In all, 2012 has been a pretty great year for women in sports. First, we honored the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the revolutionary legislation that allowed young women to participate in sports in unprecedented numbers. Then, not coincidentally, the U.S. women dominated the Summer Olympics, winning 29 of the U.S. team's 46 gold medals. And on Monday, news broke that Augusta National Golf Club had finally entered the 20th century and invited two women to join. (It's about damn time.)
On Sunday, we saw another major accomplishment for women in sports. Michele Smith, a two-time Olympic softball gold medalist and ESPN analyst, joined the TBS broadcast booth for the Braves-Dodgers game, becoming the first woman to provide analysis for a nationally televised major league baseball broadcast.
I'm not going to get into a rant about why this has taken so long to happen or to discuss the long history of baseball as an old boys' club. Things have changed significantly over the years, and women are well represented in a variety of capacities -- as fans (women make up 46 percent of MLB's fan base, up from 37 percent 10 years ago), executives, writers and on-air talent. In 1993, Gayle Gardner became the first woman to provide play-by-play for a televised MLB game. In New York, Suzyn Waldman has been providing color commentary for Yankees radio broadcasts since 2005 and served as a play-by-play announcer for the team in the mid-1990s. But before this past Sunday, we had not seen a woman provide analysis on a national broadcast.
Smith, 45, was an ideal candidate to make history. She has two Olympic gold medals and three world titles for Team USA, and was inducted into the ASA Softball Hall of Fame in 2006. She's played professionally in the Japanese Professional Softball League since 1992 and is an eight-time Japanese Pro League Champion and MVP. On the broadcasting side, the Oklahoma State graduate has been a softball analyst with ESPN since 1995 and served as NBC's color commentator for the 2008 Olympics, the last time softball was part of the Summer Games.
"Hopefully, when the game's over the folks that have been watching will have garnered a little bit more respect for female athletes," Smith told Sports Business Daily last week after TBS' announcement. "We're starting to see more women have opportunities to not just be sideline reporters but to be analysts and break down a sport to really give their knowledge back to the games."
I tuned in to the TBS game Sunday afternoon because I wanted to hear Smith on the air. I thought she held her own in the booth and appeared knowledgeable about baseball and, of course, softball. While Ernie Johnson and John Smoltz seemed glad to have Smith with them, I noticed that each tried to ask her a lot about softball, as if they were attempting to find some common ground rather than just seeking her insights into baseball. Then again, establishing chemistry with a new member of an announcing team always presents a challenge, and this may have been the easiest way to include her in the conversation. The Twitter reaction to Smith's participation seemed fairly positive, other than a few standard-issue sexist comments (it is the Internet, after all).
TBS hasn't made any announcement regarding a return engagement for Smith in the booth. Those who follow sports media, including Ken Fang of Fang's Bites, wonder if Sunday's experiment served as Smith's audition for the postseason (TBS will broadcast the AL and NL wild-card games, the division series and the ALCS).
Whatever happens in the future, I enjoyed seeing and hearing a knowledgeable woman in the broadcast booth during a national game and hope to hear Smith again in October. Kudos to TBS for helping make more history for women in sports this year.