Features | From Pivot Magazine

Levelling the playing field for female sports fans

Three young Bay Streeters felt excluded from the world of sports, so they found their own way in

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Ellen Hyslop, Roslyn McLarty and Jacie deHoop cheering in stadium seatsFormer Bay Street accountant Roslyn McLarty (centre) and friends Ellen Hyslop and Jacie deHoop founded The Gist, a sports media company tailored to millennial women (Photograph by Katherine Holland)

In 2015, when I moved to Toronto and started working on Bay Street, I quickly noticed that the city was obsessed with sports. Talking about teams, players and last night’s score was a way to create community. But it could also be incredibly exclusionary, especially for women. During lunch at the office, when my male colleagues’ conversations turned to sports, I found myself hesitant to chip in because I didn’t know stats and team histories like the back of my hand.

I wasn’t alone. My two sports-loving friends from university, Ellen Hyslop and Jacie deHoop, also worked on Bay Street and felt left out, too. They knew what it was like not to be invited to participate in office brackets and pools, or to get quizzed on their sports knowledge when they said they were fans.

Over dinner one night in 2017, Ellen explained to Jacie and me why the Toronto Maple Leafs’ playoff berth a few seasons back was so impressive—it was a team-rebuild year, and they weren’t expected to perform well. We wished we’d known that earlier, so that we might be able to join those daunting sports conversations at the office.

We half-jokingly suggested that Ellen should write a newsletter like The Skimm—a pithy news brief tailored to female readers—about sports for women who felt alienated by existing coverage. She thought the idea was brilliant, and we found ourselves spending the rest of the evening brainstorming how to make it happen. That night, we built the foundation for The Gist, our sports media company tailored to millennial women. 

Silhouette of Ellen Hyslop, Roslyn McLarty and Jacie deHoop standing in stadium openingMcLarty, Hyslop and deHoop—all three graduates of the commerce program at Queen’s University—put their financial backgrounds to use in creating a business plan (Photograph by Katherine Holland)

We spent every subsequent Sunday fine-tuning The Gist. We are all graduates of the commerce program at Queen’s University and we put our financial backgrounds to use in creating a business plan. We discovered in our research just how exclusionary sports can be: only four per cent of sports media focuses on women’s athletics, and just 14 per cent of sports journalists are women, according to one study out of the University of Minnesota.

To change that, we launched a twice-weekly newsletter, built a community on social media and created a website with news, interviews and resources for new fans interested in sports but uncertain where to start. The Gist covers not only women’s sports but the major leagues as well, in a way that’s conversational, fun, witty and inclusive, whether you’re a new or diehard fan. We haven’t forgotten that women are sports fans, too.

I’ve been one my entire life. Growing up in Ottawa, I played volleyball and basketball for fun, but my real game was soccer, which I played competitively. It was a major part of my formative years and taught me valuable lessons: how to play and work well with others, and how to train to improve myself.

My love of numbers came from my parents, CPAs who ran their own accounting firm. My dad headed up client services and business development, while my mom ran operations, human capital and marketing. To me, the designation offered an exciting way to combine entrepreneurship and accounting. As a teen, I appreciated the foundation and freedom the CPA designation provided my parents. I knew I wanted to follow in their footsteps and pursue accounting.

Once I graduated from Queen’s, I landed a job working in a large firm’s audit and assurance practice, and later the deals group. While I enjoyed the work, part of me craved a more entrepreneurial experience of accounting. 

“We haven’t forgotten that women are sports fans, too”

Our idea for The Gist, it seems, came at the perfect time to fulfill that desire. In 2018, just months after we launched The Gist, we were accepted into an incubator program at Ryerson University’s DMZ, in partnership with the Facebook Journalism Project. The program offered $100,000 in funding, $50,000 in Facebook ad coupons and mentorship. The three of us knew this was our chance to create something incredible, so we left our Bay Street lives behind and started working on The Gist full-time.

As The Gist’s head of operations and finance, I’m responsible for financial planning and reporting, data analysis, technology, raising capital and more. One day I might be meeting with investors; another, I might be learning to code. Unlike my old job, no two days ever look the same.

Today, The Gist has tens of thousands of followers across our platforms. Toronto is our home base, but we hope to slowly expand across North America, reaching women who, like us, have felt left out of the conversation, focusing on local teams that matter to them. Ellen is the voice behind the brand, writing our social media content and newsletters, which are free. We encourage fans who love our work to become “GISTfluencers,” by referring friends to the newsletter in exchange for perks like apparel and discounted sports tickets.

We knew we had tapped into something great when women in the biz were singing our praises. Aimee Deziel, the chief marketing operator of the Ottawa Senators, told CTV News our content was “hard-hitting,” noting that we were “on to something.” Even Olympic champion skater Tessa Virtue told us she was inspired by our work and pursuit for excellence.

My own experience helped me realize just how important The Gist is. I had never participated in a sports bracket before our venture, but I tried it out within our newfound community of female sports-lovers. I realized there was nothing to be scared of; in fact, I was excited to get a little competitive. During our first Gist draft, 85 per cent of participants said they, like me, hadn’t been part of one before. We were opening new doors—not just for ourselves, but for others, too.

As told to Erica Lenti

This article has been updated from the version that first appeared online and in the July/August 2019 issue of Pivot magazine