When some people hear the words “Toronto Raptors,” they immediately see sweaty men: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, or former Raptor Serge Ibaka pressing up and down the court trying to beat the clock. They think of the team’s historic and thrilling 2019 Championship run. They think of Drake (he’d love to hear that). But for many others, the Toronto Raptors is synonymous with Kayla Grey. The TSN sports host is almost as much a staple as Lowry himself, on the sidelines and alongside the team, documenting their historic run and offering the context and analysis needed to bring audiences into the action.
While Grey’s run with the Raptors may have put her on Canadian screens across the country, it was far from many people’s first introduction to her. At just 28, the Scarborough, ON native and award-winning broadcaster already has several accolades to her name. When she made her TSN SportsCentre debut in 2018, Grey became the first Black woman to host a flagship sports highlight program in Canada. Since then, she’s gone on to crush several other firsts; in March, Grey was a part of the NBA’s first all-female broadcast alongside sports heavyweights like Kia Nurse. Over the last year, Grey has also been an outspoken activist online and IRL, speaking out against anti-Black racism in the sports world. In June 2020, she was publicly bullied online after speaking out against a white journalist who used the N-word in an essay about racism. The anchor stood her ground, and soon after #KaylaGreyAppreciationDay started trending on Twitter.
Her latest venture, The Shift with Kayla Grey — a bi-weekly show covering topics at the intersection of sports, life, and culture — is a dream that came together in the unlikeliest of places: “I joke that this came together on napkins,” Grey told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the premiere date. Already several years into her career, Grey started thinking about her next move, writing down ideas and thinking about the representation she wishes she’d seen on sports news when she was younger. “[I thought] if I were watching television, what would I want my sports show to look like? What would I want my sports and entertainment to look like and how would I want to be delivered?” she says. She then started generating ideas and got into a flow. Pretty soon she had a vision to pitch out.
The Shift, which launches on May 13 via a dedicated hub at TSN.ca, is the answer to those childhood dreams; covering not only sports, but entertainment, news, pop culture, and even streetwear through a new and diverse lens via interviews and panels — shifting the way these topics are reported, and the communities that get covered. (Get it?)
It’s an accomplishment that speaks to Grey’s own grit and perseverance, but also builds on the work of women of colour who came before her — Marci Ien, Tracy Moore, and Lainey Lui to name a few — who’ve hosted their own shows and supported her as she steps into this new role. “[I’ve] just been leaning on my people,” Grey says. Reaching out to her community and asking for help — either for advice or to come on the show — was initially hard for Grey, who’s independent. But that soon changed. “What I realized is, there's nobody in your community that wants to see you fail. So why would you not ask for extra hands and help to get this done?”
Ahead of the show’s premiere, Grey spoke with Refinery29 about the inception of the show, and why she celebrates her tries as much as her wins. (And yes, she would definitely have the Raptors on the show...if they’re lucky.)
Refinery29: You’ve obviously been working on The Shift for awhile. What was the process like getting the show to where it is now?
Kayla Grey: “[After coming up with the idea], in my mind I thought, No you can’t do this, don’t tell anyone about this idea. But there was also this thing in me that was like, You have to just try anyways and if it gets shut down it gets shut down. So I had a conversation with TSN’s brand partnerships team, and that's when I got connected with Ken Wong, who’s [one of the] executive producers on the show. We thought, someone is going to understand this vision, someone is going to trust it, someone is going to realize that this voice doesn't even exist right now — and they're going to back it.
“And lo and behold, the team at Dell [the show is sponsored by Dell] got it. And they just let us cook. It was very important that we were aligned with a partner like Dell, that was just like, ‘We want you for you.’ For someone like me, who's dealt with imposter syndrome and racism throughout the industry, that was a huge boost.
As a woman of colour in a male-dominated industry, just being able to bring yourself and your great ideas to the table and then have that reinforced and validated by the people who have the ability to make these types of things happen is still too rare. How did that feel?
“It was a huge learning process for me. There's been a lot of conversations since last summer, especially with us media folks, about who we are and what we've gone through. And from that has come a lot of growth, a lot of revisiting trauma for a lot of us. But one of the hardest steps for us all, and for myself specifically, was the un-conditioning and the dreaming without confines. That to me was the hardest shift; letting all that stuff go and sitting in the fact that I'm great at what I do, I have a brilliant mind. I can make ideas, and then these ideas can make money. Once I started to sit in that confidence, things started turning around.”
You recently posted a photo of yourself posing under a billboard for the show. I really liked how, in the caption, you talked about being proud of yourself for the accomplishment, but also being proud of yourself for “the try.” Can you talk a little bit more about that idea?
“ As women, because we are so focused, so determined, so hard-working, the finish line is often all we focus on, and we're not looking at the yards that we've passed to get there. There are so many times that I've heard myself, talking to myself, or talking with friends — we have all these beautiful, brilliant ideas and they might not be complete, but they're something; and instead of selling them, we give 1,000 reasons why they won't work.. I think one of the scariest things for us could be, What if it does work out? That might be what holds us back. So, what I wanted to convey with that message was: If you're holding on to something and know in your bones that it’s your calling, there’s no harm in trying. Life is just so fragile, life is just so short, that you owe it to your existence to give yourself a shot every single time.”
Speaking of shots. Kyle Lowry has said he’d maybe be on the show. Do you have a dream interview?
“It’d be people that have since transitioned and aren't here anymore, like Kobe Bryant. One person I would have loved, loved, loved to sit down with is Arthur Ashe. He is just strength and advocacy and all the things, so those are dream people I’d love to have a conversation with. Now, LeBron would be interesting, Serena [Williams] would be incredible. They’re my GOATs — just have a conversation with them would be an absolute dream. I'm just saying it out loud to you so we can speak it into existence.”
