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Women are finally getting key roles to call men’s sports in the Twin Cities

Marney Gellner has just finished a stretch of shattering glass ceilings for FSN. And Channel 45 has enlisted WCCO-AM newscaster Sloane Martin to call boys Minnesota high school hockey tournament games, making her the first female play-by-play voice in the tournament’s 75 years.

Life comes at you fast, especially in broadcasting. Marney Gellner of Fox Sports North flew back Tuesday night from Twins spring training with her husband and two children, needing to wake up early the next morning for a Timberwolves game-day shootaround at the Target Center. Then it was back home to pack before that night’s game and a flight the next morning to Detroit, where the Wolves played Thursday night.

Marney Gellner
Courtesy of the Minnesota Twins
Marney Gellner
Those few hours at home also included some back-and-forth with a certain airline that lost her family’s suitcase for four days, found it, then delivered it to the Fort Myers hotel they had  checked out of instead of shipping it back to Minnesota as Gellner requested. This, as Gellner might say, is the glamorous part of her job. (The bag and family were finally reunited Thursday.)

Gellner had just finished a stretch of shattering glass ceilings for FSN. Twice, in late December and early February, Gellner, 45, subbed for Timberwolves play-by-play voice Dave Benz as he tended to a family emergency, a rare case of a woman occupying an NBA play-by-play seat. (This was hardly Gellner’s first rodeo; she has done Lynx play-by-play for more than a decade.) The February 8 game, in New Orleans, featured Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson as a second analyst alongside regular Jim Petersen. FSN believes this was the first NBA broadcast produced by a woman that featured women on play-by-play and analysis. Regional Emmy winner Vanessa Lambert is FSN’s Wolves lead producer.

Then Gellner, at the Twins’ request, handled play-by-play for three spring training simulcasts with radio analyst Dan Gladden, the crusty former Twins outfielder. Some listeners interpreted sharp byplay between them as a sign of tension, puzzling Gellner, who has known Gladden for years and considers him a good friend. Gellner possesses a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor, and she couldn’t resist having a little fun with it.

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“Danny didn’t treat me as a female broadcaster. He treated me as a broadcaster,” she said. Then she added, playfully: “He actually treated me as poorly as he treats Cory [Provus] and Dick Bremer. And that’s a fact.”

Gellner, who grew up in North Dakota and joined FSN in 2003, benefitted from FSN’s willingness to plug qualified women into key roles on men’s sports broadcasts, something we’re beginning to see nationwide.

ESPN and ABC hired Doris Burke as an NBA analyst. Kara Lawson (Washington Wizards), Sarah Kustok (Brooklyn Nets) and Stephanie Ready (Charlotte) filled similar roles on local cable outfits, though Ready shuttles between analysis and sideline reporting. Jessica Mendoza begins her fourth year as an ESPN Sunday Night Baseball analyst. That’s just a partial list. And let’s not forget one of the trailblazers, Suzyn Waldman, back for another season on New York Yankees radio.

Sloane Martin
WCCO Radio
Sloane Martin
Channel 45 joined the crowd this week by enlisting WCCO-AM newscaster Sloane Martin to call two state Class A boys hockey tournament games, making her the first female play-by-play voice in the tournament’s 75 years.

FSN has been leaning this way for awhile. Senior vice president and general manager Mike Dimond broke ground in 2017 by hiring Lynx great Lindsay Whalen as a third voice on eight Timberwolves games. Dimond found Whalen engaging and thought she offered a different perspective than Petersen, the former NBA forward and Lynx assistant coach. Whalen was, by all accounts, terrific, and the mutual respect between Whalen and Petersen added to the broadcasts.

When the University of Minnesota hired Whalen as women’s basketball coach, Dimond turned to Brunson, the WNBA’s career rebounding leader who was spending the winter in Minneapolis. Brunson, a Georgetown graduate, also proved a great fit — smart, succinct and insightful. Petersen had been her position coach with the Lynx, and they meshed well.

Dimond said Gellner was the obvious choice to fill in when Benz missed a Dec. 26 game in Chicago to be with his ill mother, and again Feb. 8 in New Orleans when Benz’s mother passed away. “We want to be in a place where that’s the natural thing, the new normal,” Dimond said. “We take the best people on their skills, no matter what, and put them in the proper role. We’ve always tried to promote from within.”

Dimond cited Anthony LaPanta, who rose from studio hosting to Wild play-by-play; director Matt Gangl, a rising star from St. Cloud State who left FSN to replace the late Bill Webb on the Fox Network’s World Series telecasts; and Lambert, who began in 2006 as a production assistant.

Gellner felt bad about the circumstances, since Benz is a friend. “It was not a celebratory situation at all,” she said. She thought the New Orleans broadcast, with Brunson and Petersen, went better than the one in Chicago, with Petersen alone.

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A more competitive game helped. The Wolves lost 122-117, but the result wasn’t settled until the final minute. The three sounded like really bright friends dissecting a game in your living room,  without histrionics or talking over each other. “I was a little bit nervous for the first game,” Gellner said. “I didn’t think I was nervous for the second game. The second game went much better. But all in all, I’ve called so many basketball games, that helped me feel really comfortable.

“It felt like (in New Orleans) we got a pretty good rhythm, especially toward the end of the game. A lot of times, a good game dictates that. The broadcast is better because it follows a good game. It felt like we fell into our roles pretty seamlessly.”

As for the Twins gig, Twins president Dave St. Peter credited club broadcast manager Andrew Halverson for the idea. St. Peter said Provus’ new radio contract called for fewer spring training games, so Halverson suggested Gellner and Bremer as possible fill-ins.

Gellner was game, though she had never called baseball before. Ten to 15 Big Ten Conference softball games was the extent of her stick and ball experience. And since she had never been to Fort Myers or Hammond Stadium — spring training always conflicted with her Timberwolves duties — she didn’t know the layout of the place. Not even where to park.

Simulcasts by their nature are tricky. Twins radio picked up the TV audio, so Gellner had to tread carefully. Describing both teams’ uniforms and giving the score every three minutes is fine for the radio audience, but the TV audience can see all that. How much is too much, and how little is not enough?

And then there’s Gladden, the house curmudgeon, who isn’t always polished or polite. On the first day, Gellner steered the conversation to whether the Twins might again use an “opener,” a reliever who starts the game but only pitches the first inning or two. Old-schooler Gladden hates newfangled concepts like this, and he quickly grew irritated — with the notion, not with Gellner. Some listeners found Gladden’s tone disrespectful. Social media buzz ensued, as it does.

“People were concerned for my welfare, apparently, which shocked me,” she said. “I was really surprised by the reaction. Not one time was I offended or surprised by anything Danny did in any of those three games.

“This is the honest-to-goodness truth: Dan and I have been friends, real friends, for eight to ten years. He knows my husband. He knows my kids. I know his wife. I know his family. We are legitimate friends. And I think one of the reasons we are good friends is that we can take each other’s crap, and dish out crap to each other. It’s a two-way street, and we crack each other up. We have a brother-sister relationship where once in a while he gets under my skin and makes me mad, and I do the same to him. It doesn’t take long before we’re laughing again.”

Dimond said there are no plans for Gellner to do any more Timberwolves or Twins play-by-play. For him, it’s comforting to know Gellner can step up in an emergency. “She’s just a pro,” he said. And Gellner is glad FSN trusted her to be the professional she is, regardless of her gender.

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“It’s more a reflection of where we are,” she said. “It’s 2019. People have become more accustomed to it. If you go to a Twins game and look around in the stands, look at how many women there are. It’s not a male-dominated audience. Women like baseball. Women like the NBA. Women are sports fans.

“I don’t think we will be overthrown by women sportscasters, and men will be in the minority. I don’t think that at all. But I do think we’re probably well behind the spot where we have two or three in the country. Maybe sports is just catching up to where the rest of the world is, but it’s a pretty natural thing to me.”