On retirement, WFLA's Gayle Sierens reflects on a lifetime in TV news

WFLA newscaster and mentor Gayle Sierens, who made broadcast history in the sports booth, says it's time to retire.
Published May 15 2015
Updated May 17 2015

An hour before airtime, Gayle Sierens is inside a tiny voice-over booth, recording a promo for the 6 p.m. newscast.

"Next at 6: A man with a gun got past security at last night's Bolts game. How will that affect fans headed out to tonight's game? Plus: Upload a picture and this website tries to guess your age. But did you read the fine print? We did, and we'll share it with you. Next at 6."

The promo has to be 15 seconds. She hits it in 14.9.

Some things are second nature after Sierens' 38 years at WFLA-Ch. 8 — the last 30 as lead co-anchor and one of the best-known newscasters in Tampa Bay television.

When the Emmy winner retires on Wednesday at 60, she puts behind her decades of hard choices, ubiquitous challenges of balancing work with family, of pitting career ascension against a tug toward the home. The stakes were especially high for Sierens, so nurturing that she's known as "Mama Gayle," and so accomplished that nearly 30 years ago she broke an unspoken gender barrier in a hypermasculine world.

In 1987, she became the first, and still only, woman to call play-by-play in the NFL. For the most part, she's fine with that legacy — all except one word.

Only.

• • •

You may have seen station ads promoting Sierens' farewell and her replacement at 11 p.m., Jennifer Leigh. In one, there's a moment when Leigh glances at Sierens from across the newsroom. Sierens looks back with almost motherly confidence. Her expression: You got this.

"It felt so Steven Spielberg," Leigh says, recalling the promo shoot. But while the moment was staged, it did not ring untrue. "More than once, I have turned to Gayle in a real scenario, like, 'Really? This is what it's gonna be?' She has given me a lot of those reassuring, 'It's okay, this is gonna be great, you're gonna do great,' looks."

Sierens' veteran role at WFLA is described almost universally in matriarchal terms — "Mama Gayle," she calls herself; "the mom of the newsroom," says her colleague Stacie Schaible — and she has long availed herself as a mentor and confidante to young female journalists.

Yet her life and career have consistently subverted gender stereotypes in subtle, almost unintentional ways.

Sierens grew up a tomboy, raised by her mother and grandmother — her father died in an elevator accident when she was 6. Her stomach bears a long scar from when she fell from a tree at age 4, rupturing and losing her spleen. She played basketball, ran track, swam and was a cheerleader at Tampa Catholic High School, and when she got into broadcasting at Florida State University, she still wanted to be around sports.

When she entered TV news, she applied only for sportscasting gigs — in the late 1970s, not often given to women. But her hometown NBC affiliate gave her a shot.

Sierens would lug her camera to Tampa Bay Buccaneers games, shoot footage, then return to the station to edit and splice highlight reels by hand. In the early days of ESPN, she took freelance gigs broadcasting equestrian and track and field. When she was named the station's lead co-anchor in 1985, she, not her male co-anchor Bob Hite, was viewed as the expert on sports.

NBC knew what it had. So when a forward-thinking network executive named Michael Weisman, who in 1980 had experimented with a fully announcerless NFL game, said he was thinking of having a woman call an NFL game, one name was among the first floated.

Gayle Sierens.

• • •

At some point in nearly every interview, at nearly every speaking engagement, Sierens is asked about The Game.

Dec. 27, 1987. Seahawks-Chiefs at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.

Sierens and the station had spent the last two years trying to convince viewers that the sports gal should be taken seriously. She had taken on a few high-profile assignments: an audience with Pope John Paul II to advance his forthcoming visit to the United States; a trip to South Korea to preview the 1988 Summer Olympics.

The station was not thrilled with her taking the NFL gig, even refusing for her game to be broadcast in this market.

But Sierens spent months training under legendary broadcaster Marty Glickman, honing the demanding rhythm and cadence of play-by-play by calling practice games in Tampa, Miami and Cincinnati. She was ready.

"I don't have to be good," she told the St. Petersburg Times days before the game. "I have to be terrific, better than the best, if that's possible. Yes, just because I'm a woman."

Despite breathless media buildup, the game itself was anticlimactically uneventful: Kansas City won 41-20. Sierens held her own alongside looming, booming color man Dave Rowe, a former NFL defensive tackle.

Weisman immediately invited her back to call six games in 1988.

But she didn't. Sierens had just married the love of her life, ex-football player Mike Martin. She was three months pregnant. Six NFL games meant six weekends on the road in addition to her hectic daily schedule in Tampa.

