At the start of the summer of 2020, it was unclear how and even if the WNBA could have a season during the pandemic. Then once the league set up its bubble in Bradenton, Fla., the question became how to broadcast its games with only one national reporter on site. The league adapted, as it always does, and the 2020 season instead became a year of growth for the WNBA as it found new pathways to deliver its content to its fans, aided in large part by the creativity of its broadcast partners.
LaChina Robinson was one of those broadcasters, and she had to wear many hats for ESPN in her ever-evolving role to help cover this monumental season. She was an analyst, a studio host, a podcast host, and one of the creators of the digital show WNBA Hoop Streams, demonstrating the non-traditional paths the WNBA content providers had to take in a wholly unprecedented season.
SB Nation spoke with Robinson over the phone to discuss the challenges of broadcasting this WNBA season as well as what the future holds for covering women’s basketball and women’s sports.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
SB Nation: I wanted to talk about the specifics of this season covering the league remotely. I just saw on Twitter the other day, I think you said that you had to stay in Connecticut for the entire season, and you were giving the tour of the apartment that the Sun set you up with.
Other than obviously having to move, I guess, for three months, what was that process like covering the league remotely and not being on site to actually watch the games in person.
LaChina Robinson: First I credit our leadership at ESPN because it was touch and go for a while of whether or not we would even have a season. And you have to think about the layers that the WNBA had to work through in terms of figuring out venue, making sure that television production would even be possible, obviously starting with health and safety, first and foremost. But, I mean, it was a trickle down effect, so what are we gonna do with television and how are we going to broadcast? There wasn’t a lot of time to make these decisions. So I credit our leadership and Sara Gaiero who is our coordinating producer. She made the decision that we would call games from studio in Bristol. Now, I’m not sure how much of that was influenced by what the league had available on site, or if that was just more about ESPN’s decision in figuring out how they could put the best product forward.
But it was a process of decision making that I would not have wanted to have to make. There’s so many levels of decisions that go into that, starting with health and safety. And then, you know, what can we do in terms of production? Rebecca Lobo, Pam Ward and Ryan Ruocco all live in the Northeast, within driving distance of our studios in Bristol. Holly Rowe had already committed to being inside the bubble, which was not just a major decision for ESPN’s coverage, but for the league overall. It was very different from the NBA. The WNBA did not have a lot of media in the bubble. In fact, Holly was the only national reporter there, so her pulse on what’s happening and her viewpoint and just her being there every day was important to everyone who wanted to keep up with the WNBA.
So when the decision was made to broadcast the games from Bristol, I was thinking okay, I will just fly back and forth when I have games like I would any other game. However, there were a couple of developments that changed that. No. 1, the games were very compacted. And so, you know, being able to get back and forth with a lot of games seemed to be something that may be a little difficult the more we looked at it. But then, because Georgia’s [where I live] coronavirus rates were so high, we fell in the category of mandatory quarantine for the state of Connecticut, you would have to quarantine for 14 days before you would be able to do anything.
And with a condensed WNBA season, busy schedule, no one has 14 days to sit in their hotel room every time they have to fly back to Bristol from Georgia. So then my plan was okay, I’ll live in D.C. with family, and it’s an easier commute, five-hour drive to Connecticut, and I’ll just go back and forth every once in a while. Well, then DC was added to the list of mandatory quarantine.
So ultimately, and while this is all happening, Sara Gaiero asked if I would be interested in hosting studio, and that is something we had been talking about along the way. You know, clearly there are some limitations on who you can have in studio, how many people based on health and safety protocol, so that was all the part of it. But also, I keep a pulse on the league. I call games, so it would be a natural fit to have me as a host as well, considering the fact that I was going to be spending a considerable amount of time in Connecticut, and that ended up being what happened. We made the decision that I would stay in Connecticut for the duration of the season.
When I first got there, I was staying at a DoubleTree in Bristol. And ESPN was willing to allow me to go and search out accommodations that I would feel comfortable with during the pandemic.
But it was in a conversation with Amber Cox, the vice president of the Connecticut Sun, I was calling her for recommendations for where in Connecticut maybe I could stay, and she said, I have something for you. Basically the Connecticut Sun player accommodations, which they give the players in housing in the summers, was vacant because the team was in Bradenton, Fla. So they have these beautiful furnished apartments in East Lyme, Connecticut. And that’s where I ended up spending my WNBA Summer.
SBN: How do you manage to replicate the energy of being in the arena while you’re all the way in Bristol?
