'Opening doors to the next generation': Jenny Cavnar's path to broadcasting

March 6th, 2022

DENVER -- Beneath the louder-than-background-noise track at the coffee shop sat Jenny Cavnar, jotting notes for the next play-by-play assignment -- a major college basketball game -- of her barrier-breaking career.

In April 2018, Cavnar became the first woman to take the play-by-play mic for a National League game in 25 years. Now, she takes a regular turn backing up primary play-by-play man Drew Goodman for Rockies games on AT&T SportsNet, while also serving as the host of the pregame and postgame shows at other times. She is regularly a leading voice for major sporting events on various networks.

This offseason, Cavnar started a weekday show on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM -- “Unassisted with Jenny Cavnar." And during March, she and Dani Wexelman are hosting a show highlighting influential women involved in professional and amateur baseball on the channel for Women’s History Month.

A growing number of women are now doing play-by-play broadcasting. It has become commonplace enough that Cavnar’s hurried-but-organized script makes her similar to her broadcast idol, Vin Scully, or anyone else bringing you the action. The only difference is the large, brown leather "Magic Mom" bag -- full of sports information, as well as squeeze pouches that sneak vegetables into the diets of her children (Vincent, 4 1/2, and Emmery, turning 1 on April 9), or even a sports reporter who turns up hungry.

With young girls and college women asking advice on subjects from what to study to balancing marriage and motherhood with growing career opportunities, Cavnar describes the acclaim (four Emmy Awards and the 2021 Colorado Sports Broadcaster of the Year honor) as “humbling.”

“I hear this a lot when I’m talking to a lot of older fans, probably 50s on, and they come up during Fan Fest or at Spring Training and they’re like, 'If only I’d been born 20 years later, I would have done what you did,'” Cavnar said. “It’s not lost on me. I feel very lucky that the opportunities are available. All those women saying that reinforced to me when on days I doubt myself or I have a bad day that I have to do this, because it’s opening doors to the next generation.”

She also pauses in appreciation in being asked about her role in establishing a cultural soundtrack.

At one time, it was the transistor radio that children placed beneath their pillows as they feigned sleep while letting the announcer’s descriptions of the delights and disappointments of their favorite team be the last words before bed. Now, they delay bedtime by the light of a smartphone. Cavnar is helping set their memories and dreams to an authoritative voice.

Cavnar has family history on her side. She grew up with play-by-play, color commentary and pregame and postgame shows from strong women's voices.

There are well-known features of Cavnar’s story. Her father, Steve, is a Colorado high school Hall of Fame baseball coach. His daughter grew up keeping scorebooks, participating in practices and doing all she could, short of playing on the team.

In the celebratory glow of Steve’s Smoky Hill High School team winning a state championship, he had to deal with his daughter -- rightfully, it turns out -- questioning why he didn’t bunt a runner over early at a time when one run could have made the final innings less harrowing.

Cavnar's husband, Steve Spurgeon, pitched in the White Sox organization and in independent ball for five years. So men around her always knew the game.

Jenny Cavnar with her husband, Steve Spurgeon, their son, Vincent, and their daughter, Emmery.Photo courtesy of Jenny Cavnar.

But her husband, who is now a Denver firefighter, reminded her of the real story:

“Tell him about your grandma,” he told Cavnar.

Myrt Cavnar, born in 1924 as one of nine children (five girls), left her hometown of Shelbyville, Ky., at 16 to attend Johns Hopkins University -- which offered women classes, but only at night. From there, she went to Palmer Theological Seminary near Philadelphia for seminary school, where she met Jenny's grandfather, a Denver native. They settled in Colorado. Far away from her beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball program, Myrt drove the family’s decision to purchase Denver Broncos season tickets and took her children and grandchildren to games.

And watching grandma watch road games really caught Jenny Cavnar’s attention.

“She was a god-fearing, Baptist woman from the South -- she was never going to curse,” Cavnar said. “But you would get the highest decibels, screaming at the television. She knew when they didn’t run the right play -- or, in her mind, when they didn’t run the right play.”

Jenny Cavnar with her late grandmother, Myrt.Photo courtesy of Jenny Cavnar.

But Myrt and her siblings never lost the love for Kentucky basketball. Cavnar to this day feels the ferocity of the family during Wildcats games.

“It wasn’t about wearing all your cute blue,” Cavnar said. “It was about getting in your seat, getting there on time to see all of the warmups. They wanted to watch the other team warm up. Mind you, they probably watched the other team play a game on TV that week, so they were scouting for Kentucky.

“We watched the game. After the game, we’d talk about the game the whole drive back. And if the game was on tape, we’d watch it to see if the refs made the right call or the wrong call. This is life.”

Cavnar went to college at Colorado State, but she interned at UK one summer in media relations. If there was a big Wildcats game, home or road, Myrt and her sisters would call Cavnar: “If you can get us a ticket, we’ll buy your plane ticket home.”

Myrt Cavnar died in 2011, at 86. Three of her sisters, however -- Dot Hanna, 92, Peggy Kays, 90, and Barbara Coleman, 88 -- still watch and opine on Wildcats basketball. The only concession to age is they no longer attend road games.

That gives them a little more time to tune in and listen to Jenny keep family tradition alive.

“It’s funny,” Cavnar said. “Looking back, all the seeds were being planted. You learn a lot about your place in society through how you fit into your family dynamic.

“I was always one that was ready and willing to talk. I was a chatterbox. I’d find myself in the middle. That was always a place with my grandma where I felt comfortable -- just talking sports.”