Around the Rim, an ESPN podcast dedicated to women’s basketball, has become one of the most prominent and authoritative voices in the sport. Inspired by the now-defunct Shootaround, a weekly women’s basketball show co-hosted by Debbie Antonelli and Beth Mowins, Around the Rim has featured interviews with heavy hitters like South Carolina coach and Hall of Famer Dawn Staley and legendary Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird. But OG fans of the show remember when host LaChina Robinson recorded regularly from the bedroom closet of her Atlanta home.
“We really just wanted to provide the space for everyone in this game, regardless of what your role may be or how big or small.”
Back in 2016, ESPN producer Terrika Foster-Brasby pitched the concept to management after noticing a lack of programming centered solely on women’s basketball. By contrast, ESPN currently produces four podcasts dedicated to men’s hoops. This was problematic for a company whose mission is “To Serve Sports Fans. Anytime. Anywhere.”
“That to me was a whole demographic of fans and a whole niche of fans that were not being served,” Foster-Brasby explains. “And I just felt like at some point women needed to have an opportunity to be showcased the same way as men.” Coincidentally, Robinson, a basketball analyst, was discussing a similar idea with Laura Gentile, ESPN’s senior vice president of marketing and founder of the company’s digital platform for women’s sports, espnW. Foster-Brasby ended up speaking with Robinson about this idea.
“LaChina and I, we spoke on the phone and I said ‘Listen, this is new to me,’ and she said, ‘this is new to me too,’” Foster-Brasby says. “But we put our heads together and thought about what we wanted to do and what type of program we wanted to offer fans.” This would be Foster-Brasby’s first time producing her own podcast, after assisting on multiple other ESPN programs like His & Hers, Fantasy Focus Football, and The Poker Edge.
The two got off to a bumpy start as they battled internet connection issues and tried to stand out among many basketball podcasts. Initially, they tapped WNBA player and aspiring broadcaster Chiney Ogwumike to co-host, but as her season intensified, Foster-Brasby and Robinson decided to continue hosting as a duo.
Robinson was already a well-respected voice in women’s basketball circles. As a longtime analyst for ESPN and the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, her presence lends extra credibility to the pod. “A lot of this [success] goes to LaChina because she’s such an amazing person and has such a great reputation and rapport with the people across the WNBA, whether it’s coaches, fans, or players because she’s been in this game for so long,” says Foster-Brasby.
The show elevates the voices of players outside of what you normally see in a two- or three-minute hit during an interview or at a press conference. This distinction is especially important during a period where WNBA players have been at the forefront of the social justice movement, speaking out against instances of police brutality against Black men and women. Several players decided to sit out the 2020 season to advocate for social reform. One of those players is WNBA champion Natasha Cloud. She joined the pod to discuss her decision to opt out and her fears as a Black woman living in America.
But the platform extends well beyond the players. Athletic directors, sports psychologists, bracketologists, journalists, and other analysts have all appeared on the pod. It’s also a valuable chance for up-and-coming hosts to get some exposure. Ogwumike, who has guest hosted Around the Rim several times over the years, recently became the first Black woman and WNBA player to host a national radio show for ESPN. “We really just wanted to provide the space for everyone in this game, regardless of what your role may be or how big or small,” says Foster-Brasby. “I think that we’ve been able to do that over the last four years and that has really helped to grow our game. We’re really proud of it.”
Asking Foster-Brasby to choose a favorite guest is like asking a parent to identify a favorite child, but she admits to having an out-of-body experience when legendary hooper Cynthia Cooper was on. “I am a die-hard Cynthia Cooper fan and I got to interview her during the podcast and I was like, ‘yes I am talking to Cynthia Cooper.’ I don’t even know what she was talking about because I was so pumped up from the fact that I was talking to Cynthia Cooper.” But overall, three-time Olympic gold medalist Dawn Staley might be the G.O.A.T guest. “She’s absolutely one of my favorite guests,” says Foster-Brasby. “She just provides so much of everything — she’ll give you a joke or two, she’ll give you information, she’ll give you basketball history. We always have a great response whenever Dawn is on the show.”
Unfortunately, Foster-Brasby will never have an opportunity to book her dream guest: Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who passed away in January in a helicopter accident. Bryant was a noted proponent of the WNBA, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, who also died in the crash.
“I would have loved to have Kobe Bryant on our show,” says Foster-Brasby. “It would have been such an amazing opportunity to have chatted with Kobe about women’s basketball, what he’s done for women’s basketball, how much he supported the game, and what he saw in little GiGi coming up.”
Bryant often used his massive platform to champion the growth of the sport and promote its players—and when he talked, people listened. Robinson and Foster-Brasby are heavily invested in developing Around the Rim to accomplish the same goal.
Around the Rim draws more listeners during college basketball season than during WNBA season, but the college fans don’t necessarily translate to the WNBA. Foster-Brasby continues to search for a way to bridge that gap. One technique they’ve employed is encouraging college fans to follow their favorite player’s progression in the league. It’s a strategy that has proven successful with newly minted WNBA MVP and University of South Carolina alum A’ja Wilson.
“We’ll have people who will listen to anything South Carolina and it doesn’t matter who is on or when we have it, they are all in and those numbers tend to be extremely high,” she says.
The pod isn’t racking up millions of downloads yet or as Foster-Brasby puts it, “blowing people out of the water numerically” à la The Dan LeBatard Show. Women’s basketball hasn’t reached that level yet and the focus right now is to, “simply give all the fans in our sport a place where they can listen to good, diverse education, and expand their knowledge of women’s basketball.”
Four years in, Around the Rim continues to challenge gender norms as ESPN’s only women’s basketball podcast. The pod is proof that if you build it, they will come.
Editor’s note: Around the Rim just released it’s WNBA Wrap Up episode. After this, they’ll be taking a break until NCAA season starts.