ESPN has the most popular women’s basketball podcast. Here’s how it happened.
TAMPA, FL — In 2016, ESPN introduced Around The Rim with LaChina Robinson. Inspired by Shootaround, hosted by Debbie Antonelli & Beth Mowins, Around The Rim is now the go-to podcast for all things women’s basketball.
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Three years later, the podcast is on the rise and considered essential listening for women’s basketball fans. However, there are still internal hurdles host LaChina Robinson and producer Terrika Foster-Brasby face. I spoke with both women about the creation, structure, funding challenges, and future of ESPN’s only women’s basketball podcast.
The concept for a women’s basketball podcast was a team effort. Around The Rim producer Terrika Foster-Brasby initially thought the revival of a women’s basketball podcast could help ESPN live up to its motto of every sport, everywhere.
“I was just kind of new to the department,” Foster-Brasby said, sitting near the on-site set built for Around The Rim at the Final Four’s Tourney Town exhibition in Tampa. “And as I was looking over what we’re offering our fans, I said, ‘Wait. Why don’t we have a women’s basketball podcast?”
Foster-Brasby noted the former women’s basketball show Shootaround with Debbie Antonelli and Beth Mowins had been dormant four years. “So I went to my bosses and I was like, ‘Hey, I think we need to look at doing a women’s basketball podcast.’ He was like, ‘Sure, we’ll try it out.'” Foster-Brasby emphasized “try it out”.
At the same time, two NBA TV colleagues — LaChina Robinson and WNBA All-Star Chiney Ogwumike — were also discussing the idea of a women’s basketball show.
“We started having this conversation about how we just needed this free-flowing conversation around our game,” Robinson said. “Something younger, a newer perspective, more diverse. And so we said, ‘Well, what about a podcast?'”
Robinson described herself as someone with a million ideas, but with few that ever take off. However, this particular idea stuck with her and she wanted to make sure it stuck with ESPN as well. Robinson, who is based out of Atlanta, flew up to New York to meet with Laura Gentile, senior ESPN VP of Marketing and founder of espnW.
“I knew that it was something that if it got in the email train, it was never going to happen. I needed to sit face-to-face with someone and really sell them on it,” Robinson said. She landed in New York City and found a supporter in Gentile. ” I give all the credit and respect to Laura for being willing, being open, and saying, ‘Sure, let’s make it happen.’ Because, when she signed off, it was pretty much done.”
The show debuted with Robinson, Foster-Brasby and Connecticut Sun star Chiney Ogwumike as co-host. Eventually, the toll of being a host, tv analyst (and did we mention a WNBA player), became too much for Ogwumike’s schedule. The show continued with Robinson and Foster-Brasby.
Live from Tourney Town
Since the February 2016 launch, Around The Rim in many ways has moved past the experimental phase. The show averages anywhere from 2,000-2,500 listens per episode, according to Foster-Brasby. However, guests like former WNBA player and current South Carolina women’s basketball head coach Dawn Staley often create huge spikes in listenership.
Staley joined the show again during the live show in Tampa, alongside other Hall of Famers Teresa Edwards, and Lynette Woodard.
“I wasn’t supposed to do it today,” Staley told High Post Hoops the day before the Women’s Final Four Championship. She just completed her panel — billed as the “Women’s Basketball Legends” in Tourney Town. “I said, let me text and make sure … they know if they got a space for me, I want to get on the show and be a part of it.”
Needless to say, producer Foster-Brasby thought having the current USA Basketball head coach on the live show was a great idea. Scheduling segments during the Final Four is chaotic enough, but a live show adds a timing challenge. However, Robinson and Foster-Brasby always manage to fill the agenda not just with any guests, but some of the most prolific former and current players, as well as prominent media members.
From analysts to bracketologists and even up-and-coming journalists, Around The Rim is also a place to hear from the women’s basketball minds who comment on the game and preserve its personalities through the written word.
“It’s a variety show for women’s basketball,” said veteran women’s basketball journalist Michelle Smith. “LaChina and Terrika have a really great worldview about the game. They want to talk to coaches, but they want to talk to writers and the people who write about the game. And some of that, I think, is wanting our perspective. And some of that is about promoting the work to because they’re trying to steer women’s basketball fans to where the content is.”
Being a clearinghouse of sorts for women’s basketball is twofold. First, as Smith suggested, Around The Rim wants to support the existing and often ignored work of players, coaches, writers, and analysts. The other part of being a place to promote the game. Most working in women’s basketball give above and beyond for very little, if any compensation at all.
Where real talk is expected
During the live show segment featuring Smith and ESPN Braketologist Charlie Creme, both ESPN contributors offered advice to the next generation of writers.
Before handing over the mic to her guests, Robinson added a thought or two of her own. “One thing I want to say is my colleagues who love the game. And, it’s often a profession when you cover women’s basketball, that it’s not easy because there are not a lot of full-time positions … I know we’ve all done things for less money or for free to cover women’s basketball.”
Smith shared she is an education consultant full-time and writes for places like the NCAA.com or the Pac-12 Network. Creme is a full-time pharmaceuticals sales person. In our conversation with Robinson shortly after the live show, it became more evident why she likely felt compelled to interject for that particular question.
“I don’t make money doing this podcast,” Robinson said. “Everything I make, which is very, very, very little, I put back into it because I want to see it done the right way. So I put it back into the marketing and put it back into you know [other things] because I want it to do well.”
Although Around The Rim runs as part of the ESPN family, both Robinson and Foster-Brasby commented that decision making regarding sponsorship and other funding opportunities is generally out of their immediate control.
Part of the attraction of Around The Rim for Foster-Brasby was the ability to uphold the ESPN motto of serving all sports fans, any place, any time. It is clear from speaking with fans, players, coaches and legends of the women’s game that the show has been successful in representing the women’s game very well.
Yet, it appears the brunt of the work lies on Foster-Brasby and Robinson themselves, including financial and time commitments outside of their respective ESPN contracts. “We face some challenges in this space, I’ll be honest with you,” Robinson said. “Terrika will tell you, I did a lot of fighting, she did a lot of fighting in our first like year.”
Things like wanting to do more live shows, promote the show, or even fund giveaways for the fans are on the short list of things both women wish they could do.
When I asked both women if a show like Around The Rim could operate independently of ESPN and still be successful, Foster-Brasby responded, “I think that a podcast that LaChina is hosting could be very successful, regardless of the medium that it comes from … the relationships that she has in women’s basketball.”
Foster-Brasby reiterated that while there are challenges following certain protocol at a large company like ESPN, there are also downsides to running a podcast independently or even elsewhere.
“Would things maybe be different on another medium? Sure. I mean, if you were producing it yourself, you have different avenues and ways that you can secure different things, you can do a lot of different things, but you’d also probably be paying for those different things out of pocket.”
Despite the challenges and the advocating both women have and continue to do for the show, there are other players at ESPN that are willing to step in and help the shows work through some of the company red tape. Additionally, as the show grows, some of those barriers dissipate.
The show now has its own Twitter handle, Robinson is able to record in a local studio and no longer — as long-time listeners know — in the closet of her bedroom. These are some of the spoils their hard work and success have allowed the show. However, there are still more things Robinson and Foster-Brasby want for the show.
“We want to be amongst the fans, and we want to be with the people because that’s really what we are. We’re the people’s podcasts,” Robinson said. Around The Rim has participated in the last two Final Four Weekends, but Robinson wants more live shows at places like USA Basketball exhibition games, WNBA games, and even girls high school championships.
She would also like to see a visual component to Around The Rim. “I think in the day and age we live in right now, if we had a YouTube presence or some kind of video presence for our podcast, that would be amazing.”
The players’ perspective
WNBA players know what they have in Around The Rim, too.
“It’s fun,” Chicago Sky center Stefanie Dolson said. “I think LaChina is one of the best at keeping it fun, keeping it light-hearted. She knows the game, she knows what it was like to be a player. And I think that’s the best for us … it’s just always enjoyable to talk to her and around the room has been an amazing podcast for her. I’m really proud of her.”
Syracuse guard Isis Young, who is simultaneously working to enter the journalism field, sees it similarly.
“Podcasts are up and coming,” she said, standing near the Around The Rim stage following the live recording in Tampa. “They’re super popular … I feel like that can be the women’s basketball podcast to talk about something that’s new and different and upcoming in the world of a woman’s basketball, which is so important. Another thing that LaChina does well, she talks about all these different levels, she’ll talk about WNBA, she’ll talk about college, she’ll even talk about recruits that are coming in and [what] coaches think about that, and also the politics of it.”
Young herself is a college transfer, as well as a aspiring media personality and Rising Media Stars participant — a mentorship program co-founded by Robinson.
“I think that it has [potential] to be really, really great, because it’s one of those pockets that could become national,” Young said. “And she discusses so many different elements that everybody wants to hear about if you follow comp women’s basketball at all.”
However, in order for Around The Rim to become and maintain a position as the national go-to women’s basketball podcast, perhaps more face-to-face meetings need to be scheduled. Both Robinson and Foster-Brasby still consider Gentile a huge supporter. Other ESPN executives like Carol Stiff are also part of the Around The Rim internal support system.
“They believe in us, they believe in our podcast, what we have, what we bring, and there they are usually willing to do whatever it is they can do within their power and to help us … get the exposure that we want,” Foster-Brasby said.
And any good basketball team has at least one strong, supportive coach in their corner. Robinson and Foster-Brasby have many, including Dawn Staley.
“When you go on their show, you know, they’re just endearing to you,” Staley said of the duo. “They allow you to speak, they ask great questions to get the most out of their guests. And then [guests] tell a story, you know, [not often] told because of the class that they [bring].”
With players of the past, present, and future all ready and willing to offer their glowing support, it seems impossible for Around The Rim to fail. Hopefully, ESPN will be able to find key sponsors and partners for the show soon, lest we lose a great resource for the women’s game.
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