Sarah Baicker is Comcast SportsNet's Philadelphia Flyers reporter. Baicker developed her confidence and strength playing hockey as a youth. She discovered journalism during her studies at Medill and Washington University. Sarah doesn't revel in her role as the only female reporter in the Flyers' locker room and the press box. In fact, it's a situation she is trying to change with her broad media presence and a hockey camp for girls that she will launch next summer.
Learn more about Sarah below...
Your father exposed you to hockey at an early age. What are some of your first memories of the sport?
Oh gosh, definitely going. I remember going to games with my dad and sitting close to the ice. I remember how big players were and how fast the game was. I was always a tomboy, but I was never into playing sports as a very, very, very young kid. I played t ball, soccer, and softball like everybody, but nothing ever got me going. My dad was a big sports fan, he took us to everything and I remember going to games at the spectrum. You know when you experience something that you want to get into or know more about? That’s what it was like from the get go.
What is it that you love about hockey?
Now, playing. That’s been a huge part of it for me. I’ve never been the kind of person who can like something without trying it and that goes for everything in my life. When I was a little kid who liked pony’s I was a horseback rider, so on and so forth.
I love the speed, I love the intensity, I love the fluidity, and I was just hooked. I don’t even have the words for it. I know I’m a writer, but I don’t have the words for it. I loved it.
What has playing hockey taught you about yourself?
It’s taught me that I’m a lot tougher than I thought I was. I’m capable of a lot more than I maybe thought I was. I played all of the sports that little kids play because you do and I was never good at any of them. I grew up playing the flute, I was good at that. I was never good at those teen sports.
But hockey, playing against women and against men— I do both now— has taught me that I’m a lot stronger than I really thought I was and I’m a lot about my body, what I’m capable of. That I can be fearless because by my nature I’m an anxious person but I find that when I play hockey, I tend to put blinders on and I just go do it.
Why do you think hockey is such a positive experience for young women?
Obviously there is the team building aspect. You learn to rely on other people, to protect, defend, and work with you to succeed. That’s huge. It’s non-contact, and I say that with air quotes because there’s no such thing as non-contact hockey. It’s a physical sport whether you’re playing in a full checking league, or a women’s league, which doesn’t allow checking. People get injured. You have to rely on everybody to be safe and competitive. That’s a huge thing to take away.
I’ve met some really great people and I’ve developed relationships with women who are usually also really strong and complex. Women who play hockey are rare, not as rare as when I started, but I pretty much know every women between 18 and 50 who plays in the Philadelphia area.
As a kid, you see other women who are like you. I often struggled with friendships. I didn’t necessarily fit in, but I met a lot of other women who didn’t necessarily fit in who were complex and interesting and I learned that there were other people like me and I think that it was really important for me when I played in high school and even now.
Why do you think you didn’t fit in as a kid?
A couple of reasons. I was kind of an artsy, nerdy weird little kid. I never was a girly girl. I wasn’t into makeup. I remember going to a sleepover party that my parents made me go to when I moved. I moved from Center City [Philadelphia] to Bucks County [Pennsylvania] in third grade. I remember going to the sleepover party and all of the girls wanted to take turns running on the treadmill and do makeup and hair and stuff. People who know me know that I have very big curly hair that’s unmanageable and I wore it like that then. All of the girls wanted to comb it out and do stuff with it. That was what girls wanted to do then by and large, and that was not me. I wanted to go creek walking with my neighbors who were boys, and I was coming home with bruised knees and shins, which I still do. I was different. I came from the city and I moved to the country and I stood out in a lot of ways.
I was smart, and when you’re a smart kid and call attention to yourself in that way other kids have a field day. I was stubborn too. The older you get, the more you learn how to play the game. I was not good at playing the game. As a little kid, I didn’t want to. I liked doing the things I did, and I didn’t like doing the things I didn’t like doing. I didn’t understand that sometimes you have to give, and not just take.
Was your decision to pursue journalism fueled by your love of hockey? Was your plan to return to the sport after college?
Starting around 7th or 8th grade I became known as the girl who really liked hockey. In my 8th grade yearbook, there was a prediction that I was going to play for the Flyers on something like that. Even before that time, I always wrote. My mom found books I wrote a second grader. That’s been the theme since well before hockey was anything.
I went to journalism school because somewhere along the line I figured out that it was the best fit for me to work in media somehow somewhere. In college I did not set out to do sports reporting at all. In fact, when I first started writing I covered local government. I worked on Capitol Hill briefly. I did healthcare writing, feature writing, food writing. I fell into it here. I was working for NBC10 and they were going through some layoffs. I wasn’t one of the people [laid off] but I could feel more coming, and I started looking for other opportunities and there was an opening [for a digital producer] at Comcast SportsNet in early 2009. I got it, and here I am!
What was it like transitioning into a new role at CSN?
The NBC position was really easy for me. I was sort of blogging, writing whatever I wanted. I had a lot of freedom and I had never really worked in sports. I knew there was a lot of competition. A lot of people want to work in sports. A lot of men. I was going to stand out because I wasn’t a man, and I was new to it. I didn’t have the background that most of the others had. At NBC my background was typical. I never spent time covering teams from my school newspaper. I never spent time covering high school for the local newspaper. I had no experience. I wrote some feature stories about women’s hockey teams in St. Louis but that was it. I was nervous. I joined the digital team even though I do television now. I was the only girl. I still am the only girl. I was the diversity, is what I joked.
They needed somebody whose focus was hockey, because none of the guys who were working there at the time were hockey guys. They needed someone to focus on the sport, but not to really cover it all the way. I sort of bullied my way into it.
Do you remember your first broadcast?
I remember the first time I went on. The vast majority of what I do is talk on debate shows, which are really easy now. I do typical news reporting too, that I’m still getting used to.
I was travelling and I was just about to get home from a game I was covering. They called and they said ‘hey, they want to put you on Daily News live. Do you want to come in and do it?’ It’s now called Philly Sports Talk. I had been bugging them for a while. I wanted a chance to do it. I remember I was tired that day, and I actually lived above a hair salon. I hustled down to the hair salon and got a blow out. Anything to up my confidence! I went through my closet and was like, ‘shoot!’ I never wore jackets. I have trouble finding button up shirts. I’m curvy. I figured something out, and went down there. They did my makeup and all of that stuff, which was funny. I was never somebody who wore makeup ever.
I remember they called my name, and I walked out into the set to do it and I did it. It was totally fine, totally fun. Everybody went easy on me at the time. Afterward the news director called me to her office and this is what I’ll always remember. She said ‘you did really well; we purposefully didn’t give you any coaching ahead of time because we wanted to see what you were like. Here’s the key: you’re a woman. Never forget to wear lipstick. It’s always important to wear lipstick on air, otherwise it ages you.’
Were there people around you who were skeptical of your dreams? Perhaps people who thought that you wouldn’t be taken seriously as a woman reporting on a sport like hockey?
I was lucky at Comcast SportsNet. At CSN the guy who was in front of me, Tim Panaccio, is our Flyers reporter. It was his idea for me to start covering games. He was supportive from the get go. He has daughters so I’m sure that plays into it. He was great. Our news director is a woman and she always stood behind me and encouraged me and supported me doing things on television. My web team of guys are like 10 older and younger brothers. Outside of that, not the case.
I remember my first year was the year that the Flyers went to the Stanley Cup finals. I started traveling full time with the press corps. Everyone was nice enough to me, but I remember somewhere toward the end we were in Montreal and it was the last series before the whole thing came to an end. One of the writers pulled me aside and he said ‘just want to let you know that this other writer— who is sort of the oldest, most established writer on the beat—he said to me that he was suspicious of you, he wasn’t really sure he could trust you being a woman. What were your goals and aspirations?’
I know things happen behind my back. I know people say things. Certainly on social media or I’ll get emails saying ‘you’re just a girl; you want to be in the locker room. You just want to look at guys naked.’ Yeah right.
I have been lucky. Even though there are very few women around me most of the time, the guys who have been around for the most part have been very good.
Do you ever get a vibe from the athletes that they’re not taking you seriously?
I’m lucky in that most of the Flyers know that I play. That helps. I remember when a couple of them saw me skate for the first time; it changed a lot of opinions. I also think hockey players are easier to deal with than most other athletes. I had a couple of situations with baseball players early on when I used to cover baseball. Just stupid things where two players, one currently on the team and one not, I’ll leave them unnamed. One walked out of the shower. He had a towel and the other player saw me, saw him, and grabbed his towel off and asked ‘hey did you see that?’ Dumb stuff. It happens. Every woman who works in sports has a locker room story or two. Hockey players are a little less nutty.
When you have a frustrating experience, is there something you say to yourself for affirmation?
It’s easy to get fed up. I’ll just breathe and think to myself, don’t let it get to you. If they see it get to you, it’s just going to happen again. If they tease you and they see you respond, they’ll tease more.
You’ve had such an interesting career trajectory, playing hockey, going to journalism school, and then finding your way back into hockey. Do you feel like this is what you were meant to do?
Sometimes. I mentioned that 8th grade yearbook. It’s funny. I wish I could tell my 11-year-old self, ‘you’ll be cool, just wait. Its going to be easier and you’ll be doing this thing that will blow your 11-year-old mind.’ I would be happy doing plenty of things, but I am really proud of my career in a way that I probably wouldn’t be if I were covering politics or something else.
You have quite a following in Philadelphia. Do you ever feel stifled by or uncomfortable with your fame?
I’m lucky because hockey is a niche sport. I have a couple of funny stories. I have colleagues who are in similar situations as me. We’ll be out together and they tell me about how often they get approached.
I actually think I get approached less because I’m a girl. That’s because they’re mostly male fans and there’s not a lot of anxiety when you’re a guy approaching another guy, but there is more anxiety when you’re a guy approaching a girl.
When I do get approached, it’s mostly very friendly. It’s gotten weird a couple of times. A handful of weeks ago I was out to dinner with my mom. We were sitting outside around Rittenhouse Square [Philadelphia] and I said ‘mom, sometimes I feel that people are always staring at me. I don’t know if it’s because of twitter or television or maybe I’m just nuts.’ My mom is looking at me like I’m nuts and rolling her eyes thinking that I should get over myself. As if on cue, the busboy comes over to our table and he’s like, ‘you! I have a story for you. I’m going to come right back. It’s about Pearl Jam since I know you love Pearl Jam so much.’ He walks away and my mom asks, ‘who is that?’ I have no idea. That kind of stuff happens.
Outside of work, what are the things that you need in your life to feel good?
I need to be challenged at work. If I’m bored at work, I am the most miserable person. I have a lot of energy. I need to be active. Gym, taking walks, being outside. Those are really important to me. Same with playing hockey. That is a community of people that keeps me whole. I laugh harder than I do anywhere else when I’m hanging out in a locker room or getting a drink with the guys and girls I play with. I need to be out doing stuff, going to things. Concerts. I’m a big music fan. I need to be enriching my brain because I get bored easily. I’m really close with a small group of friends. Having those people around is very important.
Tell me about your hockey camp for young women.
The hockey camp project, which I am now aiming for next summer, was developed with my lawyer, who is also a big hockey fan. He’s sort of helped me along in my career and we wanted to do stuff outside of my work. What could I do to further my presence and further the things I care about? I told him this thing that I always tell everybody, which is that it sucks for me to sit in the press box at the Wells Fargo Center and look to my right and see fifty dudes and maybe one other woman, but probably not. It’s oftentimes all guys. It sucks that women don’t realize that there are opportunities to work in hockey if they love it, but they just don’t! I’ve kept in touch with women I’ve played hockey with when I was 13 or 14. In talking to those girls a lot of them say, ‘I wish I knew. I wish I knew.’ I wasn’t going to be an NHL player, and I thought my NHL dream was over. My hope with the camp is to bring girls together for a clinic and to have people who are excellent coaches coach them on ice and also teach them off-ice about the opportunities that exist for them in hockey. There are a lot, but they just don’t know.
What advice would you give to a young woman looking to break into the world of sports reporting?
Thick skin is critical. It’s critical to anyone who works in media now just because of social media. As a woman in a male dominated industry it’s important, especially if you do anything that involves a picture or video of you anywhere.
People are going to think you’re beautiful. People are going to think you’re ugly. People are going to post comments about whether or not they would go out with you and other things that are not PG enough to mention here.
You have to just roll with it. That advice doesn’t begin and end there. It begins and ends with applying to jobs and not getting them, or having editors who don’t like your work or players who don’t want to deal with you. Or interview subjects if you don’t go into sports. You have to be resilient. That’s advice for anybody who wants to do this. It’s particularly important for women.