A Fabulous Sports Babe Who’s Actually a Babe

A Fabulous Sports Babe Who’s Actually a Babe

KJR’s Elise Woodward thrives in the ultimate boys’ club.

A few months ago, in the middle of Elise Woodward’s weeknight broadcast, she happened to glance down at her left hand. For nearly 10 years, the ring finger on that hand had displayed the engagement ring from her husband, Troy. The band still sat snugly against her skin, but the diamond was gone. Her breath caught in her throat.

“We gotta take a break,” she barked into the microphone. “950 KJR.” She cut her mike—and freaked out.

It’s not that Woodward thinks the diamond was stolen. Rather, the rock was probably lying in the Clear Channel parking lot in Seattle, or perhaps in the produce aisle of a grocery store she shops at in Sammamish, or maybe on the sideline at Husky Stadium. Nevertheless, it was gone. But Troy presented her with a new one when the couple snuck in a weekend trip to Vancouver, B.C., for their 10th anniversary. Now the diamond on her left hand is about the size of a hold on the climbing wall that stands across from Husky Stadium, where, in autumn, Elise spends many a Saturday.

She’s recounting this story for Steve Kelley one Tuesday evening during a commercial break from The Seattle Times columnist’s weekly appearance on Woodward’s show. “So you know how much the minibars cost, right?” she says to Kelley. “Well, I didn’t want to pay that, so Troy went down to the liquor store and bought me a fifth of rum. I’m like, ‘Baby, you’re so sweet.’ Isn’t he sweet? And he also bought a liter of Diet Coke. So we’re not paying attention and we’re mixing, and pretty soon I realize that we’ve been using the Diet Cokes from the minibar, and I’m like, shit, do you know how much those cost? Ten bucks! For two Diet Cokes! I coulda bought another fifth for that.”

Therein lies Woodward’s appeal for the traditionally male sports-junkie set: She’s a guy’s gal if there ever was one. How’s the adage go? Never trust a woman who says she likes football until she demonstrates the ability to eat a plate of hot wings clean. You can trust Woodward; she loves football and hot wings—although she’d prefer nachos. She also chugs beers, gambles, rides Harleys, has flown in a Blue Angel, knows more about sports than you do, and can school your ass on the basketball court to boot.

She’s also an absolute babe, but doesn’t act like it. In one of the most stubborn old-boys’ clubs left in the professional world, the 32-year-old Woodward is the only female sports-radio host at the only sports-radio station in the 14th-largest market in the nation. And she’s thriving.

Back in the studio, the commercial break is winding down. “I’m not much of a jewelry girl,” she tells Kelley. “I couldn’t even fit a ring on this hand; it’s all warped from jamming it too many times playing hoops. I’d rather go on a trip or something.”

She clicks on the mike: “950 KJR. We’re back with Steve Kelley of The Seattle Times.”

Tyrone Willingham is late. His weekly press conference with the Seattle media is set to begin at noon, just as it does every Monday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, but the Washington football coach is nowhere to be found.

You can hardly blame him. At the time of this press conference, the Dawgs are—and still are—winless, which will eventually lead Willingham to resign his post (he will stay on through season’s end) weeks later after a devastating home loss to his former employer, the University of Notre Dame. Nevertheless, he steps in about 10 minutes past noon, perhaps 30 seconds after Woodward buzzes in fashionably late herself. She’s looking a little bleary-eyed this morning, the product of a weekend in Arizona, where the Huskies suffered a thorough drubbing by the University of Arizona Wildcats (final score: Arizona 48, UW 14).

So how was Tucson?

“Shitty,” she replies.

Someone begins by asking Willingham how he plans to use the extra practices generated by the coming bye week. Number one, he says, the team needs to get healthy. Other than that, he adds, “I’ll evaluate what this team needs.”

“What does this team need?” Woodward asks.

“We need success, a win,” Willingham answers. “Winning is a habit. But also, losing can be a habit.”

“They’re not getting the job done,” Woodward says of the Huskies. “But it’s unfair to criticize Tyrone’s character.”

Willingham, she notes, is a man who inherited a program in shambles—the Dawgs were 1-10 the year before he took the helm. He’s a man who goes to bat for his players, drags them to study tables, has earned the respect of their parents, and has cleaned up the program in all ways except—most conspicuously—on the field.

At press conferences and interviews, Willingham is stiff and uptight, and fans equate his emotionless face with an emotionless man, says Woodward. Willingham, who’s “so cool and open” when he’s talking to Woodward one-on-one, she says, maintains a poker face in front of the cameras.

“Ty just doesn’t get it,” Woodward concludes.

