Cindy Brunson, Sheryl Swoopes’ AU partnership a ‘dream come true’
When Athletes Unlimited Basketball began five weeks ago, it wasn’t just the players who made history. Cindy Brunson and Sheryl Swoopes, AU’s broadcast team for the inaugural season, became the first color commentator duo to run a professional sports league.
“If you’d told me 20 years ago when I was at ESPN, patted me on the back and said, ‘Hey, this is coming,’ I would have said, ‘Yeah right, I’ll believe it when I see it it,” Brunson said Women’s sport only. “But now that it’s happened and I actually get to be a part of it, it’s so incredible.”
Brunson has sat on historic seats before. Two years after joining ESPN in 1999, Brunson became the first multiracial woman to host SportsCenter. She was there 13 years before joining the Pac-12 network and working on other sports broadcast gigs.
Last year, Ilene Hauser, senior advisor of operations at Athletes Unlimited and former marketing manager at Nike, approached Brunson with the opportunity to serve as play-by-play voice for AU’s debut basketball season. The opportunity to serve for a major professional sports league in a front-facing broadcast role was too good for Brunson to pass up. And being able to have swoopes as a color commentator made it feel like a lottery ticket.
Swoopes, who became the first player to sign with the WNBA in 1997, ended her career as a four-time WNBA champion and three-time MVP, and is still considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time. While regularly working the dressing room since retirement, Athletes Unlimited Swoopes made her first full-time appearance as a professional-level color commentator.
“I’ve had the great luxury of working with some really amazing people in my career,” Brunson said, calling out fellow SportsCenter hosts Neil Everett and Stan Verrett, but noting that her chemistry with Swoopes wasn’t right. charts from the start.
“It blew my mind,” she said. “I’ve never gotten into a rhythm with an analyst so quickly in my career.”
Swoopes said Brunson is “a big reason why” she enjoyed the five-week gig with Athletes Unlimited and hopes to work with her again in the future.
“She taught me so much about being an analyst,” Swoopes said. “She’s such a great presenter, but an even better person. Her knowledge, passion and enthusiasm for the game is what is lacking in women’s football today.”
Brunson and Swoopes both recognize that the existence of a league like Athletes Unlimited only contributes to the growth of women’s sport. People involved and working in women’s sports have long traded with an attitude of “just being happy to be here”, grateful for every shred given to them. Brunson believes storytelling is a thing of the past.
“Athletes Unlimited has said that not only do we not want to be adjacent, we want a seat at the table,” Brunson said. “Actually, we want to be at the top of the table. And that’s what I love about this league.”
While AU was founded by two men, Jonathan Soros and Jon Patricof, in early 2020, the women who jumped at a chance at the burgeoning league are united in their efforts to carve out their own path. Aside from the founders, everyone Brunson has worked with at AU has been a woman.
“I think women have gotten to a point where they’re tired of waiting for men to do the right thing,” she said. “They’ve built a bridge, they’ve crossed it, and they’re taking the reins to make things happen for themselves.”
As part of the generation that “did a lot to get along” to make headway earlier in their careers, Brunson was happy to see a turnaround. Now she can prioritize Athletes Unlimited instead of calling games for other networks just to assert her footing in the male-dominated industry.
Brunson knows she has a responsibility to be a standard bearer for women in sports. As the COVID-19 pandemic stalled in 2020 and then slowed esports, she gained a new understanding of how much of an impact it is having on viewers at home.
“I don’t just drive down the road in my career anymore,” she said. “I’ve got a bunch of younger guys, black and brown, in the back seat, so what I do, what I take has to be as good for them as it is for me. So it was natural for me to do Athletes Unlimited.”
That’s also why the emotions ran high after she and Swoopes wrapped up their first AU game in late January. The magnitude of what they had achieved as pioneers in the women’s sports broadcast dressing room was finally beginning to be felt.
“When I took off the headset after that first game, my eyes were watery,” Brunson said. “I just thought that’s how I imagined it. And my dream came true.”
Emma Hruby is Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports.