Lydia Murphy-Stephans breaking ground in Pac-12

Pac-12 Conference

Lydia Murphy-Stephans says preparing for the launch of the Pac-12 Network has meant a lot of time spent in meetings and very little time for her friends and family.

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Lydia Murphy-Stephans' office is a shrine to the work that still needs to be done.

The walls are covered with large index cards and a content chart detailing projects in progress. The whiteboard is filled with planning information. Behind her, on the wall, is a list of production plans for new mobile units.

The bookcase behind her desk has only a few binders stacked on it and pictures of her son and daughter. On the floor, a gym bag, for the brief moments she finds to fit in a quick workout. And lunch, well, that usually comes in a plastic container to be eaten on the fly.

Murphy-Stephans calls her office the "war room," joking that nothing violent actually happens there. What it is, in actuality, is the launchpad for an ambitious sports network.

The Pac-12 Conference will start its own national cable network (and six regional networks) on Aug. 15 and Murphy-Stephans, a former Olympian and veteran television executive, will be at the helm.

"I think of myself as one big project manager," Murphy-Stephans said. "There are a lot of meetings."

As the first woman running a national sports network, she won't call herself a pioneer and has never thought of herself in that way. But there's no getting around the fact that in the world of sports television, particularly at the most executive levels, she's often the only woman in the room.

"It's not by design," Murphy-Stephans said. "I've never thought that I am doing this for other women or representing my gender. The way I was raised, gender was never an obstacle. It's what you know and how you handle yourself."

Murphy-Stephans, who has won 19 Emmy Awards, has worked in sports television since 1986. Her career path has taken her from local television news in Michigan to ABC Sports, where she worked on "Wide World of Sports," to the launch of the Oxygen Network to MSG Media and now to the Pac-12.

Pac-12 Conference

Dubbed the "war room," Lydia Murphy-Stephans' office is filled with details for the launch of the new network.

She's worked her way up through production and programming and done most of the jobs she now supervises.

To top it off, she has been an elite athlete, a member of the U.S. Olympic speedskating team in 1984.

It was the breadth of her experience that made her appealing to the Pac-12, said Gary Stevenson, the conference's enterprises chair.

"I've known Lydia since the 1980s and she's been in every job on the TV side of the business," Stevenson said. "She's a visionary and a coach and it's a lot easier to coach when you know all the positions."

Murphy-Stephans concluded her skating career at the 1984 Olympics -- finishing 13th in the 1,000 meters. She thought about writing screenplays or producing documentaries. But she'd been exposed to television through her Olympic experience and she was "absolutely fascinated."

She went to graduate school at Northwestern and earned a master's degree in broadcast journalism. She then interviewed at Chicago ABC affiliate WLS. Station general manager Dennis Swanson, whose children had been involved in speedskating in the Chicago area, agreed to meet with her.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'Don't tell me you want to produce documentaries ... everybody says that. What do you really want to do?'" Murphy-Stephans said. "I told him my dream job would be to work at 'Wide World of Sports.'"

Swanson encouraged Murphy-Stephans to keep in touch.

Finished with graduate school, Murphy-Stephans took a job as a news producer at a local station in Marquette, Mich., working a second job as a U.S. speedskating coach.

She had been at the news station for nearly a year when she saw over the wires that Swanson was named president of ABC Sports. She sent him a note and a month later she was contacted by ABC.

Murphy-Stephans moved to New York and took a one-year contract job as a production assistant, traveling around the world putting together "up-close-and-personal" features for the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

When her contract ended, ABC asked her to stay on full-time. She moved through the ranks, working on college football and eventually "Wide World of Sports." She also led the network's NASCAR, golf and tennis coverage.

From production, she moved into programming. In 1994, she was named vice president of programming and acquisitions at ABC, becoming the first woman in network sports television history to be named vice president.

"I loved straddling both worlds," she said. "I kept my hand in production and understood it really well and I learned the business side."

In 1999, Murphy-Stephans moved on to help with the launch of the Oxygen cable network and in 2002 was named the vice president of programming and production at the MSG Network in New York.

In 2010, Murphy-Stephans founded All Access Media, a media consulting firm.

But then the Pac-12 came calling with a groundbreaking offer.

Stevenson said he was impressed with her experience in the business, at launching a network and her sensibility. He was not looking to break ground by hiring a woman.

"She does bring a different perspective, but I think she's developed that in 25 years in athletics," Steven said. "I was looking for a leader, regardless of gender or race."

Murphy-Stephans said for every time she's been the lone woman in a conference room at a high-level meeting, she's been the only elite athlete and that has brought her both credibility and confidence. And there have been other influences.

"At U.S. speedskating, we had a unique team in that the men and women trained together and we had a woman as a coach," Murphy-Stephans said. "My parents, the way I was raised, I had to mow the lawn as often as I had to do the dishes, I was sort of, just do it."

The Pac-12 Network will include seven channels, one national and six regional. It will air 850 live events in its first year, encompassing nearly the entirety of the conference's sports calendar of events, with a balance between men's and women's athletics. Murphy-Stephans said she never had to fight for that.

"It was the coolest thing," Murphy-Stephans said. "We were working on the event-count model and it happened naturally. Would it have happened that naturally if there was a man sitting in the position I am, overseeing the programming grid, I don't know.

"I may have been a factor, but I might have been the fifth-(most important) factor and I wasn't guiding it," she said.

Murphy-Stephans said the response from the conference members has been "amazing."

"We presented at one point to the football, basketball and volleyball coaches and when we put up the event count, everybody clapped," Murphy-Stephans said.

Murphy-Stephans has been to every campus in the conference, a 12-city tour in May, making presentations to athletic directors, university presidents and coaches about the scope of the network.

"I felt like each time we left one of the schools after our presentation, they would say, 'Well, good luck with that,'" Murphy-Stephans said.

The mother of two is dividing her time into two categories with just a month until the launch -- work time and family time.

"I have no free time. I've divorced all my friends," Murphy-Stephans said. "I've told them, 'I love you, but I'm under water; don't even think about it.' My partner has put her career on hold for this and it was a huge family decision, knowing how demanding this job was going to be."

The demands won't stop anytime soon. Murphy-Stephans likens it to another experience of parenthood.

"Right now we are in our third trimester," she said. "On August 15, that's just the beginning."

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