The Husky football team, a traditional beacon of excellence in a notoriously unsuccessful sports town, hasn’t been to a bowl game in six years—and fans are pissed. That’s fine, says Woodward: Be pissed, but don’t question Willingham’s integrity.

Her attitude helps explain why Willingham, who may nurse a grudge against some members of the Seattle media, is willing to sit down at a far table alone with Woodward for more than 10 minutes after the press conference, probably double the duration of the event itself. Or maybe it’s because for the first five minutes, Woodward’s microphone is sitting off to the side as she gestures like an Italian and chats up Willingham like an old friend. Or maybe it’s just that Woodward is a damn good reporter, willing to listen and reluctant to judge.

Willingham didn’t return calls seeking comment, but his reaction to his interview with Woodward was telling: By the time the conversation ended, the man the Seattle media has dubbed Paint Dry Ty was laughing and grinning from ear to ear.

“She’s a very good interviewer,” Kelley says of Woodward. “[She] knows her stuff, and I think he respects her questions more than anybody else’s. And she’s not easy on him. Some of her questions, when he’s walking off the field at halftime, are especially tough.”

In 1972, the U.S. government enacted Title IX, which eliminated gender-based discrimination for any educational program receiving federal funds. Because of Title IX, any young woman who wants to play sports—or march in the band, or participate in the Spanish club—must be given the opportunity. The ripples from the law are still spreading today, says Marie Hardin, an Associate Director for Research at the Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State.

“I’m not so sure we can say, pre–Title IX, there was a whole lot of interest out there for women and girls [to get into sports journalism],” she says. “The opportunity helped fuel interest. If you’re a young girl pre-1972 growing up, it’s almost like, why develop an interest in something that will have all these hurdles put up in front of you?”

Penn State founded its Center for Sports Journalism in 2003. Last year, some 40 percent of the applicants for the program were women, Hardin says. That contrasts with a 2005 Ball State University study which found that only 7.2 percent of sports anchors and 10.5 percent of local sports reporters are women. Hardin says that the Ball State study is the only one of its kind, and as such there’s no way to measure any improvement in the years since.

What is known is that Nanci Donnellan, “The Fabulous Sports Babe,” who got her start at WNSI in Tampa Bay in 1981 and sat in KJR’s broadcast booth from 1991 to 1994, was the first woman to host a nationally-syndicated sports-radio show. “I did not know Nanci when she was here in Seattle, but I have heard great stories about her,” says Woodward.”She was a groundbreaker and a spitfire, and never took any crap from anybody. I feel fortunate to have a woman like her to pave the way for us babes that came after her.”

Woodward, born only four years after Title IX, was among the first wave of females to benefit from the law. The WNBA didn’t exist then, but that didn’t stop young Elise Niemela (her maiden name) from dreaming. She was a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan, and decorated the walls of her Eugene, Oregon bedroom with posters of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Sports are not an act with Woodward; she’ll talk about them constantly. Talk about them, in fact, until you tire of them and attempt gently to steer the conversation in another direction. But then before you know it you’re talking about the Huskies again—or maybe the Mariners or Storm.

This is not new for Woodward: When Troy took her on their first date, her eyes kept drifting to SportsCenter on the TV in the corner. Growing up, she played basketball constantly with her older brother John, and as a senior at North Eugene High School in 1993 was selected to the all-tournament team at the Oregon State Championships. This is perhaps the only topic of conversation where the normally talkative Woodward grows uncomfortable—she will not tell you about this or any other personal basketball exploits unless you drag it out of her.

“You know, I was one of the top five players in Oregon. I dunno. Whatever that means,” she demurs.

After high school, Woodward received offers from the University of Oregon, a few other West Coast and Ivy League schools, and Washington. She ended up a Husky.

“Their crowd support was phenomenal,” she says. “I think the big thing for me, as a woman athlete, was that somebody cared. The fans cared, the media cared, and people paid attention. And I thought that was great.”

However, the choice wasn’t an easy one. “I could have probably gone to a smaller school and scored more points and played more when I was younger, and I knew that when I made the choice to go to Washington,” she says. “But I’d rather be on a team that was going to vie for a Pac-10 championship and be one of those teams that can be a top team in the nation. I’d rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to know how good I really was.”

Wearing Abdul-Jabbar’s number 33, she occupied the shooting guard spot for the Huskies, went to the postseason as a freshman, lost to Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 as a sophomore, missed the tournament as a junior, and as a senior helped spark a late-season surge to qualify. The Huskies lost in the first round that year, and after her final game, Woodward, who felt she wasn’t good enough to make the WNBA, accepted the fact that she’d played basketball on an elite level for the last time.

