Lisa Byington is one of those talented people who throughout her career has piled up firsts. She will add another this week when she becomes the first woman to call men’s NCAA Tournament games as a play-by-play announcer, joining former NBA and Michigan State star Steve Smith in the booth, starting when Baylor takes on Hartford on Friday afternoon in Indianapolis (3:30 p.m. on TruTV).
After earning a gig as a sideline reporter for the tourney in 2017 and calling everything from Big Ten football and basketball to the Women’s World Cup in 2019 as a play-by-play announcer, Byington quietly had her eye on doing play-by-play for the men’s tournament, which she calls her “Super Bowl.” When Turner and CBS offered her the job in February, she earnestly accepted. And the timing was ultimately fortuitous, as this year’s tournament is flooded with strong Big Ten squads, including Michigan, Iowa and Byington’s pick, the Fighting Illini.
Byington spoke one-on-one with Dime this week to break down her path to the announcer’s table and what this year’s Madness might look like.
What excites you about getting to do that for the men’s tournament this year as opposed to your previous roles or even as opposed to your previous play-by-play opportunities in the past?
I call it my Super Bowl, because it was my favorite event as a kid. It was something that I always watched. When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of women’s basketball games on TV, so I always gravitated toward watching men’s basketball and watching this tournament. Because of that, those are long roots to be planted with an event like this. That in and of itself has a little bit of sentimental value to me.
But just in terms of doing the job, it’s still a basketball game. I’m still going to be sitting there with a great analyst in Steve Smith and a wonderful crew and our producer and director … so that’s what you have to remind yourself. I had to remind myself of that when I was doing sideline reporting. When it comes down to it, you’re just talking about a basketball game, and you don’t have to make it extra fancy, you don’t have to make it anything that you’re not, you just have to be yourself and do your job.
What are your expectations of what the Bubble setup for the tournament and the unique nature of this year’s festivities will bring?
It’s hard to say. We’ve had some conversations within Turner and CBS just to prepare us for what we’ll expect. Most of us are going to be on Zoom calls with coaches and players, which is a huge change. One of my favorite days covering the tournament in the past is the practice days. We would get to meet with all eight teams for our four games, meet with the Sports Information Directors, and get a chance to talk to the players and the head coaches. Now, that’s really going to be limited.
We might have some access to watch a couple practices if the schools OK us to, but we won’t have any direct contact to the coaches or the players unless we set up Zooms and phone calls. And so it’s a little bit disconnected in that way. I will say this: 80 to 90 percent of what I’ve done this year on the basketball side of things has been off of a monitor, so it will be nice to consistently be on site. Quite frankly, a lot of the time if I was on site, there weren’t many fans at all. So just the fact that the NCAA is allowing some fans, I’m gonna tell you what, even if it’s just 2,000 fans making noise, to me it’s gonna feel like a full house because we’re so used to empty arenas right now.
Hearing you talk about how the timing of things played out and the importance of this event for you, I’m curious if doing play-by-play for the men’s tournament was a goal you had prior to this year?
Everyone has goals of doing the best of the best, right? When I was getting closer to the whole event, when I started working it, I was also doing play-by-play (for other games). So I had the opportunity, and maybe my situation is a little different, because I had the opportunity to work the tournament and get a feel for what the tournament is, but also watch some of the great (broadcasters) call it. So I could kind of make mental notes, and while I watched them, of course I’m thinking, ‘if I ever sat in that chair, it’s interesting to take note of blank, or I might do it this way.’
I felt like I got a back-door glimpse at how to do the job without really having the pressure of doing the job. So I got introduced in that way. But everyone has hopes and dreams of calling the biggest of the big events, and obviously this has always been my Super Bowl, so why not? Why not have that thought or that goal?
But honestly for the last two years, I’ve stayed present and I’ve enjoyed all of the assignments that I’ve gotten. It wasn’t a longing, it was just an appreciation when it was finally offered to me.
What does it mean to you to be the first female play-by-play announcer to do this? I wanted to ask you about everything leading to this point first, but I do want to hear what that part of this moment means for you when you think about it.
Obviously this is progress, and it’s one step closer to getting where a lot of us want to go. It’s empowering to know that I’m not the story of this, this is the story of so many women who are part of the process — and men — to help generate this opportunity now. It’s also a story and a part of the process for what’s going to happen in the future, what this can do to open up opportunities in the future. I like to say that I’m just one part of the process, and one step to this part of the story.
Who are some of the play-by-play announcers that you think are the best or who you’ve taken notes from as you’ve come up in the business?
I’ll tell you this, the people who have really helped me and the mentors that I have, they already know who they are and that they’ve helped me immensely. I tell people all the time when you get into broadcasting, it can be hard to find people who will be honest with you and give you great, sincere, sometimes critical feedback. But if you can find people like that, you need to hang onto them tightly because it’s few and far between. I’m blessed that I have a lot of great mentors, I’m blessed that I had a lot of people reach out to me (after the announcement) and give advice.
We’re now a week into the Madness and Selection Sunday is behind us. Who’s a team you like, who fans should be keeping an eye on?
I do a lot of Big Ten basketball, which I’d say measures up as the best conference this year. I’ve always been a big fan of Illinois, and I’m not just saying that because they just won the Big Ten tournament, but I just think they’re a really fun team to watch. During the game yesterday, Bill Raftery said they’re a “charming group” and I think that’s a great adjective to describe them, only because they’re talented but they’re also fun and they have unbelievable chemistry with each other, and that is electrifying to watch.
They are everything that this tournament is about. A team that is gelling together, working together, playing well together at the right time. I would love to see Illinois go up against Gonzaga. That would be my dream pick for a national championship game because I’ve also covered Mark Few in the last couple NCAA Tournaments and I love the way they go about things, love the way they play.
So I have my eye in particular on those two. I know it’s not going out on a limb because they’re seeded very high, but I don’t only just like their seeds, I like the way they play and the way they go about things.