"You'd be getting a great job; unprecedented for a female," Hite recalls telling her. "On the other hand, you'd be giving up a lot."

She turned down the job.

• • •

There's an old-schoolness to Sierens' personality. She leads a Monday-night home Bible study. Her husband is the founder of Tampa's hugely successful Mike's Pies, and together they raised three children — Cam, 27; Luke, 25; and Maddie, 23.

Every Christmas, she brings Mike's Pies into the newsroom. She tacks to the family mantle stockings a viewer hand-knitted for her children.

In the past year, she has tweeted maybe a dozen times.

"For me, the jury is still out on whether that's a good or bad thing for journalism," she says.

It has been, as Stacie Schaible calls it, a "storybook career," one that is increasingly difficult to picture in the ever-changing TV landscape.

How many broadcasters — women, especially — get to spend 38 years anchoring their hometown news? "There's guys my age who can still anchor the news, but usually, management will not hang onto a woman that long," says Hite, who retired in 2007.

Sierens could keep going. She has long worked under a series of five-year contracts with WFLA, but in 2012, she only committed to three — and she's cutting those three years short. She long ago ceded the 11 p.m. broadcast to Leigh, and Schaible will take her chair at 6.

Her workdays are now less than four hours. She may resurface on WFLA should a big, historic story arise, but otherwise, she's done with the daily grind.

"I don't want to work until I'm feeble," she says.

She wants to travel; 10 days after retirement, she and Mike are off to Europe — Amsterdam, Basel, Lake Como.

Mike's Pies now distributes to 44 states.

"He even has pies in Dubai," Sierens says. "I can count on probably two fingers the times I've gone on those trips with him, because I don't want to use my vacation time."

When it comes to her role as a groundbreaker, Sierens is a bit ambivalent.

"I don't think I ever felt like I was paid less, treated differently, not respected, because I was a woman," she says. "I never felt it."

She has no regrets about not pursuing those six games in 1988.

"What I do have," she says, "are what-ifs."

What if she'd called those six games, and called them well? What if she'd called even more in 1989, in 1990, in 1991? Would it have opened the door for more women doing football play-by-play?

"I don't know why a woman hasn't been able to break into that," she says. "It's sad for me. It's sad that it didn't happen sooner. I hope that my performance was good enough that it merited other women being given the chance. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe everybody thought it was fun and cute and a great idea, but that's not really how we want to hear our games. I don't know. I may never know the answer to that. But I surely hope that someone soon gets an opportunity."

• • •

What-ifs run two ways. If Sierens had gone on to call more games for the NFL, yes, more women might be working in play-by-play.

But how different would Tampa Bay's media landscape look without her?

Sierens and Hite became an institution at WFLA, for years the area's top-rated duo. Sierens became a mentor, a confidante, to young journalists that passed through the station. She remembers an 8-year-old Erin Andrews, the daughter of WFLA investigative reporter Steve Andrews, watching her put on makeup in the dressing room.

Not long after arriving at WFLA, Schaible became pregnant with her first child, then fell into what she called a "postpartum funk." It was Sierens who rapped on Schaible's door, dragging her into the light to go golfing.

"I think people expect a lot of competition in the newsroom, especially with women," Schaible says. "And she never did set the stage for that. She was very comfortable in her own skin and her own role."

Jennifer Leigh grew up in Lakeland watching Sierens and Hite. She was the same age as Sierens, 22, when she got her first behind-the-scenes job at WFLA. It was Sierens who urged Leigh to apply for her first on-air gig; when she was subsequently laughed out of the office, it was Sierens who pushed her not to give up.

"I wonder how differently the trajectory of my career would've been had that moment not taken place," Leigh says.

Leigh has been offered high-profile jobs in other markets. But she always looked to Sierens as a role model. As a result, Leigh has stayed in Lakeland, surrounded by siblings and nieces and nephews.

"There are things that a job can never provide for you," Leigh says.

And so Leigh has a different take on Sierens' decision to turn down the NFL, and why so many people still focus on that one NFL game.

"People are so deeply proud that she had this first, in this national stage, with the NFL," she says. "And that's why I think it comes up so much. Not just because she was female. But because she was our first female."

At the end of her career, it is this connection that gives Sierens the most pride.

"I'm a hometown girl who got to stay in her hometown and do what she wanted to do for her entire career," she says. "I think people will look back on my news career and say, 'She was fair, we felt comfortable watching her, and she was part of our family every night.' Those are just as much of a signature to me as four hours of football on a Sunday afternoon — and at the end of the day, personally, more important. Not as flashy. But more important."

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

This story has been updated to amend the manner in which Sierens' father died.

               
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