That's why the lady is a champ

INEVITABLY, most of the focus on the recent cuts in Channel Ten's news department fell on Helen Kapalos. But, at the end of the year, Ten will lose another member of the department who, given Melbourne's football obsession, has made an even greater impact than the high-profile newsreader.

Since joining Ten from 3AW in 2007, Kelli Underwood has been an industrious news reporter, occasional presenter and, more recently, formed an engaging partnership behind the microphone with former Australian netball captain Liz Ellis. But it is the 14 AFL games Underwood called for Ten in 2009 and 2010 for which she is remembered.

Actually, that should be ''will be'' remembered. Underwood has taken voluntary redundancy from Ten, but will not be lost to the sports media, or football commentary. She will continue to call games for ABC radio next season, co-hosts Grandstand Breakfast with Francis Leach on the ABC's digital channel two days a week and will work at the Australian Open. So, despite the concerned queries of friends who assume she must be moving back into her childhood bedroom in Adelaide, Underwood will remain a prominent part of the local sporting landscape.

However, statistically minded sports fans love ''firsts'', and Underwood happily acknowledges that, regardless of what she does from now, she will always be known as the first woman to call AFL football on a major television network.

It was a role that found her, rather than one she aggressively sought. Her first call happened in one of Rex Hunt's moments of spontaneous madness. Bored in the last quarter of a lopsided match, Hunt told Underwood, who was working as a match-day reporter, to have a crack behind the microphone. Later, she called two games for the ABC while other commentators were at the Beijing Olympics.

''Those games only went into Sydney, but I think David Barham [Ten's head of sport] got wind of it,'' she says. ''At the start of 2009, he rung out of the blue and asked if I was interested in doing a pre-season game. I actually said no and hung up. Then I rang back and said, 'You're never going to ask me again, are you?' He said no. So I said I'd give it a go.''

Amid much fanfare, Underwood made her debut calling an Adelaide-Geelong pre-season match at Etihad Stadium. The judgments where swift and, from some fans and media commentators, harsh. More harsh than you might expect for a male - particularly a former player - with similarly limited experience.

''I was pretty well prepared for what would happen,'' she says. ''I knew people would have passionate opinions. There was some pretty nasty stuff, especially on the social media networks. But I made a conscious decision to avoid it.''

With Barham adamant Underwood was not a novelty act, she grew in the role. If, in her earliest efforts, she had the radio commentator's habit of calling too much of what could be seen, rather than adding to the images, she adapted quickly. By the time Ten lost the AFL rights, Underwood was far from the worst commentator. If that assessment seems to damn with faint praise, those who reflexively condemned a woman doing what was supposedly a man's job never made such comparisons with lesser callers.

Underwood is mostly unaffected by the criticism she received. The support from other commentators was particularly affirming. Among those who rang to offer their encouragement was radio and television doyen Tony Charlton. Contemporaries including Gerard Whateley, James Brayshaw, Tim Lane and Bruce McAvaney offered guidance and reassurance.

After Ten lost the AFL rights, Underwood's confidence behind the microphone was obvious in her netball partnership with Ellis. For a sport that still struggles to break into the mainstream media, it was particularly important to have two women calling games with clarity and, occasionally, aggression. For women's sport, almost as empowering as the efforts of the players on the court.

Ten's failure to renew its commitment to netball, and the other opportunities, prompted Underwood to accept a redundancy from a news room that will lose 10 of its 40 staff. ''I got to do a lot at Ten, travelling with the footy news, calling games,'' she says. ''But the timing was right.''

Hopefully, when the media-rights wheel spins again, Underwood will get another crack at calling on television. If not, by taking the first, inevitable blows, she will have made things a bit easier for the next woman who breaks the grass ceiling.

The story That's why the lady is a champ first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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