Set aside for a moment the question if there is a need for an all-female sports talk show in 2014. We’ll come back to it because it is a fair and important question, but if we start from a point of “why does this exist in the first place” we cannot review We Need To Talk through the proper lens of what it is in the first place, a sports talk show.
After a muddled first week of introducing all twelve (!) of its hosts; Andrea Kremer, Dana Jacobson, Dara Torres, Amy Trask, Katrina Adams, Lisa Leslie, Laila Ali, Allie LaForce, Lesley Visser, Swin Cash, Tracy Wolfson and Summer Sanders, and spending most of their premiere hour discussing Ray Rice in what felt like a “very special” catch-up episode of the previous month’s events concerning domestic violence in sports, We Need To Talk settled into their proper format last week; four hosts, a special guest host and an interviewee.
The first four up to host in the show’s revolving-chair format were Andrea Kremer, Dana Jacobson, Lisa Leslie and Summer Sanders, all strong broadcasters who have spent decades in front of the camera either as athletes, as reporters, or in the case of Sanders and Leslie, both.
And yet such accomplished reporters started the second week’s roundtable on the defensive by rebutting the Men’s Health article, “How to Talk About Sports With Women” which had been published the day the show taped.
Having to defend one’s existence around sports is not an uncommon phenomenon with female fans (there’s that pesky question we’re ignoring for now trying its best to force itself into the discussion), but to have someone as powerful and thoughtful as Kremer even acknowledging such piffle felt small and belittling. One could not help but wish if they had to address the Men’s Health piece they would have done so towards the end of the show as a throwaway, and not spent the opening segment with something that was beneath all four hosts.
Once the We Need To Talk hosts move past proving their bona fides, the show moves at the same general pace as most sports talk shows; current event topics, opinions and information offered on said topics, interjections tossed out over each other — although it should be noted there is a lot less yelling from the hosts at each other then your typical sports chat show — before moving into the show’s different segments. Taking a cue from one of the best aspects of blogging and online writing, the hosts don’t hide who their favorite teams are when discussing the news, a refreshing change that makes all of the show’s hosts more relatable. Cheap and easy love? Of course, but feels okay to be had by this crew. I’ve long been a fan of Swin Cash, but hearing her talk about the Pirates during the first episode made me want to high-five my TV, something I generally only get to do when Doc Emrick sneaks in a Buccos reference in the middle of a Bruins-Habs game.
What sets We Need To Talk apart from the rest of the sports talk landscape is not that it’s an all-female hosted show, it’s that We Need To Talk is a murderer’s row of talented, smart journalists, athletes and fans who can discuss circles around the Mike & Mikes, First Takes, PTIs and the like no matter which combination of four hosts out of the twelve are featured on any given week.
When Sanders discusses how Clayton Kershaw deals with the offseason and defeat, how losing was tough for her, there is a barely a beat before Leslie pipes in with her own experience, “sports psychologist.” Wolfson and LaForce can run through sideline injury protocols in an instant, not hem and haw guessing what should or should not have happened on a Michigan sideline when a player has a concussion.
Kremer has insider tidbits about how Tom Brady is his own worst critic (and the joke-y insider ribbing from her co-hosts about Goodell has come to her in the past for “informal” conversations which sounded like she may have at one point been offered a job). Trask and Visser can discuss the business side at length and it’s worth nothing Trask early in the first episode making a point of saying she doesn’t want anyone in the NFL to have a job just because they are a woman, she wants the best people in each position regardless of background, because it read as a rejection of “female first” empowerment the We Need To Talk might be mistaken for at first glance. When Laila Ali discusses if sports make a person violent, she’s drawing not only on her experience as a fighter, she’s discussing her entire upbringing and marriage.
The first episode, the one where all the hosts (save Sanders who was in Africa for Right To Play work) got to speak out about domestic violence in their own lives as wives, girlfriends, daughters and friends in and around sports was as raw and open as you’ll see on any talk show, setting the standard that this is a show where genuine and honest discussions are going to happen, not setting up a joke for a chalkboard for someone to award points to at the end of the segment. That openness about their own personal lives continued the next week when discussing allowing kids to play football and what they were and weren’t doing in their own families. But instead of it sounding like a group of parents worried about bruises, it was an informed debate about what they had seen themselves as both reporters and athletes.
The only faltering so far has been when there are guests on We Need To Talk. Through the CBS connection, Gayle King of CBS This Morning was the second guest host on the show and it was a little jarring during a college football discussion when she said she didn’t watch football on the weekends, it was her time to catch up on Desperate Housewives. She then segued into how she understood Ole Miss because had recently interviewed Eli Manning. While this may be an attempt to lure in the casual sports fan, the show already has the right balance of light and serious that viewers shouldn’t be intimidated by the stat junkies like Leslie and Jacobson.
Finding that balance still might prove to be difficult though, as interviewing Katie Blackburn, Executive Vice President of the Bengals demonstrated in the second show. Once the interview got past the cringe-worthy remark from guest host King saying it must have been great for meeting boys when she was growing up since her family owned the Bengals — yes, you did hear all the air get sucked right out of the studio — Kremer pointedly asked Blackburn what she wanted to hear from Goodell during the owners meeting that week to which Blackburn nervously gave a pretty pat NFL owner soundbite reply. There was a moment it felt like Kremer was holding back, that the producer in her wanted to press for a deeper answer, but she pulled back from following up like we have seen her do hundreds of times on Real Sports. Jacobson managed to push a little further asking Blackburn if she believed in Goodell, to which she too received a canned, NFL-first answer. Maybe it was second week “we’re going to need more guests some day” caution, but it was easy to sense they were holding back from wearing Blackburn down to get an unpolished answer. At the same time, it also felt like a message was sent to her via Kremer closing the interview, saying, “Not many women in the ownership group.”
Which brings us back to the question, does the television landscape need an all-women talk show? Before it even aired there was pushback from sites like Deadspin and SB Nation. It’s worth noting, Deadspin circa-2007 ran a women’s column that collected various opinions from female readers and dumped them all into one place before they gave a woman a byline, and the author of the SB Nation piece launched a now-defunct all-women’s site called Playing the Field in 2008, so it shows you how much faster the rate gender equality in sports reporting may feel online versus the broadcast world, so part of the resistance feels a little generational, a little Old Media versus New Media.
When Visser and Trask first broke through, they represented the very few females in their field. Kremer, Torres, Jacobson, Leslie, Wolfson, Adams, Ali, Cash and Sanders would be the wide-ranging middle guard, more women in professional sports and sports journalism, but certainly not an overwhelming percentage of either. Then the younger LaForce, probably not as accustomed to being the only woman in the room as her older peers, but still representing a shift towards equality in sports. All twelve of them have excelled above and beyond most of their peers not because they were women with something to prove, but because they had the talent to shine in fields that haven’t always been welcoming and mentoring to women.
Do we need an all-women’s talk show? No, not really. All of the twelve rotating hosts already have proven themselves to be excellent reporters on their own on a variety of traditional sports broadcasts. But to be honest it’s great to be spoiled and have so much talent on the same show without worrying about the buzzer.
Sarah Sprague is an indie writer based out of Los Angeles who loves to combine her passion for sports, entertaining and the fan experience. She’s contributed to sites such as Deadspin, Kissing Suzy Kolber, SB Nation, Ain’t It Cool News, Playing the Field, The Awl and With Leather and has been featured on ABC News, Yahoo! Sports Blogs, The Sporting News Blog, NBC Sports Blogs, Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine.