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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

How Laura Okmin is Empowering Women in Sports Through “GALvanize”

The organization provides incredible learning opportunities for women interested in working in sports.

Laura Okmin, a sideline reporter for FOX Sports, created a network of women in sports to both empower each other and help them navigate the industry. Photo courtesy of Laura Okmin.

Girls Compete. Women Empower.

That’s the motto for Laura Okmin’s women in sports network, GALvanize.

Founded in 2012, GALvanize has helped women aspiring to work in sports broadcasting gain the knowledge and experience they need to succeed in the industry. Okmin, a sideline reporter for FOX Sports, has spent 25 years in sports broadcasting and wanted to give women something she didn’t have when she was getting started — a network of women in the industry.

Okmin grew up in Chicago and loved sports. She noted that in Chicago, it didn’t matter if you were a boy or girl, you were watching Chicago sports. After receiving a journalism degree from the University of Kansas, she moved to Montgomery, Alabama where she was a weekday news and weekend sports reporter. She had stops as a sports reporter and anchor in Chattanooga, TN and as a reporter for CNN Sports in the Midwest bureau and network anchor/host before landing at FOX Sports, where she has been a sideline reporter and anchor/host. She also started her own production company, LO Productions. That led her to becoming an executive producer of her own show she hosted and produced. Her journey in this business and starting GALvanize has been amazing, but it also came with some bumps.

“My welcome to sports moment happened during my first assignment for a station in Montgomery, Alabama. I was a weekday news and weekend sports reporter, out at a Friday night high school football game, excited and nervous, but thinking ‘I made it!’,” Okmin said. “Then, as I was about to do my first live shot, the high school’s head coach walked up to me with a football in one hand and a basketball in the other and asked if I knew the difference between the two. That moment changed me from then until I got older.”

Okmin admitted she probably got defensive about understanding the weight that came with being a woman in sports. As her career grew, employers started sending young women looking to get into sports broadcasting to Okmin for job shadows and coaching because they knew how much she loved mentoring. During the job shadows, she would ask the girls how many times they had done something [that happened during the shadow]. To her surprise, “never” was the usual answer.

Okmin’s most recent boot camp was hosted by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Photo courtesy of Laura Okmin.

With women getting more opportunities in sports now compared to when she started, Okmin wanted to do her part in making sure women could actually navigate the industry and that they knew it’s more than X’s and O’s.

“I started getting protective of the girls who were sent my way and getting opportunities in the industry. I got tired of hearing coaches complain about women not knowing what they were talking about, not being prepared for interviews and opportunities they weren’t ready for. I wanted to change that,” Okmin said.

Enter GALvanize.

When it first started, Okmin said it was hard to find enough women to participate. Now, there aren’t enough spots. She likes to keep the boot camps smaller and more intimate, so the women can get to know each other and so she can get to know them better. In the beginning, her veterans would sign up for boot camps as soon as a new one was announced, but it quickly got to a point where there were too many veterans and not enough rookies. Now, girls have to apply by submitting an essay saying why they want to get into the sports world, how they view women in the industry, or talk about the most important woman who galvanized them. She said having so many women who want to participate is a “wonderful horrible problem to have” and that it’s lovely so many people are signing up.

According to Okmin, the first boot camp was more of a “how can she help” than a boot camp, meeting with girls who wanted to get into sports broadcasting for a few days. Then, two years ago, GALvanize became what it is today — it shifted from women who wanted to be on camera to women who just want to be in sports. Each boot camp is spent working with a team, learning the in’s and out’s of broadcasting and being in a front office.

Ashley Cox, a fill-in producer and board op for 710 ESPN Seattle radio, has attended three GALvanize boot camps. She heard about Okmin and GALvanize in October 2016, when her dad was watching an HBO special on women in sports. As one of the featured women, Okmin’s story stood out to him, so he told Cox to look up her and the GALvanize program. Cox was impressed with what she saw, so she reached out to Okmin and followed her on social media. Just 24 hours later, Okmin followed her back on Twitter and emailed her.

“I emailed the website, expecting to talk to someone from her team, but she personally emailed me back,” Cox said. “From there, we set up a phone conversation and talked about where I wanted to go in my career. When I told her I wanted to get into sideline reporting, she said that was just the beginning and that I need the whole meat and potatoes. She invited me to her boot camp with the United States Women’s Hockey Team and I immediately said yes. A few weeks later, I was on a plane to Plymouth, Michigan.”

Ashley Cox, left, is an aspiring sideline reporter and has attended three GALvanize boot camps. Photo courtesy of Laura Okmin.

Cox and Okmin both said each boot camp is different, while having the same overall structure. Okmin said the girls can spend all day with a team, meeting with several people in the organization and learning the different avenues of a front office. They also meet with coaches and players to conduct interviews and gain experience in reporting and broadcasting. Okmin also makes sure to take time during the first day to go over research, questions, story angles and wardrobe before the girls are thrown in on day two.

When Cox described her first boot camp, she said the first day was jam packed with watching practice and getting to know the other girls attending the boot camp. On day two, Okmin talked to the girls about supporting each other and building relationships in the industry before taking them to the practice facility, where each girl was paired up with a U.S. Women’s Hockey Team player. The girls got to know their player to prepare for a three-minute interview they would conduct later in the boot camp. Additionally, coaches and PR staff met with them to give them their perspective on the media. Other training activities included 15-second clips (stand ups) and post-game press conference-style interviews.

During Cox’s second boot camp, a trip to Nashville to work with the Tennessee Titans, she said she felt more confident than she did during her first one. She said that boot camp was more selective and felt honored that Okmin saw the potential in her. During that boot camp, Okmin was able to get more one-on-one time with the girls. Cox also said Okmin follows up with each girl after boot camps to provide more feedback after watching their tapes.

At Okmin’s two most recent boot camps, with the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, the girls were teamed up with rookie players, which Okmin said was a great lesson in empathy. She said the players learned how difficult it is to ask questions and conduct an interview, while the women learned how vulnerable and trusting you have to be when interviewing with somebody you don’t know.

“There’s never been a worse time of relationships [between players and media], so I love the idea of teaching empathy. I do media coaching with players and coaches, also, and it helps both sides know what the other is going through. These past two boot camps have been wonderful because both sides really wanted to help each other on their journey,” Okmin said.

At a boot camp with the Atlanta Falcons, the women were partnered with Falcons rookies for a lesson in empathy and to help each other on their journey. Photo courtesy of Laura Okmin.

When it comes to finding teams to partner with for the boot camps, Okmin uses the relationships she’s built with teams throughout her broadcasting career. She started with teams she had relationships with because both sides knew where each other’s hearts were and what each other’s goals were. Now, teams are reaching out to her, asking how they can partner up because “they love the idea of bringing women in.” She said her favorite thing is when she partners with a team and they are receptive and wonderful about her bringing in 25 women who want to work in the industry.

When asked what it was like to be a mentor for and work with so many women aspiring to get into sports broadcasting, Okmin said there aren’t enough words or ways to describe how much she loves it.

“I always say this and mean it from the bottom of my heart, but I get more out of GALvanize than the girls do. It’s so rewarding to watch the girls empower themselves and each other. I didn’t have that, and watching them root, champion, and be there for each other… It changes my life hopefully as much as it changes theirs. This is the closest I’ve been to being a mom, and it’s an amazing, proud feeling watching them challenge themselves and each other.”

Okmin also said the on-camera part is the tiniest and easiest part of GALvanize. She said it’s about how you feel about yourself, others, and building confidence. Having a network of women like this has been life-changing for her and one of the best chapters of her life.

GALvanize members watch one girl’s reel while bonding at a boot camp. Photo courtesy of Laura Okmin.

For Cox, and other GALvanize women, the feeling is mutual.

“I can’t even fully put into words what GALvanize has meant to me because it’s had such a lasting impact. I thank God every day that He put this in my life and gave Laura this passion to help women. It’s a partnership and a sisterhood,” Cox said. “In a cut-throat business, you don’t always find someone like Laura who truly cares about the other women in the industry. She’s one of my mentors and means the absolute world to me.”

Both Okmin and Cox mentioned the sisterhood and that GALvanize is more than learning how to navigate the sports industry. According to Okmin, the first group of women who did a boot camp are still friends with each other, and she hopes all the girls are in each other’s lives forever. She said the girls get vulnerable because the boot camps can be intense and emotional. Cox agreed, saying on night one of her first boot camp, they talked about their fears right of the bat. She’s been able to learn from the other girls and keeps in touch with them regularly.

As women continue to gain opportunities in sports, the support for each other and networks like GALvanize are sure to increase.

This piece has been presented to you by SMU’s Master of Science in Sport Management.

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