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Staying at the top of a very public profession is harder than it seems. Lucy Zelic writes about her private battles with expectations and critics.
Lucy Zelic

23 Apr 2016 - 12:15 PM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2016 - 4:19 PM

Making the trip down to Canberra to visit my family this week, I ran into an old work colleague who asked how long it had been since I started up with SBS.

I paused for a moment trying to tally up the days, months and years, all the while feeling like I had started just yesterday.

Time truly has flown because July this year will mark my third year with the first and only broadcaster to ever take a chance on me.

It’s been a whirlwind experience complete with extreme highs and extreme lows which have ultimately contributed to the person that I am today.

The good times don’t shape you, change you or teach you - it’s the trials, the tribulations, the days you want to curse the day you were born that you become someone you learn to admire and even love.

The bad times were tough but I am more grateful for them, than I am the good ones.

Remembering the big picture 

I’ll admit, over the years it’s been easy to get caught up in the small stuff. 

Whether it’s fighting for what the Matildas don’t have or publicly criticising the draconian views of some men and even women in sport - I have been guilty of forgetting just how far the game and the industry has come. 

That said though, it’s important to remember that without the fight or the determination to change things for the better, none of where we are today would be possible.  

Big footsteps

The legions of women who have paved the way long before we entertained pursuing our wildest dreams are to thank for that. 

As a long-time fan of Channel 9 rugby league reporter Yvonne Sampson, the first time I ever met her in the flesh was at an Eastern Suburbs Mexican restaurant where I promptly marched over to her to tell her just how big of a fan I was.

I am sure I royally embarrassed myself but it was more important to me to tell her how good of a job I thought she was doing than it was to keep my inner hysterical fan girl at bay.

Melanie McLaughlin, Mariana Rudan, Debbie Spillane, Kelly Underwood, Ann Odong and Mary Konstantopoulos of the Ladies Who League podcast are among others.

Having met with and often worked alongside some of them, I can tell you first-hand what a remarkable group of women they truly are.

They’re intelligent, professional, confident, sports loving nuts who radiate enthusiasm and an unrivalled passion for their sport.

Those names are just a handful of women carving out successful careers right across the country and I love watching them do what they were destined to do.

Getting into the game 

Over the last three years, I’ve had many young journalism students approach me to ask how I got my start in the industry.

I always love talking to them because back when I was going through university, I too was desperate to know what the secret formula was to getting to where they were.

What I discovered along the way is so cliche and boring, you might just roll your eyes - it involved, hard work, tears and a lot of self-doubt.

The path I took to get to where I am today was chequered, challenging and an occasional ride through hell which often felt like Satan himself was commanding the chariot.

When I started my Bachelor of Journalism and Sports Business degree at the University of Canberra in 2008, I had always imagined that I would end up as a writer.

Required to cover all platforms as part of the course, I groaned when the radio component rolled around, thinking that it would be nothing short of a bore.

After responding to my community radio station’s callout for presenters on a weekly football program, I became a regular panelist on one show and went on to host a similar program when the chief presenter retired.  

From there, I got my first taste of live sport and began working as a co-commentator for the same station on all W-League Canberra United home games.

I loved that experience beyond measure because I finally began to appreciate the work that goes into preparing for such a role - it ain’t easy.

During that time, I went for job interviews and got knocked back, lost out on a scholarship at the the WIN news room in Canberra and choked over and over again.

Three years later, Football Federation Australia approached our little team of three to compile and host a podcast especially for them.

In total, I worked at the community radio station and for FFA without ever earning a single cent for over four years, all the while working in the public service to pay the bills and make ends meet. 

At no point did I ever do it for the money and what I soon learned was that none of it really was for free because it catapulted me into SBS’s line of sight.

I would first hear from SBS in March of 2013 inviting me to come up to Sydney and do a screen test for them after they had secured the rights to one game a week of the A-League season.  

Growing a thick skin

Fast forward to July of that year, where my dream appointment was met with intense criticism from outsiders because I am the sister of former professional footballer, Ned Zelic who also worked at SBS.

‘Good on you SBS, nepotism at it’s finest.’ commented one social media user. 

‘Putting the term ‘it’s all who you know’ on show here, wish I had a brother who was a former Socceroo on the inside too.’ said another.

I would be lying if I said it didn’t hurt me because I knew how much I had sacrificed to get to where I was, never mind the setbacks and rejection I copped along the way. 

What many people don’t know is that Ned never mentioned my name to a single soul at SBS and learning that years later only reinforced to me, that I had gotten the job on merit.   

What I had also come to learn is that my last name could only get me so far.

Being a Zelic meant nothing when it came to preparing, working and consistently delivering on a national broadcasters stage.

My last name couldn’t speak for me, think for me and ultimately spend hours working for me because when the studio floor manager starts counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 to your live on-air read, there is nowhere to hide or time to re-do, re-take or rewind. 

Unsocial media

The 2014 Brazil World Cup campaign is the perfect example of that.

For as incredible as it was for me to host 32 live matches during the tournament, it was also terrifying, horrible and short of my mother’s cancer diagnosis the year before, the biggest test of my character to date.

With audiences that averaged well above the 500,000 range, social media users were brutal, vicious and tore me to shreds at every opportunity.

‘Get the f@#k off my television screen you ugly bimbo.’  sniped one fellow.

‘You stupid f@#king sl#t, what do you know about Portugal?! It’s clear you only got that job because you slept with someone.’ piped up another

The daily tirade of endless abuse turned me into a complete wreck.

At about 12am one morning right before I was due to make my way into the studio, I lay on the bathroom floor in the foetal position crying for hours because I just couldn’t take it anymore.

At that point, I considered calling my then Executive Producer Noel Brady to tell him that I was quitting. 

The only thing that saved me on that cold winter morning while I was busy wanting to dissolve into the porcelain tiles was my love for the game.

I learned very quickly to avoid my social media for a few weeks, to block the negativity and now, if I ever come across nastiness, they just look like words cobbled together on a screen.   

Some people say that only God can judge them but I tell you what, these days I am more terrified of the things I have to say about my on-air performances than I could ever be of any critics.

There is always tomorrow

I have failed spectacularly on live TV and do you know what? I am ok with that because I am going to continue to make mistakes - it would be irresponsible and almost arrogant of me to think that I’ve learned all I can so early on.

The fact is, there will always be things you could have done better or said better - that’s why working in this role is so thrilling.   

What I have learned though from going through all of these experiences is that I have developed my own formula to measure eligibility for a gig like this.  

To all the young women out there who want to pursue a career in sports media, my advice to you is this; you have to be prepared to work incredibly hard for little to no reward at times and if you don’t love the game, don’t bother.

The fact is, you don’t belong here and you won’t survive either.

Those of you out there with ill-intentions will get weeded out very quickly and rightfully so - your chosen sport deserves better than that.  

A lot of young women are seduced by the glory of it, the red carpets, the glamour, the praise and the so called ‘fame’.

I’ve gotten changed in dingy public bathrooms on the road, worked weeks without a day off, had arguments with media managers on football fields, lived through the axing of a show, been stressed about contract renewals, all the while having to perform seamlessly on live TV even when you’re battling a chest infection.

The biggest compliment I have ever received has had nothing to do with my appearance, it’s been ‘I love listening to your commentary and analysis of the game.’

Football not only runs through my veins but I truly believe that in order to live a happy and fulfilled life, I need it. 

If you really are serious about chasing your dream in sports journalism, I can only hope you need the sport just as much as it will need you.