Behind the Scenes with Athletes Unlimited’s Cheri Kempf
The Athletes Unlimited senior director leads an all-female production crew in providing television coverage for women’s sports.
By Alex Holmes
With a mission to elevate the platform of female athletes, the player-centric model of Athletes Unlimited puts the best women’s softball, volleyball, and lacrosse players at center stage. An integral part of the young league’s success so far has come from the world-class, all-female production team that works to ensure the spotlight is rightly placed on these athletes. Leading the charge is Cheri Kempf, the senior director of Athletes Unlimited and the mastermind behind the league’s top-tier television coverage.
Kempf’s background as an elite softball player helped launch her career in the sports broadcasting industry. She is a former member of Team USA and won gold at the 1992 World Cup. She began her broadcast career as the lead softball analyst for Fox Sports and ESPN, where she was the only analyst in the studio for the Women’s College World Series for nearly a decade.
Her experience in broadcast production comes from her time as commissioner of the National Pro Fastpitch League, where she led teams in producing content for ESPN and CBS Sports. Under her leadership, the NPF established itself as a top-flight softball league through increased media exposure and sponsorship opportunities.
Kempf’s vision aligns with that of Athletes Unlimited in that they both want to see the demand for women’s sports on television increase. Kempf knows her role with Athletes Unlimited is crucial to realizing this vision, and she strives to provide the best experience for fans watching the action each week.
“I think it is exhilarating to be part of launching such a huge platform that is affecting sports for women. There’s not a question about that,” Kempf said in a phone interview with She Plays.
Throughout her career, Kempf has been a leading female figure in the male-dominated sports broadcast industry.
“I can count on one hand in a 20 year broadcasting career the times that I’ve had a female director,” Kempf said. She knows it’s crucial for women to be involved in all areas of broadcasting. “I always think that women also bring something special to the table when it comes to storytelling,” she said.
Kempf can understand from experience how important it is for female athletes to be in positions like the on-air color analyst for women’s sporting events, a role that Kempf has held with ESPN since the early 2000s. Analysts can expand the fan experience at home by providing in-depth commentary on the sport of interest.
“The analyst is supposed to be someone who has experience and expertise in the sport, so the only person that should be talking about women’s volleyball is somebody who has been there and has experienced it. That clearly has to be a woman if you’re going to get the true perspective,” Kempf said.
With more women playing longer sports careers, there is more opportunity for former athletes to enter sports broadcasting through analyst positions as they provide valuable commentary in their sports. “It’s one of the professions that I think you’ll see an increased involvement and presence of women in the future,” Kempf said.
The increased demand for televised sports coverage has led major television networks to invest in young talent at universities. Kempf is confident that partnerships between major television networks and universities will open the door for more women to enter the sports broadcasting industry and provide opportunities for women to become producers.
Kempf cited the recent agreement between the SEC and ESPN as an example. In the last few years, ESPN has built broadcast centers at these universities to increase its ability to air live sports while also providing educational opportunities for students interested in pursuing careers in broadcast sports journalism.
She noted that in programs like these, women are training in all aspects of television production, learning everything from breaking down cameras to learning the essentials of broadcast audio and visual work that go into streaming live sporting events.
“The exciting part is that you’re going to continue to see that exposure grow [for women] on the production side. I just think that is a direct reflection of the colleges and universities that are producing tons of content,” Kempf said.
It takes a lot of work to produce on-air coverage of televised sporting events and, as Kempf says, it is not for the faint of heart.
A typical week during an Athletes Unlimited sports season begins on draft day, which is currently held on Tuesdays during the volleyball season. Athletes Unlimited streams the drafts live on Facebook, which means Kempf’s Tuesdays are filled with rehearsing for the evening draft. Leading up to the event, she heads up the production crew as they prepare for the broadcast.
While players are busy practicing on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Kempf and her production team are busy planning shows for the weekend. These planning days are used to identify content that could be talked about on-air during the matches.
On game days—Saturday, Sunday, and Monday—Kempf and the television crew arrive at the arena six hours ahead of the match to make final preparations before play begins. They make sure that all of the production equipment is ready and that all members of the television crew, from the replay booth to the on-air commentators, are ready to broadcast talented female athletes on national television.
Kempf believes that the time is right for women’s sports to take up more space in the sports entertainment industry, and she hopes her legacy in sports broadcasting contributes to increasing fan exposure in women’s sports.
Despite the various titles that she holds—former Team USA softball standout, color analyst, television producer—Cheri Kempf is a fan at heart. Her passion for women’s sports makes her an advocate for driving media attention toward female athletes.
“To be a part of growing sports and growing that experience for other women and increasing that experience for other women and girls is a privilege.”
Currently, Kempf and Athletes Unlimited stream drafts and matches on a variety of digital platforms, including Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, and Dailymotion, as well as on nationally televised sports networks such as Fox Sports and CBS Sports.