Even in 2016 it isn’t easy for a woman to make it in the predominantly male world of sports journalism. However, Denise Watson has proved beyond doubt that she is more than capable of taking on the men at their own game.
Born and bred in Lisburn, Denise, who now presents sport on UTV, as well as working on U105, was determined from a very young age to be a broadcaster and, despite facing rejection and her fair share of questions over whether women are ‘up to’ such responsibility, she has never faltered in her ambition.
She was heavily influenced as a child at Harmony Hill Primary School in Lisburn, and later at Wallace High School, by her sport-loving father, and vividly remembers the passion he had for rugby, something that has stayed with her all her life.
“My dad was a rugby player and coach in Lisburn,” explained Denise. “We grew up every Saturday going to the match. We grew up in the rugby club and we were used to dad being out training during the week.
“Rugby Special was huge in the house and Formula One was on all the time.
“Dad was a big influence in my life, we were rugby through and through and I am still a big fan.”
Whilst she was still at school, Denise was 100 per cent certain about her future career and even at a tender age she began making recordings and sending them into radio stations in the hope of catching a break.
“I am a driven person,” she continued. “I was absolutely focused on being a radio broadcaster. I was completely obsessed with Radio One, and I loved Bruno Brooks; all the 80s DJs.
“Radio to me was a magic place. At 16 I sent a tape into the BBC and I did hospital radio. I was absolutely determined. What a wonderful job it would be.”
At school Denise was given the career advice that she should become a teacher but, rejecting that recommendation, she went on to study English Literature at Queen’s University.
“I still maintained I wanted to be on the radio but people laughed at me,” said Denise.
“I made a little tape and Mike Edgar played a bit on Across the Line. I went to the hospital and asked a professor there if cheese gave you bad dreams. Mike played the tape and that was really good of him.”
Denise never considered doing anything else with her life and soon she made it onto Belfast City radio.
“I never thought of anything else,” she continued. “I’m not a ruthless person but I am 100 per cent committed to what I would like to do.
“Every rejection I got made me try again. I wrote letters to Cool FM. I thought Carolyn Stewart and John Kearns were so cool.
“Stephen Woods, who I work with on Saturday mornings, was a big favourite as well.
“I try to mentor young people but I always tell them ‘you have to really want it and really focus’. The perception is that it is a glamorous and exciting job, but the truth is that people I know in media work really hard. They work long, unsociable hours.”
At Queen’s Denise continued with her pursuit of her dream career, working as an unpaid intern at Belfast City radio. She also maintained her love of sport, and was a passionate basketball player.
“My mum used to say I only played basketball, read books, or was at the radio station,” joked Denise.
“I sacrificed a lot and when friends were going out to bars and clubs, I had to meet them later because I was on air. I was always the lift home.
“But it was my future on the line. I wanted to get my NUJ (National Union of Journalists) card and do what I wanted to do.
“It wasn’t wasted time; I am doing my dream job now.”
As well as her dedication, talent, and determination, Denise also had some luck in getting to where she is now.
“When you work on late night radio you get some crank calls,” she explained. “So when I got a call from a guy saying he was an independent producer looking for a female sports presenter for television, I hung up on him.
“But it turned out he was genuine. He was scouting for a female presenter for kickboxing for ESPN. I would be working alongside an American presenter, When I turned up, he wasn’t well and I became the main interviewer.
“All I knew about kickboxing was that it was very violent. But they were all American and very chatty.
“By chance the head of BBC Sport was in the audience that night. They contacted the producer and said they wanted to audition me because they were actively looking for a female presenter.
“I had nothing to lose. I had no nerves or anything because I didn’t think for a second they were seriously looking for me.
“Later, I went for coffee on the Ormeau Road with Terry Smyth, who was head of sport in the 90s.
“I had auditioned for radio as well and he told me I didn’t get the radio show but he offered me a television contract for six months.
“He told me ‘I can do nothing more for you, you need to make it work’. He gave me the chance.”
And Denise, with her usual indomitable spirit, made the most of her big break, making a name for herself as the woman who brought hockey to the BBC.
“I looked at what they didn’t have in their coverage, things like basketball, hockey, and minority sports,” explained Denise. “I brought through hockey, which is close to my heart with Lisnagarvey being my local club.
“Then I was given another six month contract but it took me five years to become staff.”
During her time at the BBC Denise presented the Irish League show ‘Final Score’. and she vividly remembers her first experience of being a journalist at an Irish League final.
“The first final when I was doing football on the BBC was at Glenavon,” said Denise. “Malcolm Brodie, who is sadly no longer with us, was very encouraging. He was the first to put his hand out to me and shake it.
“He said ‘welcome love, this is the press box’ and then he introduced everyone.”
In 2004 Denise spent time in London working for Grandstand, where she had the chance to meet presenters like Clare Balding and Gary Lineker, giving her the opportunity to see how they worked.
She also worked on Newsbeat at Radio One, the station that sparked her broadcasting dream as a child.
“I had to get to Radio One,” she laughed.
“It was nice being in London but I appreciated being home again. If I had stayed in London I would have been doing Match of the Day 2 but I was pregnant at the time and I wanted to be at home.
“There was also talk of me going to Adelaide but Sam was five months old and the first year of my baby’s life was more important to me.”
Denise was at the BBC for 17 years, which was both challenging and rewarding in equal measures.
Over the years she still faced a backlash against being a female sports presenter but that only made her more determined to be successful in her dream career.
“You have to know your stuff and I would never have let myself get caught out.
“It is still challenging for women in the profession but I had 17 great years in the BBC and made great friends.
“I was able to learn so much, The BBC gave me great training but it was time to move on.
“It was a tough time when I left the BBC but you realise who your friends are and despite everything I still had to get up and be mummy to my girls, who were brilliant.
“The door is open for me to go back but it is not something I want to do at this time.”
Denise is now presenting sport at UTV and also presents on radio station U105.
And despite the challenges women face in the world of sports journalism, there are now not one but two women presenting on UTV.
Denise and her colleague Ruth Gorman are spearheading the sports coverage on UTV and the pair are the perfect match, working together, with each always willing to lend a hand to the other.
“I have met so many lovely people in the industry,” continued Denise.
“I know that I am really, really lucky to have healthy children, a great husband, and my dream career.”