MLB’s Next Product Improvement Could Come From Women

Saying that MLB has a diversity problem is like saying that James Gunn may regret some old tweets. Everybody knows, but reaching a consensus on how to move forward means facing an obstacle in front of a deadlock covered with an impasse. We shall overcome, but overcoming takes many things, and the greatest of these things is time.

Equality in any form requires time, because the application of sheer willpower to push this particular boulder up the mountain and mustering the effort to expand influence necessary for sea change take time.  The long term view that the ultimate end goal is equality straight across the board constantly struggles to coexist with the short term desire to impatiently heat check the popcorn in the microwave every 5 seconds.  Is it done?  Are we there yet?  Are any kernels left unpopped?

Inclusion isn’t just a single bag of popcorn in a single microwave.  It’s about getting the majority, the minorities, and women into the same bag of popcorn where every kernel has the same opportunity to pop at the same time.  That does not mean that they will, but it means that they have the chance, and right now it seems that the one group most lacking in opportunities is female.  It could also be people of color or another group, but from where I sit it’s women.

Surely someone must have the proper perspective from which to view the big picture in its entirety, but that someone (unsurprisingly) is not me.  If I think of that big picture as a mosaic comprised of many, many small pictures, then I can focus on a granular tiny picture and at least wrap my mind around the concept of incremental progress and its much less attractive partner retrogression.  While the number of Fortune 500 CEO’s who happen to be women is down to 24 from 32 last year (retrogression), the number of female humans going into STEM-related fields is up yet again (progress).  If forced to choose between those two battles, the groundswell of higher education wins out every time based on its potential energy.  The former represents a minuscule, volatile sample size, and the latter represents more lasting change. This does not preclude annoyance that a mere 24 (<5%) out of 500 represents no more than table scraps, it’s just that increasing presence in engineering, aeronautics, and other STEM fields has the potential for a “trickle up” effect which I happen to favor of the “trickle down” approach.

Although I’m technically not really qualified to speak on many topics not related to Nerf products or Coffeemate flavors, I do feel qualified to speak about what I intently observe.  My observations as they pertain to Major League Baseball run the gamut from “the DH was contrived by the Great Satan” to “there are a thousand other songs I’d rather hear during the 7th inning stretch than God Bless America”.  Somewhere in-between you’ll find the subject of women (or lack thereof) in the broadcast booth.  The topic certainly deserves more attention, and though I’m a simple man easily distracted by shiny objects, I’m trying to give the subject a fraction of the time it deserves.

Why aren’t there more women in broadcast booths?  Is the issue perceived viewer demand which may or may not be a function of acceptance?  Could it be lack of actual talent in the pipeline?  What about the possibility that baseball’s Templar brotherhood has hidden the treasure along with the Arc of the Covenant?  Or are women simply uninterested, and if so – WHY?

The misguided attempt by Fox Sports to supplement regional coverage with teams of sports savvy 20-something females must certainly indicate that at least one massive network perceived a demand for more women in coverage.  Right distance, wrong club.  Undoubtedly, many fans would be happy to see increased diversity of the female variety, but Fox Sports failed to create and align the correct supply to meet the demand.  They took intelligent, well-spoken, obviously educated women and reduced them to Hooters girls (many of whom are intelligent, well-spoken, and obviously educated).  The common denominator of artificially limiting both groups to putting only the “bubbly” parts of their personalities on display was and is a disservice to women with so much more to offer.  Also, if you’ve forgotten about Fox Sports Midwest Girls Aimee, Kayla, Teryn, and Katie, think Team Fredbird with microphones instead of whistles and t-shirt launchers.  Their jobs with FSMW were well beneath them, and it showed.  The whole idea passed sexist just out of the gate and never looked back, so one would hope that most of us are beyond the mourning stage.

By the way, methinks the Team Fredbird comparison merits a deeper dive here.  Investing in regional cable versions of a baseball pep squad simply adds an awful layer to an already reprehensible one.  You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to see why few groups would embrace such a thing and why those demographics skew heavily – knuckle-dragging males, pervy older males, and girls incredibly desperate for role models who aren’t Kardashians or Jenners and haven’t discovered Michelle Obama or Oprah yet.

Also, here’s where we pull the chain and pump the brakes on this thing to recognize women like Jenny Cavnar (@jennycavnar) and Jessica Mendoza (@jessmendoza).  Earlier this season Cavnar became the first women since the 1700’s (slight exaggeration) to do play-by-play for a regular season MLB broadcast.  I missed (avoided) the game but not because of Cavnar.  To be entirely honest, it was a Rockies/Padres tilt in April, and non-Cardinals Monday night baseball during a work week has little allure when compared to falling asleep in the recliner.  Regrettable life decision on my part, because Cavnar’s “Fire up the fountains!  She gone!” home run call is better than anything else I’ve heard all season.

