Sports broadcasters, commentators, announcers: whichever noun you use to identify them, the people behind the microphones and in front of the cameras at sporting events control how we consume and understand those sports. Some especially legendary broadcasters have even become synonymous with the games and leagues they cover. Think John Madden and the NFL, Dick Vitale and college basketball, and Barry Melrose and the NHL.
So as they prepared to launch the first season of Athletes Unlimited women’s professional volleyball, one can imagine there was a fair amount riding on the organization’s choice of a play-by-play and color commentator, especially when, due to the coronavirus, the CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports broadcasts will be the only way fans can experience the new league at all.
AU senior director Cheri Kempf, who also happens to be an analyst for NCAA softball on ESPN and Fox Sports and the former commissioner of the National Pro Fastpitch league, was one of the AU staff members tasked with finding and hiring the perfect broadcast team. And in line with the league’s mission to allow players to be decision-makers, she consulted the Player Executive Committee and the Advisory Board about who might be good fits for the job.
Barnett, a former national team player and two-time Olympian, started his broadcasting career after injuries forced him to retire from playing professionally in 2006. Since then, he’s called three Olympics and is scheduled to do another this summer, not to mention he’s been an integral member of the Amazon Prime broadcast team for the AVP the last three summers and the long-time host of the volleyball podcast The Net Live. Read more about Barnett’s background in this VBM story from 2019.
Rockwell also played for the national team where she was a two-time team captain, but she didn’t begin her broadcasting career until 2018, the year after she retired from a decorated 17-year collegiate coaching career that included multiple stints on Russ Rose’s staff at Penn State and winning a national championship and also serving as associate head coach at the University of Texas. Rockwell moved to Austin, Texas, after leaving college coaching and in addition to her role as the technical director for Austin Juniors Volleyball Club, she picked up broadcasting, and in the past three years has called matches on ESPN, the Longhorn Network, Fox Sports, and the Big Ten Network.
These impressive resumes grabbed Kempf’s attention right off the bat, but knowing as much as she does about sports broadcasting, she wouldn’t be convinced until she had seen and heard Barnett and Rockwell for herself and spoken with them personally.
“I was skeptical of Kevin in the play-by-play chair,” Kempf admitted. “Usually you’re going to see somebody with Kevin’s resume and experience be in the color chair, and he has, and he can, and he still does, but it’s unique that he also has play-by-play training and experience and is quite good at it.
“Play-by-play is unique and you have to be able to handle the traffic of the show and do that smoothly, so that’s what I was listening for for (Kevin),” Kempf continued. “Is this somebody that was retrofitted into a play-by-play or is he legit? And you listen to him and you understand that he knows his way through it, he’s a real play-by-play.”
With Rockwell being just a few years into her broadcasting career, the big question was whether she had the timing down. Of course, she has all the experience and the knowledge in the world, but did she know how to communicate that clearly and concisely and at exactly the right moments?
“The depth of Salima, not just as a broadcaster — she’s a relatively young broadcaster, honestly, in that world — but she is such a veteran, from being a player, the player perspective, to being a coach and having to think in that way, strategically,” Kempf said. “I think she has every base covered and then on top of that, she’s a good listen and she understands the goal of the broadcaster, to engage fans and to make sure that they can easily follow along and enjoy the game better.”
Athletes Unlimited announced its selection of Barnett and Rockwell as the broadcast team on December 17 in the same news release which detailed the television broadcast partnership with CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports.
Starved of most broadcasting opportunities for the past year, both individuals are thrilled to get back in the booth and excited about the unique opportunity with AU, a brand new league which will take place February 27-March 29 featuring 44 elite professional players from around the world, with new teams every week, selected by the top performers from the week before. Those top performers are determined by a complex, and yet to be fully disclosed, points system.
“I’m excited about the league itself,” Rockwell said. “I love the condensed season, you’re just battling every weekend for five weeks. And I love the draft idea, the points. I’m super excited about explaining the points system — as soon as I get a handle on it myself — and what that is going to look like and how the teams are going to change. It’s going to be so different.
“We’ll be able to talk about dynamics from week to week. A new lineup every week is crazy. It’s cool, but it’s crazy. And how people are going to draft — I am just curious myself personally to see how people prioritize. Like if it’s a hitter that’s the top points-scorer, do they choose a setter? What it’s going to look like and how people make their decisions is going to be super interesting to me.”
The first time he heard about the AU league, Barnett recalls thinking, “Well, that sounds interesting. I wonder what it will really look like.”
“The scoring in particular is the part I’m most excited to see how it works,” Barnett said. “I’m interested to know if someone has tested it or not and how they got to the scoring system as it is. Why eight points for a kill? Why not seven? Why not 10? So we’ll have that information by the time we go to air. But I’m very intrigued to dig into that.”
And of course, Rockwell and Barnett, friends from their concurrent time with the national team in the late 1990s who have already worked a few college broadcasts together, are delighted to be sharing time in the broadcast booth again — even if they end up having to sit six feet apart and be separated by plexiglass.
“Salima and I go way back,” Barnett said of the woman he met on the very first day he showed up to Colorado Springs to begin training with the national team. “We kind of lost touch when she left the national team and I was still there, but then when I came back and was broadcasting and she was working for Penn State we talked quite a bit at different events, so now working together has been a lot of fun and it’s no surprise that she’s good at this.
“She’s terrific, knows the game well, is a lot of fun on air, and I think she’s done an outstanding job like she’s done with everything else in her life of working at the craft of broadcasting. I think getting all these reps right in a row will be great for the two of us. I’m really looking forward to it.”
“(Kevin’s) very good at carrying a match, storytelling. He was really good at asking me questions and helping me. Because he knows the game, it was comfortable because he could ask me relevant questions that would lead me to something that I really wanted to talk about,” Rockwell said.
“And it’s fun. We would joke around a little bit, we could share common stories or threads that made sense and could connect to the game together, so we would kind of bounce back and forth too, which I like. I like being able to discuss the game with my play-by-play a little bit.”
In addition to experience and knowledge, Barnett and Rockwell bring ideas to the table for Athletes Unlimited. Already, the pair have discussed with the league a number of auxiliary content concepts, from a weekly podcast, to studio shows and long-form athlete interviews. Which of these ideas come to life by the end of next month when they gather in Dallas depends largely on logistics and COVID-19 regulations and precautions, but there’s a good chance fans will be getting more content and coverage than they’re used to.
It turns out, the more you feed people the more they eat,” Barnett said, “which was always the argument against the VCR back in the day. It was like, ‘No, we can’t put movies on video tape. No one will go to the theater.’ Actually, wrong. They’ll go to the theater anyway and they’ll watch your video tape 15 times. So the more you give them, the more they will eat, and I would encourage and I will encourage AU that we feed people more. Feed them more on social. But good content, not just whatever, pictures of food or something, pictures of spikes. Feed people good content and I think that pays nowadays, and I think they will.”
A few weeks after the initial announcement and a few production meetings in, AU’s Kempf couldn’t be more pleased with the hiring decisions she and her team made, including bringing on Laurie Burke as director and Tom Feuer (who also writes for VolleyballMag.com) as producer.
“(Kevin and Salima) are veterans of the game, they have tremendous resumes and at the same time, they both wanted to do this badly and they made that clear,” Kempf said. “They were enthusiastic about this league, they’re enthusiastic about the project of covering the games and of covering the players, and even now we’re starting our production meetings and it just tickles me that they have the enthusiasm that they have. I would say that about our producer and director as well.
“Laurie Burkes is directing it and Tom Feuer is producing it, and you know you couldn’t ask for a better group that is engaged and ready to contribute to building these broadcasts.”
Some of that enthusiasm comes from Rockwell and Barnett’s deep desire to have this league work, to have it survive. Rockwell played for the now long defunct professional team known as the Sacramento Stars and knows the challenges faced by American professional volleyball players trying to make a pro career work despite a lack of good options on domestic soil. She also has plenty of personal ties to the players in this year’s AU roster: she coached Nia Grant, Molly McCage, and Deja McClendon; coached against Sherridan Atkinson, Ali Bastianelli, Tiffany Clark, Dalianliz Rosado, and Molly Lohman; and recruited Lauren Gibbemeyer, Ebony Nwanebu, and Alex Holston, just to name a few.
“I would like this league to be around for a few years,” Barnett said. “I think there have been a number of other efforts in this area and it seems like this group of people who are behind this league have some capability and some advantages that others have not and it seems like they’re in a good position to leverage those.”
“I’m just excited and I think this league is awesome and I feel super fortunate,” Rockwell concluded. “There’s so many great analysts in the game right now and I’m super honored to be asked. I think it’s a really big deal.”