Sports media is filled with varying voices and personalities, each seemingly getting louder and larger as the years go by. But, up until 2014, there had not been a single nationally televised all-female weekly sports show in sight. Enter CBS Sports Network’s “We Need to Talk,” which offers a refreshing look at the sports landscape, one where the emphasis is on “talk,” not yelling or hurling demeaning insults to athletes, coaches and colleagues.
The groundbreaking program features a rotating panel of 12 esteemed women from executives to longtime analysts to accomplished athletes. Their mission? Bring us closer to the heartbeat of the sports world.
“We don’t just recap highlights and what happens. We try to push the envelope a little bit, share our viewpoints and look ahead to see how sports culture is affecting things on a deeper level,” said Tracy Wolfson, “We Need to Talk” panelist and CBS lead sideline reporter for the NFL and NCAA basketball.
Producers hit a home run when recruiting their roster of panelists. Along with Wolfson, the panel includes Amy Trask, former CEO of the Oakland Raiders and CBS Sports Network NFL analyst; Lesley Visser, Hall of Fame broadcaster; Andrea Kremer, award-winning broadcaster; Allie LaForce, CBS lead SEC sideline reporter; Dana Jacobson, CBS sports and news anchor; Aditi Kinkhabwala, NFL Network reporter; Laila Ali, former professional boxer; Lisa Leslie, former WNBA player; Swin Cash, former WNBA player and current college basketball analyst for CBS Sports Network; Dara Torres, Olympic swimmer; Summer Sanders, Olympic swimmer and long-time broadcaster; and Katrina Adams, former professional tennis player and current CEO and President of the United States Tennis Association.
“When we have our meetings, and we talk about what different topics we could cover, I feel like I always advocate that the topics don’t necessarily have to be different to be entertaining,” Jacobson said. “Our opinions are going to be different by virtue of who we are, and that’s not about just being women. That’s about our experience in the industry and where we come from.”
The diversity of viewpoints in front of the camera is certainly part of the show’s recipe for success. The other portion comes from behind the lens, with world-class producers and directors who not only take storytelling to another level, but help foster an environment for talent to shine.
The Gift of the Platform
Vice President of Features and Original Programming for CBS Sports and “We Need to Talk” Coordinating Producer Emilie Deutsch grew up with dreams of being the next Barbara Walters, but things shifted in college when she jumped at the opportunity to be the sports editor for the Stanford Daily. And, she hasn’t looked back since.
The six-time Emmy Award winner has produced or overseen production for network feature and documentary content for major events such as the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500 and the NCAA Tournament among others.
Alongside Deutsch is Coordinating Producer and Director Suzanne Smith, also a six-time Emmy Award winner, who has been with CBS Sports since 1983, and is the only woman, for any network, currently producing or directing NFL games.
“They really were the pioneers,” Jacobson said. “To have their experience with us is huge.”
Deutsch and Smith oversee talented producers Amy Salmanson and Julie Keryc, who are tasked with compressing loads of great content into a weekly show.
“We bring some perspective to the history of women in sports, and of women talking about sports,” Deutsch said.
It’s somewhat new terrain. Traditionally, women have fallen into the sideline reporter role. By nature, that position only allows for about three minutes of camera time during a three-hour game. But, “We Need to Talk” offers so much more.
“My role on the sideline, I’m so alienated. You’re feeding off of your announcers, but besides that, you’re in your own world,” Wolfson said. “I love to talk about the NFL on our show, which is not surprising, but a lot of the reason why is because I have so much information that I gather when I’m on the road week in and week out, and most of it doesn’t get into a broadcast because we don’t have that much time. I meet with coaches and I meet with players, and I have all this inside access that very few people get, and I want to share it.”
An Open Door Policy
“We Need to Talk” hits on hot topics in the major sports, but it also isn’t afraid to highlight and add personal commentary to fringe stories, those narratives that are so often missed, yet impact large parts of society.
“This past week, we did a story on the Iowa football team that waves to the children’s hospital,” Deutsch said. “It was a story Dana Jacobson did, and Swin Cash was willing to talk about the fact that when she was younger, she had had cancer. Personal experiences really help elucidate and extend the conversation beyond what’s already going on.”
