Omaha native Ann Schatz swears she never meant to be a pioneer. She became one as her hometown's first female sportscaster in the late 1970s, repeating the feat in Portland, Oregon in 1989. From that Pacific Northwest base she's traveled to cover the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, where she broke the Tonya Harding story, and the 2000 Sydney, Australia Summer Games. She's covered everything from the NBA finals to the Boston Marathon to the U.S, Women's Open Golf Championship.
These days, she does play-by-play of women's college sports for the Pac-12 Network. sometimes gigging for Westwood One.
Schatz is back in Omaha as keynote speaker for the April 29 Toast to Fair Housing Gala at the Livestock Exchange Building Bsllroom.
As a woman sportscaster, she's confronted gender bias. As a lesbian, she once hid her sexual orientation for fear of repercussions.
Today, with women sports reporters galore on ESPN and Fox, her story may seem passe. But a few decades ago, even as recently as 2000, a female covering sports raised eyebrows and ire. Being there first paved the way for others.
Schatz's late father was a federal district judge in Omaha. She grew up playing sports with her siblings.. She competed in basketball and softball at Creighton University. where she earned a broadcasting and mass communication degree. A WOWT internship introduced her to local television sports legend Dave Webber, the first of many men in the business who encouraged her. Still, she didn't see herself as a sports journalist until KMTV hired her as a weekend sports reporter despite scant experience. The late Terry Yeager mentored her.
Try as she might, she says, "there were very few women role models" in the field then. None locally. Only former beauty queens Phyllis George and Jayne Kennedy nationally. "There wasn't anything to aspire to. It's not like you could point to somebody and say, 'I want to be like her.' There weren't any hers, they were all hims."
She's mused whether affirmative action or her family name got her in the door but she's concluded, "It really doesn't matter why, it just matters what you do with what they've given you," adding, "It didn't take me long to find out I had found my calling. i knew the questions to ask. I wasn't afraid of hard work."
To her surprise and delight, male peers schooled and shielded her.
"They taught me in the most kind, compassionate, relevant way. Those guys saved me and the rest of the newsroom saved me. When I heard potshots from people it would be from athletes and fans, never from my colleagues, and that meant everything to me. I got nothing but support and it was genuine."
That support extended to her family. From her pre-Title IX childhood on, they championed Schatz's love of sports.
"It didn't occur to me girls weren't supposed to play sports because that's not how I grew up. In the neighborhood I played with boys all the time and it was no big deal. My brothers taught me how to bat, throw, shoot, run. My dad, my brothers and I read the sports section of the Omaha World-Herald every night. My dad would wake me up in the morning and let me know how my beloved Boston Celtics did the night before. I learned how to read box scores. It never occurred to me this was an odd, difficult activity for a young girl to love and pursue.
"What a gift. What a testament, especially to my father and mother who never once caused me to question it. All they did was encourage."
Not everybody was so inclusive. In Omaha she endured vitriol from some viewers and fans.
"People would tell me, 'You suck, we hate you. you're the worst, we never watch you.' Some of the stuff that came out of the stands, especially at high school games, was just brutal.
"Some of the athletes would test me. I would remind myself, Hey, you chose this, you knew exactly what to expect, so either figure out a way to deal with it or walk away."
As bad as it got here, she says. "Portland was tougher initially because I was the girl from the cowtown with the hick accent. It was very much, Are you kidding me – who the hell is she?""
Worse yet, she was far from her family's embrace.
"I knew not a soul in Portland You can only call home so often. Not having any support personally was really difficult. That made the comments, the letters, the phone calls sting much more. I just didn't have that ability to vent and let off steam."
Her saving grace was an empathetic workplace at KOIN-TV.
"Had I had any kind of push-back in that newsroom in Portland I'm not sure I would have lasted. Their support meant everything to me. It was critical I did not bail out on a tough situation. I'm glad I stuck with it. And, hey. look, I'm still here 27 years later."
Portland's also an LGBT-friendly place that, she says. is "not counterproductive to my head and heart," adding that being gay is not something "I lead with, but if it comes up – and it took a long time – I am absolutely comfortable."
As time went by, she was no longer the lone woman covering sports.
"It was a relief to see another female in those environments in which I was the only one for all those years"
She loves what's happened at the networks with Erin Andrews and Co.
"God bless that these women are young and blonde and pretty. It's not just style either, but substance, too. I applaud these women for going in an arena where women are still judged differently."
She says women are still not immune from double standards she confronted.
"You always had to be better. You were judged much more harshly. Your mistakes were magnified. The smallest things were scrutinized. If a guy got something wrong, like a score, it'd be, 'Oh, there goes Bob again.' If I got it wrong, it was, 'See, I told you – stupid women.' You always had to be better, more nimble, more prepared.
"As hard as it was, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes where I'd excuse myself because I needed a good cry, that awareness I had to be better helped immensely."
For all the strides women in sports media have made elsewhere, she notes that after opening the door here and in Portland few have followed her footsteps.
"That makes me sad. I thought there would be more after me. The fact that there isn't is puzzling."
She says the playing field will only be level when more women call the shots in media executive suites and in sports organization front offices.
Her biggest professional coup was getting Tonya Harding to address the Nancy Kerrigan imbroglio. KOIN sent Schatz and her cameraman to Lillehammer sans credentials. They were among hundreds of journalists on the outside looking in but found a way to reach Harding when no one else did. "Connie Chung, Dan Rather, 60 Minutes were calling us. We went from the step child to the golden child real quick."
After years reporting, including sideline work for the Portland Trailblazers, she found her niche doing play-by-play for the Big East, Conference USA and the Pac-12 (soccer, hoops softball). She likes the "purity" of women's college athletics and its lack of "hired guns."
"There's nothing like an in-the-moment call when you gotta get it right. You don't get to take it back and do it again."
Unlike the mellifluous tones of her sportscaster idols Vin Scully and Keith Jackson, she's fast-talking, high-energy, high-emotion."
She feels privileged witnessing-chronicling great moments in athletics.
"The only way we can understand greatness is to watch athletes do their thing at the highest level. It doesn't have to be the Super Bowl. Greatness happens at every level if you're open to it. That's the beauty of sports."
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.