In April, two women were announced as TV analysts to provide color commentary for the forthcoming World Cup soccer tournament. Clapping-hands emojis proliferated on social media as another glass ceiling shattered, this time in the machismo-drenched world of international futbol.
Aly Wagner, a former U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder, is a known quantity to U.S. soccer aficionados, an All-American blonde who segued from Olympic wins to sports commentary gigs at Lifetime and Fox Sports.
Then there’s Viviana Vila, an Argentine radio and TV sports broadcaster, who will call matches for Telemundo Desportes in Spanish for U.S. audiences. Vila, a spunky, 50-year-old who favors halter tops and skinny jeans, is largely unknown in the United States.
Vila’s story, much more so than Wagner’s, demonstrates the hardships and challenges that still exist for women trying to break through in sports broadcasting. Vila’s 20-year-career slowly working her way up the media ladder has been marked by a fair share of injusto (injustice), as she frequently says in her native tongue. In 2016, after becoming the first-ever female sports analyst on TV in Argentina, she says she was fired because of her gender.
“There had never been a women providing commentary on TV, I was the first,” she recently told Fast Company through a Spanish translator. But in the end, “They didn’t want a woman. They didn’t think that a woman should be commenting on soccer.”
Vila’s termination was part of a bigger business shift–the soccer program she worked for, Futbol para Todos, lost the rights to air matches in Argentina and ultimately went off the air. But she was one of the first casualties and she says it had to do with her gender.
Telemundo is capitalizing on Vila’s hard-won, against-the-odds success story. Eli Velazquez, executive vice president of programming, production and content at Telemundo Deportes, says that Vila’s narrative will resonate with viewers at a moment when the culture at large is focused on the challenges that women face. “When I met with Viviana,” he says, “I admit that I flipped over to my own inner monologue, and I was thinking, I can only imagine what it must have been like for her to penetrate the Argentine marketplace in a role such as this. This is a special person who has the ability to project that resilience to a larger U.S. audience.”
Telemundo will also play up Vila’s story in the way it positions her on the roster. In what Velazquez calls a bit of “special synergy,” Vila will not only be commenting on matches between powerhouses like Germany, the defending World Cup champion, and Argentina, she’ll also be covering the Panamanian soccer team, which is making its World Cup debut this year.
“They’re both debuting, they’re both coming to make a splash,” says Valezquez. “They’re both, perhaps in certain circles, perceived as an underdog.”
Breaking ground on the way to the booth
Most of the—very few—women who have managed to secure a slot as a sports announcer in the United States first put in thousands of hours on the playing field or court. Women like Wagner; or Beth Mowins, who last fall became the first female to cover Monday Night Football; or Doris Burke, the NBA analyst for ABC and ESPN; all have backgrounds as college or professional athletes. Their knowledge of sports is informed by what they learned playing them, which is to say that their credibility comes from having walked the walk.
Vila, by contrast, never even played sports as a kid. Growing up in Argentina, girls were not encouraged to kick soccer balls, and if Vila ever did, her parents would replace it with a doll. Instead, she indulged her interest in her country’s national pastime by accompanying her father to soccer matches, where she began to study the nuances of the game.
“I grew up as a fan,” she says. “I watched.”
In college she turned her passion into a skill. As a broadcast journalism student, she learned how to speak clearly and accessibly to audiences, volley commentary back and forth with co-anchors, and uncover stories. Her first job was in radio. She covered sports, but from a lifestyle angle: One of her first stories was about a soccer school for disadvantaged kids that was run by a priest.
Vila’s big break came when Víctor Hugo Morales, the Al Michaels of Latin American sports commentators who worked at the same radio station as her, asked Vila to do a “a colorful piece” around the soccer game that he was doing the play-by-play commentary for. As luck would have it, the analyst who was supposed to cover the game never showed up. Morales plugged Vila into his spot and her career was launched.
Vila describes her analyst style as “sober” and “level-headed.” Part of this comes from being a professor; she has taught sports journalism at the Universidad National de la Plata for as long as she’s worked as a broadcaster and says that having to explain things to students has helped her in breaking down soccer plays on-air. In other words, she is no Andres Cantor, the Argentine sportscaster known for booming a deafening, minutes-long “Gooooaaaall!” whenever a ball was kicked into the net. Granted, Cantor was a play-by-play commentator, which is different from the sort of contextual analysis Vila provides, but she still comes at her job more cerebrally than viscerally.
In radio, Vila says that being a woman, even covering sports, didn’t cause much of a commotion. But TV did. In 2012, when Vila was hired as a soccer analyst for the TV show Futbol para Todos, marking the first time in Argentina that a woman held that job, the reaction was swift. And vicious. There were attacks on social media—where Vila’s Twitter followers jumped from 50 to 200,000—from a population of men not used to seeing a fiery woman in dangly earrings analyzing plays of their beloved sport. Worse, though, was was the reaction she got from her male peers.
“The most negative response came from the people I worked with, my contemporaries,” Vila says. “It was a boys’ thing. They felt that women were never going to understand enough about soccer to talk about it meaningfully.”
When Vila dared to disagree about a play with a fellow male commentator, her opinion was dismissed. She was often told she wasn’t there for merit, but because of who she knew. The experience made her steelier. Sensing that she was under a magnifying glass and that she’d be called out for any mistake, she worked harder, spent more time preparing for games, and learned to tune out online attacks.