There’s something you should understand if you’ve never played an NCAA sport, Woodward says. Most college students cut the family lifeline, living out from under their parents’ roof for the first time. Woodward, however, as does any NCAA athlete, left her mother in Eugene only to get a surrogate in coach Chris Gobrecht. She was told when to eat, when to sleep, when to practice, and when to study. So when the opportunity presented itself to go to Europe, to live completely independently, she pounced on it like a loose ball.

The decision wasn’t without consequences: She missed her University of Washington graduation and the basketball team banquet after her senior year. At the time she’d only been dating Troy for four months, so she informed him she was putting him aside for the time being.

The trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, she says now. She waited tables, traveled, and ignored basketball—but couldn’t get Troy Woodward out of her mind. So six months later she returned, marrying Troy shortly thereafter. She also landed a gig at Fox Sports Northwest, and for the next six years covered Husky football and provided color commentary for the Storm. In 2002, she landed at KJR as a co-host with David Locke. Six years later she went solo with the “Elise at Night” program.

When she’s not watching football as part of her job, Woodward’s watching it at home with Troy, who works in advertising, and their boys, 5-year-old Grady and 3-year-old Will. The kids, Woodward says, seem to like sports, but also dig heavy metal. For example, Will has already broken a head on his drum set, and both kids are more competitive than their parents. This is a scary thought, Woodward says, noting that she and Troy occasionally face off in one-on-one Nerf basketball games, and there have been injuries.

In September 2007, Mike Gundy, head football coach at Oklahoma State University, laced into Jenni Carlson, a columnist at The Oklahoman. Carlson, it turns out, had seen OSU quarterback Bobby Reid’s mother feeding him chicken, and used the scene anecdotally to question his toughness.

The day her column ran, Oklahoma State beat Texas Tech 49–45, and Gundy used the postgame press conference not to discuss the game but to tear Carlson a new asshole. Gundy alleged that “three-fourths of this article is inaccurate; it’s fiction.” Gundy went on to tell Carlson that she wouldn’t have written the story if she had a child of her own.

Carlson later asked Gundy to clarify the alleged inaccuracies, but Gundy responded that he didn’t have to. “I’d rather let it go,” he told Carlson at a press conference the following Monday.

“I’d rather let it go too,” Carlson wrote on her blog later that day. “But by disputing the facts in my column, Gundy attacked my credibility.”

That credibility is harder to come by if you’re a woman, Carlson says. “I think the thing that women in sports media encounter is that most of their male counterparts are given the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “They’re men, so they know sports—or at least that’s the popular belief by most readers, listeners, [or] viewers—whereas women tend to have to prove themselves more to their consumers.”

Besides her day job at The Oklahoman, Carlson is also the president of the Association for Women in Sports Media, a 500-member organization that seeks to promote diversity in sports journalism and supports women in the field. While Carlson is under strict instructions from her editors not to talk about the Gundy incident, New York Daily News columnist Dick Weiss defended his colleague in print shortly after the brouhaha.

“We wonder if Gundy would have made those outrageous comments if a male columnist had written that,” Weiss wrote.

Woodward’s thoughts on the situation are complex. “I thought Gundy was out of line, especially when he attacked her for not being a mom,” she says. “But I also think, from a coaching perspective, that he did it for a specific purpose, and that was so he could go out and show all his recruits how he sticks up for his players. I think he probably would have attacked a man in the same way. I don’t think he would have said, ‘You’re not a mom, so you don’t understand’ to a male reporter. But if you go in and you have the power of the pen, you better understand that people are going to come back at you sometimes.”

In May, ESPN radio host Mark Madden was booted off the air in Pittsburgh for telling listeners that he was very disappointed to hear that Sen. Ted Kennedy was suffering from a brain tumor. He had always hoped that Kennedy would live long enough to be assassinated, he said.

In July, Chris Baker, a host at 100.3 KTLK in Minneapolis/St. Paul, took heat after he told listeners, “You know what the WNBA is? It’s a place for lesbians to make out when they score.”

And then there’s Don Imus, the nationally syndicated host who was suspended in April 2007 for calling the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team “some nappy-headed hos.”

You won’t hear anything so incendiary from Woodward. In fact, if there’s criticism, it’s that she’s too nice. On another Tuesday night, she’s talking shop with Tim Lappano, the Huskies’ offensive coordinator. “Good luck, coach,” she says at the end of the interview. “We’re all pulling for you.”

Perhaps a minute later she gets an e-mail from a listener. “Elise,” it reads. “It just drives me crazy how much you deal with these guys with kid gloves, seeming to be more worried that they’ll like you than asking them tough questions.”

“I get this shit all the time,” she says. But she writes the listener back, and says that the listener returned her note with a much more upbeat message.

“Once they realize there’s a person on the other end, their tone always changes,” she says. But still, the general critique holds some water: Woodward is, unequivocally, kind to her guests and callers, and gentle in her assessment of local teams.

Of Lofa Tatupu, the Seahawks’ star middle linebacker who’s having what some consider a mediocre season, Woodward tells listeners: “Lofa deserves the benefit of the doubt.” Even Dallas Cowboys cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones, the owner of perhaps the longest rap sheet in NFL history, gets a block from Elise. After a listener says that Jones is a thug and shouldn’t be allowed to play in the NFL, Woodward points out that he hasn’t been convicted of anything.

“My dad used to always tell me that you are the company you keep,” she tells the listener. Jones, for whatever reason, is drawn to trouble, she says, but that doesn’t mean that he’s a bad guy. (This conversation took place before the NFL suspended Jones indefinitely for fighting with the bodyguard the Cowboys had hired to keep him out of trouble.)

This willingness to stick up for people is not an act, says her former KJR co-host Ian Furness, who like Woodward now has his own show on the station. “There are people in our business of electronic sports media that are not themselves,” Furness says. “There’s the person on-air, and there’s the person off the air. They’re two different people. On the air, they might come across as being a really nice person, really working hard and having a connection with the listener. And off the air, they’re a complete ass. And those are the people that drive me nuts, because at some point you’ll see it as a listener. With Elise, what you see is what you get.”

“For females to be involved in our business,” Furness adds, “a lot of times they’re just looked at as eye candy or what have you. And there’s not as many [women] in sports radio, so it’s a pretty good testament to her abilities that she has her own show in a top-15 market.”

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Elise has been successful in radio and television because she always had a ton of personality,” seconds Gobrecht, who coached Woodward at UW and is now the head basketball coach at Yale University. “She has a really good, sharp wit, and I could see her being successful in that field. She was always one of those people you loved having on your team because she kinda kept the edge off.”

The Washington State Association of Broadcasters doesn’t keep any statistics on the prevalence of women in sports broadcasting, but Penn State’s Hardin points to data which shows that women leave the industry early, mostly because of a lack of advancement opportunities and the struggle to balance work with family life. This may very well happen to Woodward one day, she concedes, adding “I’ll keep doing this as long as it’s fun.”

And right now it’s still fun, despite the testosterone-addled climate that dominates sports radio. Every April, for example, KJR sponsors the Bigger Dance, a 64-woman spoof of the 64-team NCAA basketball tournament. But the station’s somewhat lascivious focus is not limited to April. To wit, a recent transcript of KJR’s “Mitch in the Morning” show reveals the following:

6:08: This picture of Megan Fox from GQ Magazine is the hot topic in our first segment.

6:25: Kim Kardashian’s ass comes up in conversation.

9:16: Mitch salutes all the “Beavers” out there (presumably in reference to Oregon State’s mascot).

9:29: Mitch and Steve Sandmeyer disagree over the outcome of a possible Celebrity Boxing match: Fox Sports Northwest’s Angie Mentink vs. Elise Woodward. Sandmeyer is convinced Elise would knock Mentink out.

Carla Whittington, a past president of the Seattle chapter of the National Organization for Women, says her group doesn’t receive any complaints about KJR’s content. But the Clear Channel station down the hall, 104.9 FM (aka “The Funky Monkey”), generates criticism all the time with its on-air antics and promotional events, Whittington says, adding that there’s very little recourse for an organization hoping to influence the company.

“Letters are totally ignored,” claims Whittington, who says her organization was unable to find many local companies advertising with Clear Channel. “There’s no way you can put pressure on local companies that may be sponsoring a station or a show.”

Michelle Grosenick, the general manager of Clear Channel Seattle, says she doesn’t recall receiving any complaints from NOW. If she had, she says, she would have responded. Nevertheless, if KJR, the Funky Monkey, or any other Clear Channel station were to change its ways, it would probably fall to an employee to make it happen, Whittington says.

Woodward is not about to be that employee. The Bigger Dance doesn’t bother her, she says. Neither does any of the other content at KJR. She had an idea of what to expect when she took the job, and she’s never had a gender-related incident at the station. But she does agree with The Oklahoman‘s Carlson that women in the industry are put under a microscope when it comes to knowledge and credibility.

“You have to know what you’re talking about,” says Woodward. “But I knew that was the case when I got into it.”

As it turns out, Carlson has been on Woodward’s show a couple of times. “I remember thinking: good questions, good variety, good insight,” says Carlson. “It really seemed like she knew what she was doing. She’s got a fairly vast sports background, and I think that shows. She’s done her homework, she knows what she’s doing, and I think that comes across fairly easily to people who are listening.”


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