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  • Writer's pictureLaura Turner

Laura Woods: 'You have to put women in the forefront. You have to put the spotlight on them'

Laura Woods; Sky Sports reporter, presenter and this year’s SJA Sports Presenter of the Year for her work on talkSPORT breakfast talks to WWD about her rise within sports broadcasting, the increasing profile of women in sport and her experiences within darts.

(Laura Woods at the 2021 PDC World Championships - Image: Taylor Lanning Photography)

“It’s really funny because it feels just like yesterday when it all started, when really it was 2009.”

Fresh from university, where she studied Journalism, Woods undertook work experience at The Croydon Advertiser and quickly realised it was not for her, so she turned her attention to broadcast media, securing work experience at Sky. The impact the environment had on her was instant!

“Sky was just incredible. I’d never seen anything like it before. All the different people there, everyone was so young and vibrant. Everyone was just having fun and we were covering sport!”

“You could turn up to work in a really bad mood and all of a sudden you would be covering a live sporting event and you would forget about everything. It was instant excitement, it was incredible, and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was”.

Further work experience proved difficult to find and it’s a testament to Woods’ resilient and determined character that, despite friends and family suggesting she should consider a different career path, She had every faith she would find a way into the industry, eventually landing further experience back at Sky, which led to a permanent role and soon becoming an integral part of the Sky Sports Darts team.

“I remember walking into Ally Pally. It was 2010; it was the year Simon Whitlock made it to the final and lost to Phil Taylor.

“It was totally empty and even then it was like, “Oh my God! Look at this place!” I can feel it now, I was just so excited about it. And then, as that day progressed, we were so busy trying to get all these edits cut and get everything done, it was just the biggest buzz I had ever felt.

“And then the crowd came in. Then the event started and then the first walk on…I was just blown away by it. The love affair with darts started from there, it’s never stopped. I just love everything about it.”

(Laura Woods at the 2021 PDC World Championships - Image: Taylor Lanning Photography)

Despite enjoying varying roles the production team had to offer, Woods still sought an opportunity to move into reporting. Several knock backs, which she attributes to her lack of experience in front of the camera, saw her searching for an alternative angle to, as she says herself, “get past that roadblock of confidence and try and get an opportunity”.

It was at PDC World Championships where Woods petitioned her boss for the use of a camera so she could interview players behind the scenes.

“They’ve got great personalities and we never [got to] see them, because we only [did] post-match interviews and it was all about the match, that’s all we [got] to see.”

So Woods scripted, cut and edited an interview, which was uploaded onto the Sky Sports YouTube channel and quickly amassed over 50,000 views. Off the back of the initial success, she continued to create her YouTube series ‘Off the Oche’ at the Premier League and soon landed a job on the children’s show GameChangers.

“From there everything just rolled on. That was the way into presenting and reporting and I’ve never really looked back. Every opportunity I’ve got, I know I’ve worked very hard for it and I know I’ve had to really go and knock on those doors but I don’t mind that because I am very grateful for everything.

“When the opportunities come I’m always really overwhelmed by it…every opportunity you get, it’s so important to really value those and to just judge everything on what’s in front of you now.”

It’s impossible to think of Woods not making it in the world of broadcasting. She is engaging, a natural communicator and talks with a refreshing clarity and honesty, which has seen her become an increasingly prominent female voice within the industry.

“When I started at Sky, I saw a lot of women behind the scenes. Not as many as men obviously; it’s never 50/50 and it still isn’t, but what I did see were people like Georgina Faulkner, who was this incredible woman who had done the same as I had done and started as a runner”

“We were so similar in our experiences and our attitudes and she was instantly my hero. She was a producer and she’d climbed the ladder…and as I’ve watched her grow in the last eleven years, she became top dog…and she made it look so easy.

“So behind the scenes, because I always had those kind of women in those positions above me, I found my route was never really affected by being a woman.”

The transition from behind the scenes to the forefront of media broadcasting created a new level of exposure, and with it, opened up a world of instant feedback and criticism. Woods doesn’t shy away from the difficult conversations and has been open about the abuse she has received on social media over her career, but also that of her fellow professionals and the sporting world in general.

Woods brushes off many of the comments, but admits there have been times where, because she is a woman, she has had to work harder to prove herself within the industry.

“When you step into the world of broadcast, the exposure is completely different; with more exposure comes a lot more criticism.

“I’ve watched people like Alex Scott become the first female pundit on Sky Sports Super Sunday…I’ve seen the journey and I’ve seen the abuse she gets and I’ve seen her come through all of that and still go back, sit next to Roy Keane, Graeme Souness, Gary Neville, Jamie Carragher, Jamie Redknapp. I’ve watched her sit next to some of the biggest names in football and hold her own.

“I have a slight understanding of what she is going through because when I do it on talkSPORT, or even when I interview these guys on Sky, I’m very intimidated sometimes, and she’s siting there and doing it in front of millions of people, in a studio, and it’s opinion.

“Opinion is big. Opinion makes a difference because you are judged on that. When I report, I can I ask the questions, but I don’t have to give an opinion.”

(Laura Woods at the 2021 PDC World Championships - Image: Taylor Lanning Photography)

Woods understands the necessity for support in difficult and demanding roles, recalling Trina Gulliver’s experience as a pundit in the 2019 World Darts Championships.

“When Trina Gulliver became the first female pundit we had in darts, I watched her get crucified. It was really difficult to watch because it’s not an easy job and I think when you go into a role like that, training, experience and support is so vital.

“You are expected to be the first woman to do that and then ‘off you pop’, go home, like everything is absolutely normal. It’s not. You need feedback, you need support. I really felt for her.

“I don’t think people realise how hard that job is…it’s an art that take years.

