My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana is on Lesley Visser breaking new ground again.
Last night, she was part of the premiere of “We Need to Talk” on the CBS Sports Network, the first all-women, general sports talk show. The first show looked promising with a terrific cast. In particular, Amy Trask was really strong.
Lesley Visser had to chuckle thinking about where she was Monday compared to when she broke into the business as a woman sportswriter in 1974.
“Back then, there was no such thing as a ladies room in the press box,” Visser said. “Why would you need one of those? There were only men in the press box.”
Flash forward 40 years, and Visser was in the CBS Sports Network studios preparing for the debut of “We Need to Talk,” which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET. Scanning the room in preparation for the new sports talk show, she saw 15 or 16 women, but only man: Kyle, the camera guy.
“How cool is that?” Visser said.
Indeed, in a career full of milestones, here’s another one for Visser: She will be part of the first all-female, general sports talk show. Sure, there will be discussions on women sports if they are in the news, but the dialogue will cover everything and anything — from the upcoming MLB playoffs to LeBron James returning to Cleveland.
Virtually all of the 12 rotating regulars will be on hand for tonight’s debut. Besides Visser, there’s Andrea Kremer, Amy Trask, Lisa Leslie, Laila Ali, Tracy Wolfson, Allie LaForce and Dara Torres, among others. Going forward, there will be four or five women featured on the weekly show. Suzanne Smith, a pioneer as a women director for CBS’ coverage of the NFL, will be the director and co-coordinating producer.
When asked how she describes the show, Visser reflected back 30 years ago to when she attended Smith’s parties.
“It would be Suzanne, me, Mary Carillo and Billie Jean King talking about sports,” Visser said. “We thought, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t this make the greatest show?’ All these years later, it’s happening.”
For the record, plans for this show were in place before the Ray Rice fiasco exploded on America’s front pages. However, the timing couldn’t be better with the focus being placed on elevating women’s voices in sports coverage.
Emilie Deutsch, one of the show’s coordinating producers, believes “We Need to Talk” will fill a void. Since the Rice story isn’t going to go away, she hopes the show will be able to advance the discussion.
“(During the Rice story), something I heard a lot on sports talk radio was, ‘I asked my wife how she felt about this topic and she said this…’” Deutsch said. “This is something we won’t need to do. Our panel will have the perspective of young girls, older women, daughters, mothers and wives.”
However, both Visser and Deutsch emphasize that “We Need to Talk” shouldn’t be viewed simply as a “women’s show.” Visser bristled a bit when asked if this would be the female version of “Pardon The Interruption” or “Around the Horn.”
“It shouldn’t be reduced to that,” Visser said. “We will have people on the show capable of talking about all sorts of issues. We were just having a discussion about what makes Gregg Popovich so successful. This show could go in many different directions depending on who is on.”
Ultimately, the discussions need to be compelling to produce ratings. Since women still make up a minority of sports viewers, the show needs to pull in men to be successful. Deutsch said, “In all honesty, our target audience is sports fans.”
The good news, Deutsch said, is that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus and CBS Sports Network president David Berson are committed to make the show work.
“They are 100 percent behind this,” Deutsch said. “Let’s see how it evolves and grows. A lot of it is going to be based on what these women bring to the show.”
Hopefully, one of the byproducts of “We Need to Talk” will be to serve as role models for aspiring young women who want a career in sports journalism. Visser is thrilled to be at the forefront again.
Visser rattled off a list that included her being the first woman to appear on Monday Night Football and Final Four telecasts.
“At 61, I thought my pioneering days were over,” she said. “I guess not.”