.
Women’s basketball has reached so many different networks in so many different ways on so many different stages, and the sport has more eyeballs on it than it ever has before. That kind of game is just another sign of progress, and I think part of progress is just normalizing it and not making it a big deal. Everyone went about their jobs: The coaches went about coaching, the players went about playing, and the broadcasters went about broadcasting.
The Next: You obviously had a great matchup for that game. Everyone loves watching Iowa play, and Michigan’s having another good year, so I imagine that helped make it feel like business as usual because you’re watching great basketball?
Byington: Exactly. It was a great matchup. No matter what network would have that matchup, I think people would want to watch it. Michigan, especially, coming off an Elite Eight run last year, and then [Iowa guard] Caitlin Clark is a player that has transcended not only women’s basketball to men’s basketball fans and crossing over, but even professional basketball fans.
When I work in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, I can’t tell you how many people in the NBA said they actually watched the game because they wanted to see Caitlin Clark play. She is a kind of player that has transcended all different levels and has appealed to not only the women’s basketball fan but just the basketball fan in general. When you say “Caitlin Clark,” it’s impressive to me how many people in so many basketball circles know who she is and really sought that game out to watch what she is all about.
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The Next: Building off of that, you have Caitlin Clark, and then you have other stories like the season Monika Czinano’s having for Iowa or what Emily Kiser’s doing for Michigan. How important is it for the sport to get spotlights like this?
Byington: Extremely important. Women’s college basketball is a great product, and not many people have had the opportunity to see it. I think in the most recent years when the Final Four and the national championship game has elevated to ABC, and we’ve seen the WNBA now on ABC, if we put women’s sports — and in particular, women’s basketball — in these TV spaces where people can find it easier, everybody has access to it. Not everybody has access to all the different conference networks across the country, but most people have access to ABC, CBS, FOX, and so it’s important to be able to put a great product out there with great players out there.
What else was important about that game and that day is that Michigan had the fourth-largest crowd [in program history, 10,731,] in attendance to build an atmosphere for that kind of television stage. So not only are you tuning in to watch two great teams and several great players play, but if you’re just sitting down and you don’t watch a whole lot of women’s college basketball, now you’re seeing there’s butts in the seats, and you see that people care in Ann Arbor to watch Michigan women’s basketball. It was a great atmosphere, which ended up providing for a great basketball game and a great stage that day.
The Next: You’ve been broadcasting women’s college basketball since it really took off, especially on the Big Ten side. How have you seen the coverage of Big Ten women’s basketball grow just in the last five to seven years?
Byington: I think the intention of promoting the sport. I see the networks, I see management, I see people who are in charge of trying to make viewers aware that, hey, this product exists, or, hey, this game is going to be on such-and-such channel on such-and-such time. I just see more efforts in that area, in the sales promotion area of it. I think Big Ten Network in particular had its most-watched women’s college basketball year last season, and I just saw more promotions for the sport. I just think the two are tied together hand-in-hand. If you don’t know something exists, how are you going to try to find it? How are you going to try to embrace it? How are you going to try to support it? How are you going to watch it if you don’t know it’s there? It starts there. It’s just a commitment to trying to sell the product and making people aware of this great product that’s out there.
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The Next: Moving forward, what else is there for broadcasters and networks to do to continue to promote the sport?
Byington: It’s trying to find spaces and times of the week that would be most advantageous to show the sport. For instance, on [Jan. 7], it was on the back end of the Michigan and Michigan State men’s basketball matchup, which makes sense. You didn’t have an Iowa-Michigan men’s basketball matchup, but maybe one of the next best things is trying to find one of those teams that also is connected to the women’s game you have. So now maybe you have some Michigan basketball fans who are watching the men’s game, and then they see the women are playing, so they stay on. There’s deliberate scheduling practices that are done.
As an example — this goes away from women’s basketball — but I know the Big Ten Conference and the Big Ten Network have been very intentional in terms of scheduling volleyball matches in relation to coming off of football games. If there’s a Nebraska football game, it makes sense to put a Nebraska volleyball game on that Saturday night going back-to-back. You appeal to the same audience. Maybe you can keep some of the audience that was watching the football game into the volleyball game. That transcends into some of the best viewership numbers that Big Ten Network has seen in terms of the volleyball world as well.
I think it’s just management, sales promotion, marketing all realizing that this is a product — whether it’s volleyball, whether it’s women’s basketball, whether it’s softball — that people want to watch. It’s a good product, and you can sell it. There’s all different kinds of avenues that you can use it for, but if you try to bury it, if you try to hide it, you’re not going to be able to grow it. You have to find those spaces: a Saturday afternoon, a Sunday afternoon. If you haven’t done it before, take a “risk” — it’s not necessarily a risk, but some management might look at it that way. Put it out there. Put the product out there in a very favorable time slot, so that people can find it, watch it and embrace it.
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.