Dream team: Sky Sports’ football duo Nia Wyn Thomas and Samantha Mills on producing the beautiful game
Nia Wyn Thomas, senior producer for Sky Sports football on Women’s Super League (WSL) and Samantha Mills, Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday producer, are a dream team focused on bringing the beautiful game alive for sports fans across the UK.
Both Thomas and Mills are part of the Sky Sports football team. When Sky Sports won the rights for WSL in 2021, Thomas left her role at IMG as a senior producer within Premier League Productions (PLP). She says: “I saw Sky had the rights for women’s football and really wanted to be part of that new production and outlook for Sky. I went for two roles but was fortunate to get the WSL position. I wanted to make a change in how women’s football was produced here in the UK. I really wanted to work solely in football and help change the narrative and the preconception that it was only men who produced football.”
“Believe in yourself. Keep asking questions. And never take no for an answer”
However, Thomas did not have much time to ease herself into her new role. She started the job just 13 days before the start of the WSL season. She adds: “Joining a big company in the middle of a pandemic was really hard, especially working from home. But lots of people at Sky have been so helpful and welcoming and have embraced working on women’s football.”Meanwhile, Mills has been at Sky for some time, starting out as a runner, then in January 2021 she moved into her current role as Soccer Saturday producer. She explains: “After Uni I went to become a trainee sports teacher (gap year student) whilst running at Sky Sports News.
“While I was running at Sky Sports News I got a permanent role in the team, essentially printing scripts and making tea, but all the while training on how to write scripts and cut to picture for the output. I went from a production junior writing the ticker and side panel, to a sub editor which involved cutting picture and writing scripts, then co-producer which is where I produced in the gallery before heading up and producing my own shows.”
While she was working as a strand producer at Sky Sports News, a job as a football producer came up. Mills got the job, “which was perfect for me as football is my number one sport and I feel passionate about our coverage”, she says.
On what was challenging about her new role, Mills states: “Being one of only a few females who worked on the editorial side of football; but the other producers were very welcoming and helpful.”
Constantly proving you can do the job
Thomas says it has not been an easy ride to her current role. “I think to be a woman working in sport you have to constantly prove yourself, and to prove that you know just as much as your male colleagues,” Thomas continues. “I’m a senior producer with over 20 years’ experience in the industry but having to justify myself to some gets a little dull; no male producer would ever have to do that.”
“The unpredictable nature of love sport can be challenging, but that’s all part of the fun as well”
Mills adds: “The hardest thing for me was coming back from having a baby, doing late night shows and being in both Saturday and Sunday. It was a big learning curve for myself and the team around me, but I think the department is now a much better place for women who do want to have a baby and then return to work.”
Children definitely add further challenges to the job for both Mills and Thomas. Thomas comments: “The work-life balance can be difficult, especially as single mother; working weekends has been hard as I often miss out on my son’s sports and other occasions.”
Mills adds: “I agree. I work every Saturday and have to balance being a good mum to a four year old and being in charge of one of the biggest football shows here in the UK. But I make sure I drop my son at school every morning and that’s non-negotiable.”
Nia comments: “I’ve actually seen Sam juggle home life while having to book a contributor in the space of 10 minutes in the office – but it’s what we all have to do to balance life as a mum and a producer – it’s not us having a whine about it, it’s our choice and we do it really well.”
But the challenges are also a large part of the draw to working in the live football arena, says Mills: “The unpredictable nature of love sport can be challenging, but that’s all part of the fun as well,” she notes. “The people, the unpredictability, and the buzz of live TV are all part of the draw for me.”
Thomas adds: “I agree, that 93rd minute goal changes the entire narrative and we have some busy AP’s and EVS ops who have to quickly turn around pictures to reflect the story. Working in the gallery on a live football game is great, plus working on women’s football is a completely different experience to working on men’s football.”
Introduction to football from the dads
On how they both ended up working in live sport, both Mills and Thomas were introduced to it by their fathers. Says Mills: “Going to football with my dad at Queens Park Rangers made me obsessed with the sport. We used to go to games when I was four and we watched everything on TV. Then I became hooked on Sky Sports and BBC’s football coverage; I initially wanted to become a reporter but when I saw what a producer did, I changed my mind.”
While Thomas says: “My Dad was a rugby coach and I spent hours down at training or games on a Saturday afternoon. Sport was the only thing I knew as a kid and with an older brother it was the main topic of conversation. I don’t remember who was my inspiration, but I just remember I wanted to work in TV but never as a presenter or reporter, so production was the only option.”
While Thomas studied Drama and Theatre at University, she, “quickly realised I wasn’t going to make is an actor so needed a plan B”. She goes on: “I did tonnes of work experience at S4C and then at the end of my degree I talked someone into giving me a job working on a reunion for the British and Irish Lions at the start of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Cardiff, essentially looking after Willy John McBride. I then got a runners job at the Millennium Stadium for ITV Sport, taking scripts to the studio and making tea and just hanging around talking to people.
“After Uni I temped and got a job at ITV Wales in their legal and business affairs department, arranging contracts and so forth,” Thomas continues. “But while I was there I pestered the sports department and the news team to give me weekend work experience. And they did – I even got to produce and edit some features for the weekend bulletins including the fuel protesters story in 2000. I went travelling to South America for five months and came back to my old job. I was all set to go to New Zealand to work on the rugby, had a work visa sorted, but got cold feet and my friends suggested I apply for one job at the BBC and got it. I postponed my trip to New Zealand for six months but never went!”
While at the BBC Thomas progressed from the rights department through to BBC Sports News, however she decided she did not want to make the move to Salford, so joined Premier League Productions where she stayed for almost 10 years looking after the international coverage of Premier League matches.
Mills relays her career beginnings: “I did A-Levels in French German and English before going to University to study Sociology and Management; like Nia, nothing to do with sports broadcasting. But during University, I did work experience at BBC Sports and Sky Sports Rugby Union as well as presenting the weekly sports programme for my University radio station.”
Rapid progress and pushing forwards
Over the last two years Mills’ career has progressed rapidly. She comments: “I’ve gone from producing Goals on Sunday and The Debate on Sky Sports, to English Football League and international football, and I now head up Soccer Saturday.
“In 2022 we lose our incredible presenter Jeff Stelling, so it will be a big challenge for our team to make sure the new face settles and I’m hoping for some exciting aesthetic changes to the show.”
For Thomas it is all about pushing the women’s game even further: “I’ve returned to producing live football since my move to Sky Sports last year, and helped drive the new narrative of how women’s football is covered. For the year ahead I’m looking forward to developing this further.”
Finally, the pair give their advice to others looking to move into football production. Thomas says: “Believe in yourself. Keep asking questions. And never take no for an answer.”
And Mills sums up: “Get work experience wherever you can in the industry; look out for placements offered. Do your prep or you’ll get found out. And don’t say you want to be a presenter at first (even if you do!).”