She says she sought solace in friends and family. A single mother, Vila would bring her son Valentino to all of her soccer assignments, seeing as she has always been her son’s primary caregiver.
“On Mother’s Day, I took him to lunch at a game, the same as I do on my birthday,” she says. “He has learned to understand that he has a mother who cannot take him to town on weekends and who does his homework at 12 o’clock at night.”
Not everyone was a hater. Vila’s skill ultimately won her respect, even from men. Argentine newspapers have referred to her as “La Señora Futbol,” and many women have rallied around her as a feminist hero.
Still, the injusto of being a lone female in a male-dominated industry played out last year when she was let go from Futbol para Todos.
“It was awful,” she says. “For two reasons. One, I lost a job that I’d worked very hard for. And two, a woman was losing her place after having won it.”
A second chance
A WhatsApp text gave Vila the first inkling that she might win a new, much more significant, TV gig. Late last year, Claudio Prizont, Telemundo’s sports editorial director, pinged her, saying he wanted to talk to her about a possible job.
Telemundo was looking to do something momentous with its coverage of the World Cup. Valezquez, the programming chief, says he wanted to “open this up to a whole audience and make it reflective of the co-viewing that Hispanics are known for. The fact is, everyone, it doesn’t matter what gender you are, everyone enjoys the World Cup.”
To reinforce these values, Telemundo was looking for a female analyst, and Prizont was sent out to find one. He discovered Vila after talking to colleagues and getting a tip from Telemundo’s freelance reporter in Argentina. He and Vila texted and talked on the phone, and then she was flown up to Miami to do some casting tests. For one of them, Vila had to call a 2017 match between Russia and Mexico.
“There was a goal scored by Mexico. It was the first one, and it was a header on the net,” says Velazquez. “What struck me was that she wasn’t focused on the goal scorer. She was focusing on the genesis of the play, where the key moment was in the play that facilitated that (goal). She was highlighting the guy who made the first pass, the guy who made the second pass. She said something to the effect of, ‘The goal’s great, kudos to that player. But I’m really more impressed with the pass that this other individual did to set his teammate up.’ That was an interesting nuance that she pointed out. That felt special.”
Vila also doesn’t shy away from controversial calls. At another moment during the game, “There was a player from Russia who dove inside the box and there was slight contact there,” Velazquez says. “But she was quick to say, ‘No, no, no, that’s not a penalty. This guy just threw himself in.’ She said, ‘I insist, this is not a penalty.’ She wasn’t hesitant to place that blame on the player who, for all intents and purposes, was trying to catch a lucky break and hoping that the referee didn’t catch him.”
There is also, of course, a business incentive to hiring Vila. As women’s soccer has grown in popularity in the U.S., thanks to the success of the women’s national team, which has catapulted players like Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach into the media limelight, soccer’s U.S. audience has expanded, meaning that more advertising dollars targeting women are being directed to the sport.
“The sports audience has dramatically shifted in the last 25 years, with more and more women watching men’s sports and enjoying them and knowing a lot about them,” says Toby Miller, a media and culture professor at the University California at Riverside. “That means that increasingly, the commercials associated with them, the sponsorships, the coverage of these matches, is going to be more oriented toward families and women, not just towards nerdy guys. So it makes sense to have a female voice, a female body, involved.”
Thus far, the reception to Vila has been unanimously positive. Even back home, she has been the subject of glowing profiles that reflect a national pride in her selection to be showcased on the global stage.
But in the U.S., female sportscasters face critical, at times incredibly harsh and demeaning, judgment from reactionary men who perceive a female announcer calling a men’s game to be yet another affront on their crumbling hegemony. After Mowins’ first night calling a Monday Night Football game last September, Twitter lit up with complaints about her “really weird annoying voice”—an attack that would never be made against a man and that only thinly veiled a bigger, more misogynistic rejection of her getting that assignment.
Mowins talks about those and other attacks with poised equanimity. “You deal with what you can control,” she says. “I cannot control other people’s opinions. You have the choice to choose which voices you’re going to listen to. I choose to listen to my bosses and my peers and my family and friends.”
Asked what advice she would give Vila, Mowins says, “I’ve always asked fans, I know the voice sounds different. I know you may not have heard her before, but you’ve got to be willing to give it a half. Give it a game and listen to the content, to what she’s saying. There are always going to be people you’re just not going to please, no matter what. Their opinions don’t really matter.”
Valezquez acknowledges that “haters are gonna hate” and that “there’s been deep-seated, historical machismo associated with Hispanic nations. On the internet, in social media, I don’t doubt that there will be” criticism of Vila.
But he adds, “I’m pretty good at discerning criticism that’s for the sake of criticizing and criticism that’s meaningful.”
At the moment, Vila is not thinking about pleasing viewers. She’s too focussed on preparing for June 14th, when the World Cup kicks off. She’s studying up on all of the teams she’ll be covering, creating worksheets for each one that outline all the players and their professional journeys to the World Cup, noting things she needs to look out for, and so forth.
“I give every single one of the games I’ve been assigned the respect and time that they deserve,” she says. “I’m doing my homework.”