LR: Well, I think it starts with the proper audio and visual, and major props to the ESPN crew, because everything I heard in my headset was exactly what I would hear in my headset if I was courtside. The producer, the squeaking of tennis shoes, all the sounds that I would normally hear were pumping through my ears.
And then from the visual standpoint, we had multiple screens, very large screens, that pretty much allowed us to see the entire court. We had a few screens that focused on the shot clock or player benches. But we just had great directors that got us amazing shots. Our production crew was fantastic. Even in a normal broadcast situation, it takes a crew of people that can set you up for success. And I just felt like we were in a very good position and studio to feel like we were at the game, even though we were 10 states away.
SBN: The WNBA obviously saw this dramatic increase in viewership this season. Do you ever try to figure out how to balance your coverage for the newer viewers who are just tuning in while also still serving the people who have been regular fans of the league?
LR: So that can prove to be a bit challenging, right? Because you’re always told in broadcasting to repeat your best stuff, because you do have new viewers, new people joining, and so you you want to make sure that they know that Sue Bird’s in her 17th season, and that they know the big picture elements, but at the same time, yes, you do want to be providing insider information for the WNBA fans that have been there and the little details around how the bubble is going and things they just may not know. So there is a very delicate balance. But I give all the credit to our crews, whether it’s Holly bringing in insight that no one knows, or the way that you know Pam and Ryan introduced story lines throughout, ranging from the history of the league, all the way up to bubble, that is very important in a balance of a broadcast.
But it’s something that I think in women’s sports in particular, and for me in women’s basketball, often face because we don’t have the exposure of other major sports. If a ton happens between Sunday and Friday, right, but there’s only one WNBA game [on television] that week, you’re not gonna have all of the hits on television or, you know as many social media runs for whatever news is happening in the WNBA. So you got to get a lot into that one broadcast and make sure that people are up to speed. That’s one reason why we started the Hoop Streams show this season, Rebecca [Lobo], Holly and I, so that we could give some of that in-between information and we could have just general debates around what’s happening in the WNBA, all of those things that connect the dots in between broadcast.
SBN: I was listening to your last episode of Around the Rim with Rebecca, and you guys were talking about the potential of a WNBA or even just a women’s basketball studio show, and I guess you kind of alluded to that. What could that do in terms of helping your broadcast?
LR: That’s the reason why I started that podcast is to bring more conversations around the sport because the complaint we often get from people have nowhere to go once a game ends. Besides, the writing that happens, whether it’s ESPN or other outlets, people want to hear and watch and listen to discussions.
If you’re gonna talk about is Michael Jordan better or LeBron James? I mean, they want to talk about Sheryl Swoopes or Cynthia Cooper or Diana Taurasi. That’s why we started Around the Rim. And that’s why we started WNBA Hoop Streams.
SBN: You mentioned this earlier as well about how ESPN had talked to you about hosting studio even before the season started. How do you find yourself navigating between those two roles of calling the games at times and then also hosting these shows. What different perspectives do you try to provide in those different positions?
LR: So it’s interesting you asked that, because I’m still digesting kind of what it all meant to just sit in a different seat this year. It’s really hard to host, because it’s so different from being an analyst, like as a host, you are driving the traffic. You’re making decisions about timing. You’re doing the ins, you’re doing the wraps. You are the voice that’s kind of carrying the conversation versus being an analyst and where you are responding. I say the same thing about play-by-play, how I think it’s one of the hardest jobs to have because you’re juggling so many different things. You got to have facts straight. But this year in particular, I felt like my role as a host was very connected to the social justice movement of the WNBA and very connected to trying to expand the voices of the league and so on our halftimes, you may see me intro-ing a piece on the social justice movement that was happening in Bradenton, and what’s the latest on the WNBA around “Say Her Name” and Breonna Taylor.
And then in that same vein, you know, during some of the broadcasts at halftime, we would have current players or former players come in and serve as analysts or just to hear from them on their perspective on the season. And it’s extremely important, as you were mentioning a minute ago, to continue to re-introduce people to who these players are and not just as players, but who they are in their lives, as advocates, and what are their hobbies and what businesses do they own? Allowing them to share their reason for sitting out of the season, if that be the case. So I thought my job as a host this year was probably very different than it may be in another season. And that as a Black woman, there were conversations that I felt like I could add value to around the social justice movement that I hope benefited the overall conversation.
SBN: That’s so interesting because my next question to you was going to be about how you were able to bring social justice into the conversation because it was such an important part of this season. But I guess that makes sense that a good way for you to transition into being a host was by shining a light on those stories and giving an insight into the campus and then also the people who were opting out of the season by using that platform.