We can manifest it. You heard it here first! You’re also an executive producer on the show. Was it important for that to be part of your role when you were pitching this?
“I honestly was willing to take the executive producer tag over the hosting tag. It was that important to me. Because this is my intellectual property. I think it shows the importance for people of colour to own their ideas. And also, this is my baby, and I wanted to see it through. I’m involved in the ideation side, the creative side, managing our social media teams. I’m very involved in how this show goes. What you will see as the audience is me, and I think it's incredibly important for it to be that way because my name is on the show. If I'm just walking in and reading the script, at the end of the day, that's not cool with me.”
You’ve been a part of a lot of firsts. All of your accomplishments are something to be very proud of, but do you feel any pressure to be defined in those terms?
“There's always a certain kind of pressure when you are the first person to step into things, especially as a Black woman, because you realize that the person behind you, their success or opportunity or shot might rely on what you do. Is that fair to take on? Absolutely not. But I would be lying to say that I don't take it on. Every step that I'm taking, everything that I do, I keep in mind a lot of other people when I do it.
“This is why I'm so passionate about getting this show right. Unfortunately, as far as we think we’ve come, Black people still don't have the luxury of hiccups. We don't have that privilege yet. But I think the biggest pressure that I have put on myself is, Alright, you have all these firsts, how are you making sure that you're not the last? How are you making sure that there's a pipeline of Kaylas coming in? So that it’s not, ‘Oh wow a Black woman,’ but it’s more so ‘Dope, there’s this person over here, there’s another woman over there.’ There’s space and room for us and our Blackness does not look all the same, our Blackness looks different, our Blackness is intersectional. That is the bigger goal for me, doing my job so it can in some way play a part in opening up the field for more people to be in here and to thrive.”
This is a pivot, but I wanted to ask you about fashion. We're over women only being asked about that of course, but you have such great style. What role does fashion play in your life?
“I love my athleisures. Fashion to me is something I just play with. It's so fun. So sometimes you'll see me in a heel. Most times you'll see me in a sneaker. I mix it up. Why I do that is because that's how I feel like more of my personality can come through. When I was 15, I was thrifting because that’s all I could afford when I was living solo. So I was making outfits work. And that's where I had a lot of my identity; it made me feel empowered in a way that made me feel confident.
“One thing that I say though for anyone that talks about my looks, I ask: ‘But did you listen to what I said?’ Check the receipts, the work that I do is pretty alright. If I want to put a little extra time on the outfit, then I think I can do that because I know that I'm coming into every opportunity, every hit, every highlight prepared.”
Athletes are notoriously superstitious — do you have any pregame or pre-broadcast superstitions that you do?
“I listen to the most ratchet music, like ratchet music; dancehall, all of the things. Whenever I'm heading to the studio, whenever I'm about to sit down and write. I just like to get in my zone and do things that make me feel comfortable. Music is a big part of that for me. I have the weirdest hours anyways; I’m a night owl, so nothing's normal.”
Walk me through the show. What can people expect and what makes it different?
“Girl, we are all over the place [laughs]. No I’m kidding. What makes us different is the pace and the energy — the looseness, so to speak. When you watch sports television these days, there's a certain package; delivery is a certain way, you get your highlights a certain way. There's a lot of structure. And as much as we need that as fans and they love that, and it's something that we've grown accustomed to, there's not that much opportunity to add nuance to the big stories.
I'm looking forward to going back to creating for myself, creating for my 15-year-old self, for my 20-year-old self, someone that could enjoy this and not feel like I have to cater to Joe in Saskatchewan. Not that I have anything against Joe!
“We're going to take those big storylines that you see and do the deep dives, and go down the rabbit holes for you and tell you why you should care about it, why it matters, how this affects you at the end of the day. I'm a big believer that it's not sports anymore, it’s sports and entertainment. We're watching what Russell Westbrook’s wearing, we're watching what Naomi Osaka’s up to next, we just saw Kevin Durant win an Oscar. What we're seeing now with athletes is that they are so much more than that. And that's so good to see, especially from young BIPOC people. Especially in the Black community, sometimes you’re told, ‘If you want to get in the sports space, it can only be because of your athletics.’ So when you see Kevin Durant, when you see LeBron James who now has stakes in the Boston Red Sox, you see that ownership. That's important. I want to make sure that our show is highlighting the multifacetedness of athletes, but also artists and also people that we can relate a little bit better, and also feel inspired ourselves.
“What I love is, in that promo clip, she says something to the effect of, ‘No this is not for them, this is for me.’ And I think that that's such an important thing that we remember as young BIPOC creatives. Before, we used to tailor, change, and morph the way that we speak, and the way that we create so that it can be digestible for a certain sort of audience. And we didn't really acknowledge, truly, that we are part of that audience. We are the audience. So, I'm so looking forward to going back to creating for myself, creating for my 15-year-old self, for my 20-year-old self, someone that could enjoy this and not feel like I have to cater to Joe in Saskatchewan. Not that I have anything against Joe! But that seems to be the prototype in any newsroom, like how would Suzy in Saskatchewan feel about this? Suzy, we would love to have you girl, but if you don't want to join us, that’s okay.”
There's other people who are interested in this content.
“Exactly. There's Kayla from Scarborough. She's just fine.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Want to hear more from Kayla? Join Grey and R29 Unbothered Senior Editor Kathleen Newman-Bremang on Refinery29 Canada’s Instagram on May 12 at 6 p.m. EST as they chat about the sportscaster's new show, The Shift, and making change in the industry.