Additionally, they cut down that layer between viewers and those on screen, which is what the show thrives on.
“One of our favorite guests, before he passed away, was John Saunders,” Jacobson said. “Obviously, it’s rare for someone from ESPN to cross over to CBS Sports Network, but his daughter is one of our researchers. When we had him on the show, he wasn’t just ‘John Saunders from ESPN.’ He was ‘Aleah’s dad.’ I saw the pride John had in his daughter, and that was just a tie we wanted to make for our audience to understand that John was coming on our show to share his sports knowledge, but he’s also part of our family because his daughter is part of our family. I think that let people in between the screen.”
That’s one of the great things about the show. When it comes to guest appearances, the program isn’t constricted by network lines.
“If there’s an ESPN reporter, like Shelly Smith or Jess Mendoza, someone from a different network, we love having them on and giving them a platform,” Deutsch said.
And, the women who sit on the panel don’t hold back when it comes to opening their own contact lists either.
“The women are very invested in our show, and they’re willing to reach out and bring people in as well,” Deutsch said. “Lesley Visser, for example, landed Hakeem Olajuwon and Bill Belichick.”
Other guests have included Mark Cuban, Tom Coughlin, Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr and Jim Kelly. And, word is spreading quickly: It’s a show worth appearing on.
“It’s a place where guests can come on and have thoughtful conversations without being attacked,” Deutsch said.
Still, panelists don’t shy away from asking the tough questions. It’s all about bringing up topics the average sports show won’t ask, according to Wolfson. Of course, timing plays a big role, too.
“I remember I asked [New York Giants wide receiver] Brandon Marshall how much more time he had to play the game, in terms of him retiring,” Wolfson said. “He came on with his wife, and he was there to also push their charity, but because I asked the question, he told us he thought he was being cut in the green room right before coming on our show. We had no idea, and that was just raw emotion because we asked the right question at the right time.”
Teamwork That’s Making the Dream Work
Each week, four “We Need to Talk” panelists take their seat on set. Not everyone sees each other on a regular basis, yet the camaraderie is as strong as any network team.
“It’s a really supportive group. Somebody will win an award and an email chain goes around to the entire group, and you hear from everybody in the group,” Jacobson said. “Somebody has a baby, somebody gets a job promotion, whatever it is, it’s just an incredibly supportive job environment. Shows I’ve worked on in the past, people have always been supportive about the show, but not always the other stuff.”
It’s also an environment where friendship comes before network lines.
“[NFL Network Chief Coorespondant] Andrea Kremer gave me some great advice for my first experience on the sideline at the Super Bowl,” Wolfson said. “I think we all realize that when we give each other a boost and help each other succeed, it’s for a greater good.”
Gender Doesn’t Matter in Sports Media
Perhaps one day, it won’t be a big deal for there to be an all-female sports talk show. Until that days comes, “We Need to Talk” is setting the standard and showing younger generations what’s possible in life.
“I think the most important thing we’re showing is there are women doing what young people may want to do,” Deutsch said. “We have women representing as athletes, women representing as executives, women representing as journalists and reporters, and as people who have a love for sports.”
Young people like Wolfson, who at 7 years old was watching NBA Inside Stuff, and dreaming of a fulfilling career in sports broadcasting.
“I think you can look at anyone on this panel, and you can say they succeeded in what they wanted to achieve in their professional life, whether they’re an athlete, journalist or executive,” Wolfson said. “We’re showing girls and boys great things happen when you set your goals in life and go after it.”
“We Need to Talk” is also demonstrating that great things happen when we have the courage to express our opinions. And, that extends beyond sports.
“I think you have to be confident in who you are, and know that your opinion has value,” Jacobson said. “People may not agree with it, you may not get your way, nothing may come of you voicing your beliefs, but there is some power in simply putting your words and thoughts out there. I think opinion has value, and if you don’t value your opinion, nobody else will. If you don’t value it enough to voice it, you need to find a way to value it, so you can express it, maybe not on television but in areas of your own life. It’s one of the most powerful things you can do.”
And, that’s something everyone from “We Need to Talk” will agree on.