By Nick Friend
At the end of a long day of filming, Gabby Logan sits down on the sofa opposite us in a tranquil corridor of the BBC’s plush Broadcast Centre. For the next hour, the Hild Bede alumna opens up to us on a variety of topics, from her early sporting success and time at Durham to her career in broadcasting that has taken her to the very top of her profession.
The first member of her family to go to University, Gabby admits that she “didn’t really know what to expect” at Durham. With the sudden death of her football-playing brother in 1992 and her injury-enforced retirement from gymnastics – in which she had represented Wales at the 1990 Commonwealth Games, it had been a difficult couple of years.
Having applied on an open application, Logan accepted a place at Hild Bede, and describes herself as “really lucky to get what I think is a really nice college.” Although she studied law, Gabby was set on her future career path.
“When I was a gymnast, I went on Blue Peter”, she starts. “That was when I thought that I’d quite fancy working in a TV studio. I was only fifteen so I wrote to the editor of Blue Peter and asked for advice. He offered me some work experience on local radio and things like that. It made me even more keen to do it.
“When I was nineteen, I had a chance meeting with Giles Squire, head of Metro FM (a radio station in Newcastle). He told me to call him when I got to Durham and he’d give me some experience.”
True to his word, three months into her time at Durham, she was being paid to read the news. “I basically had two different lives going on – my radio life in Newcastle and my university life back in Durham.” Her £120 weekly earnings were enough to support all of her student needs.
The job, Logan says, allayed her frustrations of the curtailment of her gymnastics career. “I was so young when I finished gymnastics that I thought another sport would come along instead. When I look back on it now, I was young enough to do something else.” Other than coaching Durham’s gymnasts, this never materialised. Instead, she continued to focus on her fledgling radio career.
“My first summer, university ended in June and we didn’t go back until October. I worked almost every day of that holiday.”
Such devotion was not unusual for Gabby, who claimed that during her pursuit of a new sport, she “used to go down to the local pool in Leeds and test myself against World Championship times.”
Despite her love of sport, it was only after graduating that she even considered the world of sportscasting. Gabby goes as far as saying that “the whole sport thing happened by accident. I liked the idea of being somewhere in between Zoë Ball and Jeremy Paxman.”
After taking a job on Metro FM’s Breakfast Show and being seen mingling with the sports reporters, she was offered a Saturday afternoon job conducting post-match interviews at St James’ Park. Already a season-ticket holder, this was a no-brainer. Shortly afterwards in 1996, she took a job at Sky Sports, becoming one of the first female sports presenters of the time.
Two decades later, Logan is pleased with the increasing number of women working in sport but says that more must be done to ensure that progress does not halt.
“It does feel a bit weird twenty years on, still being asked the same question about women in sport. And yet, I suppose it is still relevant with people have differing perceptions of women in sport”, she admits.
“I like to think that if you’re good at your job, it doesn’t matter who you are, what gender you are, what you look like or what your sexuality is.”
She uses Sports Personality of the Year, which she has co-presented since replacing Sue Barker in 2013, as an example of the progress made.
Speaking before Lewis Hamilton’s victory in Glasgow, Logan claimed that “it’s brilliant how many women are on the shortlist. It’s not even a novelty thing now. It’s not a case of: ‘ooh there’s a woman there.’ They are there on merit.”
The rise of women’s football also excites her. She believes that “it will match the men’s game” in terms of quality – if not finances. She cites the success of the Women’s Super League and the 55,000-strong crowd at Wembley for England’s friendly with Germany as proof its potential.
Logan, herself, has been at the forefront of the increase in female sportscasters. She pinpoints the famous 2005 Champions League Final between Liverpool and AC Milan as the major turning point – before then, no woman had ever presented a live football match on terrestrial television in England.
“That was a huge moment. It was important for someone to step through that barrier”, Gabby says with thoughtful pride. “Thirteen million viewers, an English team involved. Then I did the following year as well.”
She hasn’t hosted the final since 2006 and suggests that the commercialisation of ITV has hindered opportunities for women.
“ITV is so commercial”, she explains. “Their sport is very focused on their demographic and trying to get the most advertising. For a woman to do that job is difficult because their audience demographic is 35-year-old blokes. BBC don’t have that specification.”
