Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Words for Ward Miss What Matters

In the week since Pam Ward's demotion became public, sports media commentators and all those who consider themselves smarter than everyone else (and several people fit in both categories) have taken the opportunity to point out all that's wrong with ESPN's decision to pull Ward off play-by-play duties on college football.

At least they've tackled the issue in general, one-sided terms.

Without using the exact words, it can be surmised that most consider Ward's demotion an affront, an outrage, even a problem for sports on TV in general because it closes the door on an opportunity for women at high levels of sports media.

That's a possible argument, certainly one with merit. At the same time, it's also a generalization and an overstatement.

Ward's work was consistently solid. She was not spectacular on play-by-play of college football, but she was inevitably prepared and mostly mistake-free. With dozens of games televised every week, that's not always the kind of performance viewers get from the professionals in the booth -- and her work was appreciated as a result.

While Ward addressed her situation with several leading national columnists, and did so well, comments from higher ups at ESPN about the move have been generally limited.

According to the preferred message, though, Ward was done a disservice and there's no good reason for taking her off play-by-play duties of major college football.

Ward was one of just two women who held such a role, and her departure leaves only Beth Mowins in the male-dominated field. Ward will remain at ESPN, covering other sports and hoping for another chance to return to college football.

Here's the rub, though, it really does not matter who handles play-by-play of most games.

Aside from people who watch games to comment on them, and die-hard fans who listen for every possible perceived slight against their team, few people really care who's in the booth. On-air talent itself does not drive ratings for games. Those folks might generate reaction, but they do not necessarily "move the needle" in terms of viewership. That's especially true for regular season college football games -- even moreso for games that start at midday or early afternoon on ESPN.

So, an argument could follow that Ward should remain, because it does not matter if it's her or some other supposedly play-by-play talent. Plus, with Ward as one of the lone women as her level, coverage and games are more likely to get comment from media commentators and smart people.

Still, with people in Ward's position so generally interchangeable, her demotion might just simply be a business decision. That's the other side of the argument -- the unspoken part so far.

If on-air talent does not matter -- aside from some clearly A-list assignments -- then it's only reasonable that networks and those who handle assignments might try different things from time to time. Maybe they're looking for a different sound. Maybe they want to try another pairing just to hear and see what happens.

Without Ward, college football fans lose a solid professional. Hopefully she'll get a chance to return. However, her loss is not a loss for the sport in general, nor a loss for women. Many opportunities and on-air assignments remain for hard-working and talented women to get on-air assignments, and to make an impact those that will follow them.

Ward has certainly done that in her role, but to burden her with even more responsibility than simply doing a good job seems unfair.