As for Mendoza, ESPN deserves credit for the savvy move that put her in a position to succeed on the Sunday Night Baseball crew.  She doesn’t have play-by-play duties, but she can call the action well enough.  She’s quite capable of finishing a thought on analytics and sliding into PBP mode long enough to handoff to Matt Vasgersian and do so seamlessly.  Smartly placed between Vasgersian and a future Hall of Famer in Alex Rodriguez, she has license to roam freely conversationally in a bit of a hybrid role facilitated by the three person booth.  She provides solid analysis while also helping limit the kind of vacuous gaps that often plague a two person booth.

There must be another Cavnar or Mendoza out there grinding it out just like they did.  Unless I’ve missed the mark here, that constitutes a talent pipeline.  Smart money says the majority of the pipeline contents come from softball, and that sport has plenty of knowledgeable women handling telecasts for college and international play in addition to the hundreds of student athletes graduating with diplomas each year.  Why aren’t more women getting plucked from those ranks or moving up the ladder as internal solutions within networks?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  I genuinely want to know, because I’m all for giving a shot to any single woman who can do a job better than any single man.  To that end, I’d rather listen to Tara Wellman (@tarawellman) than Al Hrabosky or Tim McCarver.  Better yet, I’d happily listen to Tara in a booth with Dan McLaughlin and one of Jim Edmonds, Brad Thompson, Rick Ankiel, or Ricky Horton.  Then give her radio duties occasionally with Mike Shannon and John Rooney just for the sheer entertainment value and the inevitable “Mike.  Buddy.  Pal.” which would almost certainly become Tara’s signature call the moment Shannon begins to wax rhapsodic about choo-choo trains in D.C.

Many of you may not know Tara much like I don’t know the vast majority of women in sports broadcasting; therefore, you may not think she’s the best person for the job (a matter we can settle with pistols at dawn).  She’s knowledgeable, passionate about her profession and the game, and has the mettle to deal with the barriers to entry.  If any of you say that there are other women just as qualified, then I say we’ve got a pipeline, and that means lack of talent isn’t the problem.

Demand?  Check.  Talented, qualified women waiting in the wings?  Check.  Level of interest?

About that.  To put it far too crudely but in terms even the most misogynistic can comprehend…chicks dig baseball.  Actually, women dig pretty much all sports – playing, watching, covering them.  They watch the games, buy tickets to attend games, purchase overpriced merchandise, and spill beer just like their male counterparts.  They are the 51% in America, and MLB and its network affiliates have failed to tap into the full potential of their fandom, purchasing power, and ability to infuse fresh blood into the broadcasting ranks.

Plenty have tackled the issue of MLB’s “make everything pink” approach to marketing that targets women, so I’ll skip right to the Plexiglass ceiling in broadcasting which appears to be located slightly above “sideline reporter” in most cases.  I get that the job may or may not be a steppingstone, and that’s a fine end point for those who have no interest in going higher or have failed to earn more based on merit.  However, the under-representation in the booth looks from afar like the product of an artificially manipulated non-Darwinian solution.

Granted, there is a pecking order, and maybe the jump from sideline or on-field reporter necessarily goes through “studio analyst”.  That’s fine in theory.  Everyone reaching for the booth must pay their dues for admittance into that elite club, but being a former player shouldn’t mean those dues get waived.  At the very least, that waiver shouldn’t be automatic.  Many former players make for excellent analysts, but for every Alex Rodriguez there is an Aaron Boone (or three).  More importantly, for every three Aaron Boone, there is probably a Cavnar, a Mendoza, or a Wellman, and they deserve equal consideration.

Note that I’m not calling for affirmative action in this all-too-wordy commentary, and this isn’t about charity.  I believe in hiring the best person for the job without regard for the numbers.  If three straight hires are men, then I’m fine with that as long as all three were the best for the job.  If three straight hires are women, then I’m fine with that too as long as all three were the best for the job.  It’s called equal opportunity, and networks need to get on board with it, because I watch a lot of games on MLBtv, and I’m 100% certain I’m not seeing the best product that every single network can put in the booth.  Until then, I’ll just keep muttering Sisyphus references under my breath and complaining about McCarver’s stories about Bob Gibson, the smell of papyrus, and how best to hunt wooly mammoths.

-#dennis (@gr33nazn)

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