In the modern world there is no let up, no escape from the abuse, social media sees it drop into your lap and the realisation that personalities on your screens are living, breathing people, with flaws and feelings is lost, often perpetrated by an anonymous society with little or no reprisal.

“There are so many things you have to overcome in order to be your best and you can’t do that overnight. When you want to make a mistake in life, a million people don’t have to watch it. We all learn from those mistakes, it’s just really hard when you have to learn from those mistakes and a million people have to go ‘yeah, I saw that!’"

2021 saw Woods create more history, becoming the first woman to present the PDC World Championship final after Dave Clark announced he was stepping down from his presenting role in 2020.

“Dave and darts for me is all I’ve ever known. It’s always been Dave Clark and he has always been so supportive. He’s given me advice; he’s given me his time and I’ve watched him be the best presenter in the most difficult of circumstances.

“When we all found out he was presenting whilst having Parkinson’s and had done for years and years, I was so blown away because, I just thought, ‘that job is so difficult, full stop’. And the hours; he was doing both sessions! Now we don’t do that, and I can’t even imagine doing that! Presenting a whole session of darts, having maybe an hour break and then doing another four hours and maybe even longer. It’s relentless and he was doing that with Parkinson’s.”

“He just did it with style. He’s just always Dave and no matter how he felt inside, always Dave. Always polite and wonderful to everyone and so joyful and knowledgeable."

Woods recalls the moment she heard the news Dave was stepping down. “It was a really weird moment for me because my boss called me and just said ‘look, we want to offer it to you’ and it was more than bittersweet. It sounds weird, but I was happy just to be the b-shift presenter. For me it was a great moment to even be in that studio for any of those sessions at the worlds”.

“My world is football really and darts just feels like a pleasure. Darts feels like a massive bonus, the fact that I still get to do that when my world has to be football”

“So, when I got the call, I felt really great about it but I felt really sad about it as well”.

(Laura Woods at the 2021 PDC World Championships - Image: Taylor Lanning Photography)

Her latest appointment at the Worlds, working alongside Sky Sports Darts newest recruit Emma Paton, is a testament to the ever-changing landscape. The rise of more prominent female figures within sport is one Woods is pleased to see, although she is fully accepting that it is a process, where not everyone will revel in the increasing level of equality.

“I’ve always held the same view that it will be a generational shift. Overnight, you’re not going to change people’s minds who don’t want to see that kind of equality and in a way, I accept that.

“That’s their held belief for their generation and its up to them if they want to change their minds. We can’t sit there and bang the drum constantly. We can put ourselves in those positions and get on with it and if they want to be on board then great and if they don’t, that’s up to them.

“We might lose that section of listeners or viewers, but I’ve always said this with talkSPORT as well, when I took on that role, I don’t want to lose those people but if that means it opens the door for a different audience; a younger, a more female, a more diverse audience, I’m really happy to do that because that’s who I want to talk to.

“People want to see people that look like themselves in different positions and I think that’s the most important thing about diversity in any walk of life, it’s for everyone.

“I still think it’s funny that people actually wake up in the morning and go ‘that game of sport in front of my eyes is only for men’. We can be doctors, we can be brain surgeons, we can be astronauts, but we can’t watch a game of sport in the same way that you understand it!”

Whilst there have been well documented negatives directed at Woods from people struggling with the changes made to the talkSPORT breakfast show and her work on Sky, there are far more positives which outweigh the comments of a few naysayers.

Messages from fellow professionals in the industry have praised Woods for normalising women talking about football and sport in general and making it more identifiable for other female listeners and viewers who perhaps didn’t feel so well catered for before.

“It’s no knock against men, it’s not saying that we don’t want to listen to men as well. We do, and we have done, exclusively for years and years.

“It’s just, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional…the viewers and the listeners aren’t all men; they are women too, which is why it’s nice for them to have some kind of representation. You can relate to it.”

From where she started, did Woods ever think she would have seen such a dynamic shift towards women’s sport? Could she envisage a 25-year-old Fallon Sherrock rocking the sporting world after a win at the Ally Pally?

“I never thought that. People fail to see the connection between the support that the sports have and how those sports develop. The fact that the women’s game and the women’s leagues don’t have as much sponsorship, financial support, their competitions aren’t run in the same way, they don’t have the same facilities. It is completely different.

“Not just in darts, in general, across so many different sports…but it takes time, and it takes investment. That’s how things develop, so there is no reason why, in the future our tournaments, the Worlds for example, won’t have more women in it.

“You have to put women in the forefront. You have to put the spotlight on them. You have to help them grow. Otherwise you’re trying to say they’ve got get to this level, with half the tools that you have to get to that level. Which is what makes what Fallon did even more impressive.”

(Fallon Sherrock after beating Ted Evetts at the 2020 PDC World Championships - Image: Taylor Lanning Photography)

Impressive it was. Sherrock became the first woman to win a match at the PDC World Championships, beating Ted Evetts and followed up her initial win by despatching Mensur Suljovic before losing 4-2 to Chris Dobey. Her achievements, and the media frenzy that ensued saw Sherrock become an overnight sensation and raised the profile of women’s darts.

“The thing that I always think was amazing about that is the people that didn’t want to accept it, she would have had to gone on and become world champion for them to accept her…So it’s not enough that’s she’s qualified and she’s in the tournament, you need her to be a world champion for you to believe that women can play darts?”

“What about all the other people in the tournament that don’t go on to become world champion? And actually never in their lives become world champion?”

“That was the perfect indicator of a woman having to work harder in a male industry, because it’s not just enough to be there, you have to be better than everyone else and if you’re not, you are scrutinised much more.”

You can tune into Laura Woods from 6am Monday to Friday on talkSPORT breakfast or catch her on Sky Sports.

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