Efficient operation: Sky’s Sarah Thornley on speaking up and taking chances

Thornley: ‘One of the most challenging aspects of my role is pulling so many different areas together and ensuring a collaborative approach’

“Things can change at a moment’s notice when working in live sports, so you can be blindsided by something where you need to tear up what you were doing or planning and start again,” says Sky operational delivery supervisor Sarah Thornley. “But I also enjoy that it can be unpredictable, that you must react to things on the spot, problem solve under pressure and also get to work with so many different people. It’s been great to get the opportunity to be involved in such a wide range of sports covered at Sky, some of which I had watched on TV or played myself.”

Inspired by an experience as an extra on a TV show while at school, Thornley took a media course at college with the initial idea of becoming a floor manager. “That was one of the roles I had seen and thought looked really interesting, but my career went in a different direction through other opportunities that came my way,” she says. “As part of my course, I had to do a couple of weeks of work experience within a media environment and was lucky enough to get the opportunity to do that at Sky. I was able to build relationships and contacts which enabled me to keep in touch and go back for more work experience.

“I had met the department manager during my work experience and arranged a meeting with him towards the end of my college course,” she continues. “I was weighing up my options and next steps after college and trying to decide if I should go to university. On the walk from the security gatehouse to his office he told me there was a runner’s position available and it was mine if I wanted it. I accepted the offer on the spot and started a couple of weeks after I finished college. I couldn’t believe how it all worked out.”

Thornley won the ‘Special Achievement’ award at the 2013 Broadcast Young Tech Talent of The Year Awards

As a runner in VT dubbing, Thornley’s job was to maintain stock levels for items such as tapes and labels, deliver tapes to transmission, and help out where needed. “I did this for one month before getting a promotion to a barcoder within the team,” she says.

She progressed through VT dubbing, restructuring into content handling when Sky went tapeless, and moved up from runner to a senior media operator.

In 2013 Thornley won the ‘Special Achievement’ category in the finals of the first Broadcast Young Tech Talent of The Year Awards. “It was such a shock to have been nominated, let alone win it on the night,” she says. “I was with that team for 14 years and regularly worked as an EVS operator on various high-profile events and outside broadcasts.”

Burden of proof

It wasn’t all plain sailing. “In the early years of my career, it was a very male-dominated environment, in particular when I started doing OBs. It was daunting and I felt like I stood out like a sore thumb as a young woman,” she recalls. “There was a feeling of having to try and prove yourself more than others, to show you deserved to be there and were just as good at the job. It seemed that once I had proven that I earned the respect and trust of others, any doubts went away.

“I have also had instances where I have answered a question or given information, for that person to ask it again to someone else in the group who had to give the same answer,” she continues. “It was an awkward situation for both me and the other person having to reiterate that same thing for the answer to be accepted. Thankfully it doesn’t happen as much now. There has been a lot of progression in this area and moving in the right direction.

“In terms of getting past challenges, I have never been afraid to be inquisitive and ask questions which I think has helped. I have also been very lucky with the trust, support and backing from a lot of the people I have worked closely with throughout my career.”

Thornley says she experienced, “a variety of amazing events” across her career as an EVS operator. “There were various Champions League Finals, US Open Tennis and a Super Bowl to name a few,” she says. “There were various golfing events such as The Masters and Ryder Cups, as well as being part of a BAFTA award-winning team working on The Open Golf in 2016. I think the 2012 Ryder Cup – ‘The Miracle at Medinah’ was a standout. The coverage, atmosphere and comeback from the Europe team were incredible, not to mention the dedication and hours that went into making the output one to remember.”

Switching direction

Seeking change and new opportunities, Thornley moved to an account management position. “This was restructured to a studio management team, where we managed client relationships, demands and requirements within studios and OBs, ensuring the appropriate crew, facilities and equipment are provided,” she says. “Just over a year ago, I moved to an operational delivery supervisor position in the Sky Sports Technical Operations team. It was a role I found very interesting and would take me out of my comfort zone, but I also felt like I could thrive in it. It captured a lot of aspects that I was interested in and had seen others doing. It also included some responsibilities I had limited experience in which I wanted to develop further. I loved the idea of working on new and exciting projects and being able to see them through from start to finish.”

It was also rather daunting. “I had a classic case of imposter syndrome as it captured more technical aspects than my previous roles so I had a lot to learn, especially understanding how everything comes together, the different acronyms used in meetings and working with new departments,” she notes. “It was a big change from my old position and a step up with my responsibilities and the stakeholders I work with. There are a lot more eyes on the work I do now and it has a bigger impact.

“One of the most challenging aspects of my role is pulling so many different areas together and ensuring a collaborative approach. People sometimes stay in their silos and do not always think to include others or understand the impact their work can have on other areas. It is also difficult getting people to plan and make decisions for further ahead and not just focus on here and now.”

“I loved the idea of working on new and exciting projects and being able to see them through from start to finish”

Thornley says she’s enjoying the challenge though. “I have been very lucky with being surrounded by a great team who have been very supportive and are more than happy to answer any questions to help me learn,” she says. “I love learning new things and being able to help plan and bring projects together while ensuring all the stakeholders are included and information is shared to have a collaborative approach. I am really excited to be able to work on various projects and be a part of exciting changes.

“We have a major project where we changed all of the workflows for Sky Sports News, doing all of this while working around the channel still being on air,” she continues. “This will change the way the teams work but offer a lot more benefits. It has been a massive undertaking with a lot of planning and logistics to work through, but we will launch with the new workflows this year.

Thornley has worked on numerous major sporting events, including the Super Bowl

Now 19 years at Sky, Thornley advises other women looking to move into a role in sports broadcasting to ask questions. “Reach out and have conversations with people in the roles you find interesting and those who could help give you advice,” she adds. “There is a lot to be said for speaking to the right people and being lucky with the timing. If I hadn’t put myself out there and had conversations with the person who is now my manager, and conversations with the director of the Sky Sports Technical Operations team, I might not have got the opportunity I did to put myself forward for my current role and make the move I wanted.

“So many more women are visible in a wide variety of roles now, so it isn’t as daunting as it used to be” she continues. “There is also a lot of support out there to help guide you with your career. Remember anything is possible.”

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