“It’s Tough to Be a First”: Kayla Grey Is Changing the Conversation

The Shift creator is the first Black woman to host a flagship sports show in Canada
Kayla Grey, host of The Shift (Photography by Miguel Arenillas)

Kayla Grey started out as a beat reporter in Manitoba and B.C., shooting and editing her own footage. Now she hosts The Shift, a buzzy new show on TSN. Here, she talks about hustling her way to the top, learning to give up control and how she turned a napkin doodle into her dream job.

I always wanted to work in sports. At a young age, growing up in Scarborough, Ont., I watched baseball games and wrestling with my grandparents. Whatever sport I was watching would make my heart beat so fast. I loved talking about the games, I loved debating about the players, I loved betting on my favourite teams. I went to the College of Sports Media in Toronto for a two-year program in radio and television sports broadcasting. To me, sports television was the greatest reality show in the world, and I wanted to be part of it. I thought I could bring a fresh perspective and help tell these stories in a way that resonated with people who looked like me.

After a few years paying my dues with reporting gigs in Manitoba and B.C., I joined TSN’s team as a radio producer in 2015. From there I got an opportunity to be an update anchor on TSN 1050, an all-sports talk-radio station in Toronto, focusing on the Leafs, the Jays, the Raptors and TFC. Every half-hour, I’d announce the scores and talk about the big sports headlines of the day—and then the minute would run out and that was that.

In 2017, I asked TSN’s live-events producer if I could do sideline reporting during BioSteel’s All Canadian basketball games, which showcase the best high school basketball players across the country. And I got a yes! It was my first TV gig with TSN. But it was short-lived: The broadcast only lasted two quarters because one of the trucks had a power outage. It just went dark. And that’s how my first television appearance ended—with a blackout.

I kept hustling, getting comfortable with the sports-TV industry at live events, where I reported from the sidelines, rinkside or even from the commentary booth. The name of my game was to show up incredibly prepared, and I built a lot of relationships. These especially helped me in smaller markets, where I didn’t know what was what. During this time, I developed my onscreen style. I pride myself on delivering the news the way I would regularly chat in person. A story has to be accessible to make the most impact.

I said to myself: ‘Kayla, girl, if there is any spark in you, you better find it right now. Do not let anybody see you sweat

Kayla Grey in a purple outfit sitting in front of a yellow staircase
Kayla Grey’s TSN show, The Shift, premiered in May.

A couple of years later, the managers at TSN suggested I audition for SportsCentre, and in January 2018 I debuted as an anchor. I am the first Black woman to ever host a flagship sports-highlight show in Canada. But I didn’t even want to talk about being a “first” that day. I didn’t want people to think that was the only reason I was there. I braced myself for the fallout, and it came—there were people using the N-word on Twitter. I remember sitting at my anchor desk, and the countdown to air was in my ear. I said to myself: “Kayla, girl, if there is any spark in you, you better find it right now. You’re going to find some confidence in this moment of uncertainty. Do not let anybody see you sweat.”

The idea for my new TSN show, The Shift, began because I needed a release from the heaviness of summer 2020 and the discourse around racial justice. We were having those conversations in our everyday life and on television too, and it stayed with me long after the segments were done. So I said to myself, “Okay, don’t talk about it. Be about it.” And I started jotting down ideas for the kind of show I wanted to host. I’m not even kidding—I wrote my first segment ideas on a shredded napkin. I was imagining a show that didn’t shy away from anything. I wanted to make sure we didn’t feel muzzled or confined and that we could just exist.

It took courage to go from doodling my ideas on a shredded napkin to pitching them—and that’s where the show actually started to take shape. I brought the idea to the TSN brand-partnerships team, who believed in it and worked their tails off to make it happen. In the process, I had to really flip my perspective and ask, “Why not me? Why not that show?” Ken Wong, an executive producer, helped bring this conversation to the bosses. With a little luck, it all came together.

The Shift, which premiered in May, is a mix of news, short features, panel discussions and interviews with athletes, musical artists and actors. We’re talking about all things sports and entertainment and breaking down the biggest headlines of the day in new ways. It’s the kind of conversation you’d be having in your group chat. It’s tough to be a first. I’m aware that viewers might make decisions about people who look like me based on how I perform, and that creates a lot of pressure. But I’m also learning that I have to shed some of that weight. I don’t have control over everything, and that’s okay. There’s an easy part to all this too, which is that I love what I do. I’ve heard from so many viewers that when they watch The Shift, they feel seen. That never gets old.

Pacinthe Mattar
Pacinthe Mattar
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