Cindy Brunson, Sheryl Swoopes’ AU partnership a ‘dream come true’

Cindy Brunson and Sheryl Swoopes (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

When Athletes Unlimited basketball began five weeks ago, it wasn’t just the players who made history. Cindy Brunson and Sheryl Swoopes, AU’s broadcasting team for the inaugural season, became the first female commentary duo of color to lead a professional sports league.

“If you’d have told me, tapped me on the shoulder 20 years ago when I was at ESPN and said, ‘Hey, this is coming,’ I would’ve been, ‘Yeah, right, I’ll believe it when I see it,’” Brunson told Just Women’s Sports. “But now that it’s happened and I actually get to be a part of it, it’s so freaking amazing.”

Brunson has sat in history-making seats before. Two years after starting at ESPN in 1999, Brunson became the first biracial woman to host “SportsCenter.” She was there for 13 years before leaving to join the Pac-12 Network and work other sportscasting gigs.

Then last year, Ilene Hauser, Athletes Unlimited’s senior advisor of operations and the former manager of marketing at Nike, approached Brunson with the opportunity to serve as the play-by-play voice of AU’s debut basketball season. The chance to serve in a front-facing broadcast role for a major professional sports league was too good for Brunson to pass up. And the possibility of having Swoopes join her as color commentator made it feel like a winning lottery ticket.

Swoopes, 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 best women’s basketball players of all time. While she’s worked in the booth periodically since her retirement, Athletes Unlimited gave Swoopes her first full-time color commentary gig at the professional level.

“I’ve had the great luxury of working alongside some really fantastic people in my career,” Brunson said, shouting out fellow “SportsCenter” hosts Neil Everett and Stan Verrett, but she noted that her chemistry with Swoopes has been off-the-charts since the beginning.

“It has blown me away,” she said. “I’ve never gotten into a rhythm that quickly with an analyst in my career.”

Swoopes said Brunson is “a big reason why” she has enjoyed the five-week gig with Athletes Unlimited and hopes to work with her again in the future.

“She has taught me so much about being an analyst,” Swoopes said. “She is such an amazing broadcaster but an even better person. Her knowledge, passion and excitement for the game is what’s missing in the women’s game today.”

Brunson and Swoopes both recognize that the existence of a league like Athletes Unlimited only contributes to the growth of women’s sports. For a long time, people who played and worked in women’s sports operated with the attitude that they were “just happy to be here,” grateful for whatever scraps they were given. Brunson believes that narrative 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. “In fact, we want to be at the head of the table. And I love that about this league.”

While AU was founded in early 2020 by two men, Jonathan Soros and Jon Patricof, the women who have taken a chance on the burgeoning league are united in their efforts to forge their own path. Beyond the founders, everyone Brunson has worked with at AU has been a woman.

“I think women have gotten to the point where they are tired of waiting for men to do the right thing,” she said. “They have built a bridge, they have gotten over it, and they are taking the reins to make things happen for themselves.”

Part of the generation that “did a lot of going along to get along” in order to make strides earlier in her career, Brunson has been glad to see a shifting of the tides. Now, she can prioritize Athletes Unlimited rather than call games for other networks just to maintain her standing in the male-dominated industry.

Brunson knows she has the responsibility of being a standard-bearer for women in sports. When the COVID-19 pandemic halted and then slowed sports down in 2020, she gained a new understanding of how much of an impact she has on those watching at home.

“It’s not just me driving down the road in my career anymore,” she said. “I’ve got a bunch of younger, Black and brown people in the backseat, so what I do, what exit I take has to be as good for them as it is for me. That’s why it was a no-brainer for me to do Athletes Unlimited.”

It’s also why the emotions rushed in after she and Swoopes finished their first AU game in late January. The magnitude of what they had accomplished as trailblazers in the women’s sports broadcast booth was finally starting to set in.

“When I took off the headset after that first game, my eyes were wet,” Brunson said. “I just thought, this is how I dreamed it would be. And my dream came true.”

Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports.