In the world of fiction, it’s known as the Bechdel test.
Think of a movie or TV show you’ve seen. Now ask yourself whether it cleared this really low bar: Did it a) contain even a single scene of two women; b) talking to each other; c) about something other than a man? If so, then it passed the Bechdel test, which in recent years has become a popular tongue-in-cheek shorthand measure of the poor level of representation of women in films.
Okay, now think of the sports talk shows you watch. How often would you say they feature two women talking about something other than the achievements of a man?
Which brings us to something quietly revolutionary that unfolded last spring. Pro sports slammed to a halt and the entire world seemed to go topsy-turvy, but some things stayed the same. “I think there are a number of us at Sportsnet who took a look at the landscape [back then] and saw, ‘Well, you know, we’re still talking about sports,’ " recalled TV host Tara Slone during a recent phone interview. “And ‘There just aren’t enough women’s sports being discussed right now. We need to carve out a space.’ ”
She and Alison Redmond, the executive producer of Rogers Hometown Hockey, which Slone co-hosts on Sunday evenings with Ron MacLean (during non-COVID-19 times), believed there was an opportunity to create a program that put women at the centre. More to the point, they believed there was a need for it.
And so, a little over three months into The Great Pause of 2020, Sportsnet launched Top of Her Game, a weekly half-hour interview show. Originally conceived as a lo-fi project (interviews done over Zoom) that might run six or eight weeks until hockey and basketball returned in the late summer, the show is now in the ninth month of what looks increasingly like a long run.
“I have joked about it taking a pandemic to get a show like this off the ground, and in a way, that’s true,” Slone said. “I think that there was a shift in awareness in a whole bunch of different respects, right? I think the zeitgeist started to change. I think the desire to be equitable and representative as a society started to shift. And, very practically, there was a pause in live sports.”
Slone and Redmond had already expanded the range of subjects covered by the typical sports show with Hometown Hockey’s focus on fans and athletes usually on the margins of that sport, including Indigenous communities and women. “This is a deeper dive into women and women in sports, and women’s sports,” Slone noted.
The guests and subjects discussed on Top of Her Game occupy a broad swath of the sports landscape: Elizabeth Manley, speaking about her mental-health struggles and advocacy; Canadian gamer Kelsie (KayPea) Pelling; NWHL interim commissioner Ty Tumminia; and soccer star Christine Sinclair.
And the notion of advocacy for racial and social justice is embedded in the show’s DNA. The Oshawa-born Saroya Tinker, who plays defence for the NWHL’s Metropolitan Riveters, spoke about discovering her authentic voice as the only Black player on the Yale hockey team; Renee Hess talked about creating the Black Girl Hockey Club, which encourages Black girls to get into the sport; Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a Muslim NCAA star basketball player, discussed her advocacy that helped push FIBA to overturn its ban against the hijab on the court; Cynthia Appiah talked about the challenges of trying to become one of the first Black bobsled pilots to compete for Canada in the Olympics.
Last week’s episode featured an emotional interview with Gabbi Tuft, a bodybuilder and former WWE wrestler known in the ring as Tyler Reks, who recently came out as a transgender female.
“The intention here is, yes, to focus on women, but to truly make it intersectional,” Slone said. “That’s a big deal for me, personally, and I think for many of us who work on the show. It requires work, it requires learning. It requires attention and digging, leaving no stone unturned. You know, we could easily make a show about white women. That would not satisfy the mandate we have all laid out for ourselves.”
Slone is an empathic host who draws out her guests sometimes by acknowledging the occasional gaps in her knowledge and by sharing her own vulnerability. She began her chat with Sinclair by revealing that she was feeling uncharacteristically nervous, and asking her guest, who is notoriously shy, how she feels being in the spotlight. “It’s not the most comfortable thing for me,” Sinclair admitted, adding quickly, “But don’t be nervous, you’ll be fine!” Slone laughed and replied: “Thank you, that’s sort of not how it’s supposed to go, having your guest reassure the host!”
Slone, 47, has been in the public eye since the mid-1990s, initially as the lead singer of the alternative rock band Joydrop and then as a producer-host on the tiny cable channel Sun TV (before it became Sun News Network). In 2010 she moved to Calgary from Toronto to serve as co-host of the local edition of CityTV’s Breakfast Television, then got the call in 2014 to join Hometown Hockey.
As with that show, Top of Her Game seeks to inspire its audience. Sometimes that means it avoids certain guests who don’t share the show’s earnest point of view. When it launched, Slone told a Sportsnet radio host that she’d like to do an interview with Erika Nardini, the CEO of the sports media company Barstool Sports, which has thrived under her leadership but is also frequently criticized as misogynistic and racist. But Slone and her producers abandoned that idea because they determined the interview would have felt out of place.
“I think Erika is a great news story. But I want to be able to be a super fan of all the women and girls that I talk to for this particular show, and I would have too many questions about the business that she is a part of, to make it a Top of Her Game type of story,” Slone explained. “It would be too much of holding her to account.”
That positivity doesn’t always extend to Slone’s social-media activity, where she sometimes takes on toxic commenters, such as the men who this week posted anti-trans comments after her interview with Tuft.
“I get a lot of those ‘virtue signalling’ accusations thrown at me. But when I see things that I think are unjust, I want to help be part of the solution,” Slone said. “So I really think that I’m lucky enough to occupy a space in the sports world now, where I have a voice, I can use it with little penalty – I hope! I still have a job, you know, in spite of, like, probably questionable tweets or interactions on occasion,” she said with a laugh.
And Top of Her Game seems to be gaining traction. Sportsnet would not disclose ratings, but this week the show signed Adidas as a sponsor.
“I get so many notes, DMs, from women, from parents, fathers of daughters, saying, ‘Thank you, I watched this with my kids,’ or ‘Thank you, I wear a hijab too, and we need this story told more,’” Slone said. “So to me, if we’re resonating that way, it means we’re making a difference. The goal is to just start the conversation, start to move the needle, and we’ll go from there.”