It’s like “beating your head against the wall.”
That’s how Ann Liguori, arguably one of the most successful female sports broadcasters ever, describes what it was like to be a woman in sports media when she began her career in the 1980s. “You had to initiate a lot on your own to make things happen for yourself,” Liguori, 56, said in a phone interview with Excelle Sports.
In 1989, for example, when she hoped to host and produce a weekly show called ‘Sports Innerview with Ann Liguori’ for regional sports cable networks, Liguori went up and down Madison Avenue in New York City, knocking on doors in an attempt to persuade mostly male decision-makers to sponsor her series.
And perhaps that wouldn’t have been so unusual if Liguori was just another journalist with a series idea to sell. But she wasn’t: In 1989, she was one of the biggest names in sports broadcasting and the first woman ever to host a call-in show on WFAN, the first all-sports radio station in the New York City metropolitan area.
“Many of the executives I pitched the show to looked at me like I had three heads,” said Liguori of the experience. “Hosting the show was the easy part.”
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But Liguori eventually won over the executives and her series became reality. Today, 17 years later, she has hosted and produced more than 600 weekly shows of ‘Sports Innerview’ for which she has interviewed some of sport’s greatest stars, including Mickey Mantle, Billie Jean King, Wilt Chamberlain, Wayne Gretzky, Pete Rose and Hank Aaron.
How Liguori rose to be one of the most popular female sports hosts ever is a road filled with far more hurdles than knocking on executive doors. Raised in a small suburb outside Cleveland, Ohio, she grew up loving sports, fostered in part by playing kickball, football, baseball and others sports with her older brother. “I grew up competing with and against boys, so I was used to having all these sports experiences as a kid playing sports with my brother and his friends.”
But that all changed when Liguori got to junior high. “There were no sports teams at all for girls at the time” she said. “And the girls couldn’t play on the boys’ teams. I was devastated.”
Devastated, but not defeated: Liguori and her father created a girl’s track team independent of school that eventually competed at Amateur Athletic Union meets. “So we had track meets we could go to, but we organized it on our own,” she said.
By the time Liguori entered high school, Title IX had passed with varsity and junior varsity teams for girls and she played volleyball, basketball and track. Still, there was no women’s tennis team, so she tried out for the men’s squad, made it and was playing No. 1 singles by her senior year. By the team she graduated, Liguori had earned 16 letters in high school, with four sports per year: volleyball, basketball, track and field and tennis.
After high school, Liguori accepted an academic scholarship to attend the University of South Florida in Tampa. “At the time, sports scholarships for girls were few and far between,” she said. “And by then, I was determined to pursue a career in sports broadcasting so I focused on academics and getting practical experience with various internships.”
While majoring in broadcast news, Liguori completed internships with the university radio station and at the local Florida-based NBC-TV affiliate. After college, she earned a fellowship with the International Radio and Television Society’s summer fellowship program in New York City and decided to stay there, where she soon discovered that it wasn’t easy for a woman to find a job that combined her dual loves of sports and journalism.
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“Back in the early 80’s, there weren’t nearly as many TV channels and outlets as there are today. The internet didn’t exist,” she said. “Jobs in sports broadcasting were limited compared to now.”
Eventually, Liguori caught a break with CBS Sports, which offered her a job as a per diem production assistant and the chance to help out on the ‘NFL Today’ Show. After a year, she decided to leave and work freelance, which included stints as a statistician for HBO at the U.S. Open Tennis Championship and Wimbledon, as a producer for ABC Radio Sports Network and as a contributing writer to the sports section of USA Today.
“The byline in USA Today was very important because it helped to establish my credibility and it was a lot of good exposure at an early age,” she said.
In 1987, WFAN went on the air as the first all-sports radio station and she was contacted by executives there after they heard her on ABC Radio Sports Network and seeing her articles in USA Today. She was immediately hired to host her own sports show, which she called, ‘Hey Liguori, What’s the Story?’
Still, Liguori knew she had to create her own opportunities if she wanted to become a real force in sports broadcasting. In 1989, while continuing to host the WFAN show, she founded Ann Liguori Productions, a media company to produce her weekly ‘Sports Innerview with Ann Liguori’ series. The show begun airing in New York on MSG Network before it grew in popularity to be distributed throughout the country to regional sports cable network in top markets.
At the same time, Liguori began hosting and producing a weekly prime-time series, ‘Conversations with Ann Liguori,’ which aired on The Golf Channel. For the show, she played golf with celebrity guests like Alice Cooper, Charles Barkley, Celine Dion, Kevin Costner and Brett Favre while talking to them about their success stories. “People still ask me about this show and tell me they wish it was still on the air,” Liguori said of the series, which eventually ended. She also wrote a book based on the show, “A Passion for Golf, Celebrity Musings About the Game,” in 2007.
Today, after hosting a call-in sports show weekly on WFAN for over 22 years, Liguori continues to cover golf and tennis for the station and for CBS Sports Radio Network. She also hosts a radio version of ‘Sports Innerview’ for NPR affiliate WPPB.
Liguori is also more than just sports media: Eighteen years ago, she began hosting her own charity golf tournament in Long Island to raise money for cancer research, care and prevention, which continues to this day—next year’s charity tournament takes place Thursday, June 8 at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton, New York. “The east end of Long Island has been my home since the late ’90s,” she said. “This area is blessed with some of the top golf courses in the country and after three straight glorious years at Friar’s Head, we are excited to revisit Maidstone.”
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Liguori also mentors young people who wish to pursue careers in sports media and underwrites scholarships, most notably the Jim Liguori Scholarship at University of South Florida, in memory of her brother, Jim, who died of leukemia when he was 22 years old; and the Ann Liguori Foundation Sports Media Scholarship, which is awarded to a collegiate woman pursuing a career in sports media, administered by the New York chapter of Women In Communications.
Her advice to women who want to get into sports broadcasting?
“Sports knowledge and studying history, for context and perspective, is a must,” she said. “Work on your writing skills. And nothing replaces hard work.
“Ted Williams, one of the greatest baseball players in history, once told me, ‘Practice, practice, practice. And practice the right way.'”