Suzanne Smith’s colleagues describe her as decisive, perceptive and the ultimate pro. Just don't call the only woman directing NFL games a pioneer
During her 30-year broadcasting career, CBS Sports director Suzanne Smith says she often has been asked the following question: What will happen first—a woman elected U.S. president or assigned to direct a Super Bowl?
Last week she flipped the script and asked the question of a reporter, who answered a female president.
“I think you are right,” says Smith. “A woman in the White House will come first.”
Smith might be the most qualified person in America to answer. She is the only woman currently directing games for any of the five networks televising the NFL, a position she has held at CBS Sports for three decades. Directors and producers are assigned each year to an announcing team, and networks strive to keep continuity among teams over the years. For much of the past decade, Smith and producer Bob Mansbach have worked with play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle and analyst Dan Fouts. Along with the NFL, Smith also directs the NCAA basketball tournament (she worked with Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery for the past nine years) and the PGA Tour.
Does Smith consider herself a pioneer in a field dominated by males?
“I don’t,” she replied.
“Why?" she was asked.
“I save the word pioneer for a Billie Jean King or Lesley Visser and I’ve been fortunate enough to know both,” says Smith, 55. “Pioneer is just a big word. I just do I what I do. It is a privilege to direct the NFL and to be in the position I am in. If other people want to say I am pioneer, so be it. I have always thought of myself as a TV director, not as a female TV director. Gender should not make any difference, and hopefully when you watch Mike Arnold’s [the lead game director for Jim Nantz and Phil Simms] game or my game, you do not know whether a man or woman directed that game.”
Smith started at CBS Sports in 1983 as a production assistant—one of her earliest assignments came in 1984 when CBS aired Boston College’s last-minute win over Miami in college football (otherwise known as the “Doug Flutie Hail Mary” game). She directed her first NFL broadcast on Sept. 30, 1990, thanks to a bit of happenstance. At the time Smith was an associate director for Arnold, and that week her crew was assigned to Tampa Bay-Minnesota, one of the weaker games on the schedule. Arnold was unable to fly to the Minneapolis that week, and because CBS did not have any extra directors, Smith was bumped to the big chair.
Says Smith: “The game was only being aired in Minnesota and Tampa Bay, and my boss at the time was like, ‘OK, we’ll let her do it. How bad can it be?’
"As it turned out, the game went into overtime, and the entire country was switched to our game. Everything went well, and we were able to eventually get to the Giants game in time, which was being called by Pat Summerall and John Madden. I went back to my old job for the rest of the year, and then the next year I started directing.”
Smith defines a successful NFL broadcast as one in which a director documents everything on the field and provides camera shots that bring viewers a couple of layers beyond the surface.
“What makes her a good director, first and foremost, is consistency,” says CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. “I know when Suzanne is doing a game, she will not only have all the requisite shots and coverage of the actual game itself, but there will be some creativity, whether a timely crowd shot or a reaction shot on the bench. She has the entire field covered.”
Smith said each NFL stadium is unique when it comes to placing cameras on the field. She arrives in an NFL city on Friday, and before each game she’ll make sure her monitors are set up correctly in the production truck and that her camera and tape operators know their respective assignments. Outside of the technical aspects of a broadcast, Smith prepares by watching tape of both teams and having down cold the names and jersey numbers of each roster. She and Mansbach repeatedly talk with Eagle and Fouts so the core group is in sync on storylines. She’s also part of the production meetings with coaches and players. Mansbach says Smith is decisive and quick-minded in the truck—“She’s always calm, never gets pissed,” he says. “She’ll curse once a season”—and meticulous about camera selection on the field. Smith said she arrives at the stadium about five hours before kickoff.
“A skilled director listens to the announcers and is fully engaged in our dialogue,” says Eagle. "She’s always in tune with what we’re saying and consistently finds the right pictures to complement our commentary. Her sequence of shots builds the drama of the game, and she takes calculated risks to help the story. Her camera operators would run through a wall for her; they believe in her vision and her leadership.”
Smith, who directed the broadcast of Peyton Manning’s first start for the Colts in 1998, said NFL coaches and players have treated her professionally over the years. She cited Tony Dungy, Jeff Fisher and Norv Turner as standing out when it came to including her in production meeting discussions. Asked how much sexism she has faced in her position, Smith says, “I think a lot of women in a lot of male-dominated positions face it, and I don’t think I am unique in that and sports television is not unique in that. When you have a male-dominated, football-TV environment, yeah, it is going to happen more often than in some other places. Over the years I have dealt with it differently, which is a product of getting more mature and smarter, and also a product of being more confident in my job and what I am doing.”
McManus said that Smith and other CBS directors and producers get evaluated on a weekly basis. He and his management team watch each CBS-produced game from a studio in New York and pass along notes to directors and producers, including during the game. Smith and Mansbach also have a conference call every Monday with CBS Sports executive producer Harold Bryant. “With Suzanne, I must say most of the suggestions are fairly minor,” McManus says. “She gets far more positive comments with respect to ‘Great job on this,’ or 'Great reaction shot,' or 'The iso on that touchdown play was terrific.’ "
On the question of a woman directing a Super Bowl—Smith has been part of four Super Bowl productions, including serving as the replay director for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 (famous for Janet Jackson’s halftime performance)—McManus says, “We don’t make assignments on an event as big as the Super Bowl based on what would be a good statement or what would send a good message. The team that does the ‘A’ game throughout the season is the team that does the Super Bowl and I don’t see that changing. If I assigned Suzanne to direct the Super Bowl, would she do a terrific job? I know she would. There is no question in my mind she would do a terrific job.”
Growing up in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., Smith said she had supportive parents who fostered a love of sports. She said she was the first girl in her hometown to compete in the soap box derby—her late father, Paul, built her a car—and after graduating from Temple (where she played volleyball) in 1980, she held jobs with the Philadelphia Phillies (she ran footage and edited highlights for the team’s scoreboard), 76ers (Smith worked as remote producer for the away games and traveled with then-new broadcasters Matt Guokas and Doug Collins) and also directed Big Five basketball games for a Philadelphia UHF station.
Sports broadcasting is not always a beacon of tolerance, but Smith, who is gay, said her orientation has not been an issue over the years, at least not as much as her gender.
“I would say over the years if and when people looked at me differently, they looked at me as a woman and not as a gay person,” she says. “Someone walks in the room and they see you are a female. That’s what people see. My crew knows I am the person directing the show. I’m not a female director. I’m not a gay director. I’m not a white director. I am the director of the show. Has their been some backlash? Absolutely. Have there been some incidents with people? Yes. It is just part of it, but also it is part of our daily lives. Fortunately, for the gay and lesbian community, there is more acceptance than even five years ago. The people I work with look past it or don’t care about it, so it’s not really an issue."
The characteristic that everyone who works with Smith kept reinforcing was her professionalism. Eagle said she brings an unwavering confidence to her job.