NEW YORK (AP) Suzanne Smith likes to assign a cameraperson to shoot the teams running onto the field when she directs NFL games for CBS.
Typically those images might be used as a backdrop when the commentators welcome viewers or the broadcast comes back from commercial. But for last month’s matchup between the Steelers and Rams in St. Louis, they proved particularly illuminating.
As Greg Gumbel, the play-by-play announcer who works with Smith, puts it: ”Who expects the field to get set on fire?”
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Sparks from the pyrotechnics that accompany player introductions started the small blaze, which wound up delaying the game’s start by nearly 30 minutes. Smith realized one of CBS’s cameras probably caught that moment, and sure enough, they found it and were able to show it to viewers at home.
Directing sports telecasts is a lot about preparation, for both the predictable and the unpredictable. Smith is the only woman currently directing NFL games. A lifetime of experiences helped prepare her for this role.
”Coming up through the ranks, yes, don’t be naive about it: There has been a tremendous amount of obstacles,” Smith says. ”But I like to say that the passion outweighed the struggles.”
When she was breaking into the business in the early 1980s, she didn’t really think of herself as a trailblazer, though there were plenty of reminders this was a male-dominated field.
”When I started, I could not even comprehend the amount of people who said to me: `Who’s your father? How did you get his job?”’ Smith recalls.
”My father WATCHES television,” she remembers thinking.
He did, however, help instill in her a belief that she belonged. When Smith was 11, her dad and uncle insisted she should enter a soap box derby that was supposedly boys-only.
”My parents treated me like I could do anything,” she says.
Smith was also growing up at the right time, when girls were getting more opportunities to compete on an equal playing field because of Title IX, the educational gender-equity law. She earned an athletic scholarship to Temple, where she studied broadcasting.
”I was right on the cusp of that, that girls can do these things,” she says.
She then found herself in the right place in the big sports town that is Philadelphia. While still in college, Smith interned at a local station that televised Phillies games.
After graduating, she was directing a morning news show and realized she enjoyed working on college basketball games at night much better.
”I loved doing live television,” she says.
Smith joined CBS in 1983 and says she feels her bosses have fairly judged her by her work. But there were a lot of people to prove herself to week after week, and the crews she works with on NFL games tend to be almost entirely male.
”Over time, you get the respect of these guys. But you have to earn it,” she says. ”Then when you get it from one guy, he passed it on to the other guy. Now all of a sudden people are like, `Oh, great, you’re doing our game.’ Whereas I don’t know what they were saying before, but they were probably saying, `Who’s this woman doing our game?”’
She’s heard from her colleague who books the crews that people want to work for her now.
”A couple of years ago, I felt like that turned,” she says. ”In fairness, also, I got better at my job.”
Just like a football player going from college to the pros, in the transition from associate director to director, the game seems so fast at first.
”All of a sudden,” she says, ”one day time slowed down.”
Smith teams with producer Bob Mansbach, who guides the course of the telecast. The director puts that plan into action.
Smith sits in on the announcers’ meetings with players and coaches on the Friday and Saturday before a game, then they all discuss how they’ll handle certain situations.
In that Steelers-Rams matchup, St. Louis linebacker James Laurinaitis was about to pass Merlin Olsen as the franchise’s career tackles leader. Smith had a shot of Olsen’s name on the stadium’s Ring of Fame ready to go for when Laurinaitis set the record.
Of working with Smith, Gumbel says, ”It’s a very secure feeling when you’re talking about something and that pops up on screen.”
Smith is less concerned by the fact she’s the only female director of NFL broadcasts – she notes there are, at most, just 16 games a week – than by the dearth of women working as directors, producers and executives across sports television.
”Am I surprised there aren’t more women doing it? I’m not surprised, but I’m perhaps disappointed,” she says.
In recent years she’s taken a more active role in changing that. She also now has a platform to hire staff and to mold conversations as a coordinating producer for ”We Need to Talk,” the all-women sports show on cable channel CBS Sports Network.
Of preparing more women to ascend to leadership roles, Smith says, ”I am taking responsibility for it.”
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