LR: Yeah, I think the biggest example of that was August 26. I believe was the day that the WNBA didn’t play in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting. I was in studio that day, and the number of text messages I had received from former players, current players and just an appreciation of having diversity of perspective was really truly overwhelming. I was so nervous, I was way more nervous for that than I was ever for a game just because it’s a fluid situation, you want to do it justice, and you want to be a voice for the players and not as a player, but as a Black woman who was clearly impacted by what had happened with Jacob Blake and all that was happening in our country. So that was a really important moment for me professionally.
SBN: You mentioned how you know you’ve got to have the current players and even former players on those halftime shows to bring that extra perspective. Do you think that was just a function of having all of those current players available because they had opted out of this season? Or do you feel like that’s something that ESPN could do going forward?
LR: During the regular season, It was obviously much easier because to grab players that were sitting out. I don’t think players normally love to comment on the ongoing season as an analyst, but we did have a very special dynamic in that, we could say, hey, Kristi Toliver, or Kelsey Plum’s out with an injury: Join our broadcast.
But for the playoffs, I thought it was really unique, because we would normally bring in a coach or a past player. And I mean, the current players weren’t afraid to come on at halftime and give their opinions and thoughts about the X’s and O’s of the game, and things we need to step up and all those things. And I thought they did a tremendous job in showing their basketball IQ, how charismatic and entertaining they can be, which again can add a different level of fan to the WNBA that takes the viewer beyond the player where they start to really, really enjoy the person.
SBN: One of the segments that I thought was so interesting was when Kristi Toliver was on during the the Sparks/Sun playoff game. And you cut to her at halftime, the Sparks were just getting their butts kicked and it’s her team. She was saying the things that you would hope they were saying in the locker room about what they could improve. I wish she was in Bradenton with them saying these things, but it was really great to be able to hear that.
LR: Yeah, she was honest and that was one of the moments that kind of left me thinking, ‘Okay, this is gonna be fun.’
SBN: The WNBA was obviously working really hard to grow its following and introduce new fans. Do you feel like you’re working with the WNBA sort of to help promote the league as the broadcast partner? And how does that manifest itself?
LR: I guess there is technically a partnership with the ESPN, but as a broadcaster, we don’t feel like necessarily we are working with the league to promote it, but instead, more informative and educational around the things that we enjoy about the league. In all honesty, it’s almost like the discussion you often hear about the NBA and WNBA. And they’re like, ‘Oh, they made them say that they enjoy the WNBA.’ No, no one made them say anything. They said that on their own because they truly enjoy the game. And so, though it may come off to people sometimes like we are partners in the WNBA and maybe marketing for them, which we are by doing our jobs well, by educating the fans. But we really enjoy the product on the court. And we like where the league is headed, and I know personally, I really thought that the league did some really good things this year particular whether it was the Tap to Cheer or, you know, the orange hoodie. I just thought they did some really good things. So, yeah, we talk about them because there are things that we enjoy as basketball fans. And I think that’s what people have to remember is that we are not just commentators or broadcasters. We’re fans of the game. And when the basketball is bad, we’re gonna say the basketball’s bad. But, we are also going to share what we enjoy about about the league and the game and its players as well.
SBN: One last thing I want to leave with is there anything that you hope to see in the future of your career broadcasting the WNBA or just how ESPN as the whole covers the league?
LR: There can never be enough WNBA games on television for me. So that’s always number one in my book, because the product is the thing that is the story, right? These players are really, really good. But I would like to also continue to find ways to showcase them away from the game. So just things where we’re able to hear from them directly, continuing to market them and their social media so fans can connect with them that way.
But for me, personally, I would love a show. I would love a show that comes on every week that discusses WNBA news, brings in guests. One thing that comes to mind for me was free agency, you know in this past offseason, which was the craziest free agency maybe that we’ve ever seen. And I know we would have wanted to have a show on linear (note: on television) where we could talk about those things and what’s happening and update people on the WNBA, because there needs to be some continuity year-round on the coverage of the league and and, obviously we do a great job from beginning to end every summer. But I think that for me, in addition to the writing and the podcast, I just want to debate someone on a show about the WNBA every week.
I would love to see a show and when you think about what a show can be, it could be a lead-in to a game, it can happen after big games in the summer, but a weekly show or some kind of branded show where you know you can expect to get the latest on WNBA is a dream of mine.