Working for the BBC has brought Gabby her two career highlights: hosting Match of the Day and fronting the Olympic coverage.
To any sports fan, these two productions are the staples of our television diet. It is little wonder that Logan feels so strongly about them. Of course, as the daughter of former Wales captain Terry Yorath, her love for football is hardly surprising, and her exuberance towards Match of the Day is reminiscent of that of an armchair fan eagerly strapped in on a Saturday night.
“Whenever I sit in that chair, hearing the music and knowing the history that comes with the show – especially with it being the 50th anniversary, I’m immensely proud to be part of that rich heritage. For it – fifty years on – to still be at the top of its game and getting four million viewers on a Saturday night is incredible. You get this tingle on the back of your neck.”
Understandably, it is the 2012 London Olympics that she is most proud of. Describing it as a fortnight “that changed broadcasting forever”; her pride is obvious at the astounding success of the Games. The BBC’s coverage won the Royal Television Society Best Live Event Award as well as being the biggest single event in the corporation’s 93-year history.
“You know when you just think, life can’t get any better than this. Even though it was an 18-night run, you just didn’t want it to end. It was quite relentless. It surprised us all with how successful it was, how incredible the results were, how much the BBC had pushed the boundaries with the technology being used.”
Her pride goes beyond that of presenter. The British sportswoman in her is clear. “I had this innate feeling that it was going to be a success. I’ve been to Olympic Games before, worked on them before. I know what they do to the country they’re in and how they make people feel.
“Knowing that various sports were becoming quite successful added to the sense of euphoria – I think it just felt like this kind of fusion of everything coming together and the stars aligning. We, as a nation, wanted to prove ourselves in the Jubilee year. There was a real sense of national pride that we hadn’t really tapped into for a long time.”
Whilst talking about the Olympics, Gabby often refers to one athlete in particular. Not Mo Farah or Jessica Ennis, but the rower Katherine Grainger – a silver medallist in 2000, 2004 and 2008, who finally claimed gold in 2012. She says that it is these stories – “about the people you just don’t hear about” – that grabbed the nation’s heart.
We move conversation onto a difficult topic: the future. What more is there to do after a home Olympics?
While she admits that she’d love to follow Sue Barker into hosting a panel show (although not on Question of Sport!), Logan also recognises the limits of the business.
“Some jobs just aren’t going to come up unless someone retires or dies!”
She loves the immediacy of sports presenting, admitting that she has often forgotten to ask certain questions but also stating that “live television doesn’t always lend itself to clarity of thought.”
“We’re very lucky that we don’t have to sell things”, she explains. “If it’s a bad game, we can say that it’s a bad game. We don’t have to patronise the viewers and tell them that it’s amazing. You never know when the next Jonny Wilkinson or Wayne Rooney is going to appear and you never know when the underdog will prevail. That’s what sport should be about.”
At the peak of her powers, Gabby now sees every show as an “opportunity to enjoy myself and to show off what I’ve spent twenty years learning.” She says that before, she was “all about professionalism and not enjoyment.”
From this point of view, she sympathises with pundits and inexperienced presenters. “Punditry is hard”, she says. “They’ve got all the different cameras to worry about, what the touchline reporter is relaying back, information coming from all kinds of areas.
She refers to the Malcolm Gladwell theory that 10,000 hours of practice makes perfect. “Experience is the only way of learning how to do it. You can’t replicate it in a fake environment because you need that pressure. It’s like taking a penalty in front of a fake crowd. The pressure is what makes you react.”
She refers to last year’s European Athletic Championships when competition was suspended due to gale-force winds as an example of her experience.
“The producers were saying: ‘it’s dangerous where you are.’ But I just said: ‘if you move us to a safe area, nobody’s going to believe it’s that windy. If you take us inside it’s going to look boring. You have to look like the wind is battering you, your eyes are watering, people are holding onto their desks, paper flying everywhere. At least people know why there’s no athletics!
“We didn’t actually lose any viewers. It was exciting for people to see whether or not we died!”
The anecdote is typical of Gabby Logan’s professionalism and ability as a broadcaster.
Her advice for aspiring presenters and journalists is equally typical of a presenter who sits at the very top of her profession.
“You’ve got to really want to do it.”
Photograph: Matrix Studios