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She’s Got Next: Cheri Kempf

June 20, 2024

Cheri Kempf is a Senior Vice President at Athletes Unlimited, a network of professional women’s sports leagues that launched in 2020 featuring softball, indoor volleyball, basketball, and lacrosse. Kempf oversees broadcasting for all four sports, negotiating media rights deals and managing all aspects of production and game presentation. Prior to Athletes Unlimited, Kempf was Commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch for nearly 15 years and was long at the forefront of women’s fastpitch softball, as a player, instructor, an industry marketing representative and a television sports commentator.  

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Athletes Unlimited has a unique structure. Each sport has a condensed season, all in one location, with weekly drafts by team captains. Along with team wins, player earns points during games, creating individual competition. Can you break down the structure of Athletes Unlimited for the uninitiated?

The primary thing I always like to lead with is for each of the four sports, it’s competition as you know it. If you’re watching a softball game, there’s nothing weird or odd or super different. You’re watching a high-level competition of softball. Behind all that is the unique structure. All the players go into one market. So, for softball, 60 players go into one market for the season and all 60 players go on a leaderboard. The top four players on the leaderboard become captains and draft their teams each week. So, the teams switch every week, and that’s kind of new for a fan.

Additionally, an Athletes Unlimited season is a lot more intense. If you look at a baseball season, for example, it spans over half the year with thousands of games. So, if a team loses, it’s not the end of the world. But for us, our motto is every moment counts. And it really does. Because if I get a double, that’s plus 20, for me. That will shift me on the leaderboard, and ultimately, I get a bonus based on that.

I would describe it as competition as you know it with some really fun, nuanced things going on in the background that, once fans understand it, expands their interest and their opportunities to engage with each sport.

Athletes Unlimited was created with a player-centric model. What does that look like in practice?

To start with, you’re not just building a roster at the beginning of the season and then adjusting at a trade deadline. Every single week there’s a strategy of the kind of team a captain is going to put together. And that’s the essence of Athletes Unlimited – empowering the players. There’s no general manager or club president deciding who is going to be on your team. The players themselves make those choices.

The players’ fingerprints are all over the league. We don’t have GMs and also don’t have coaches per se. Each captain has a facilitator the captain can use in whatever capacity they need. It could be helping to draft, or designing a practice, or game management. They work together, but it’s very heavily influenced by players.

Then each one of our sports has what’s called a player executive committee that is made up of five active players. They touch almost everything. Certainly, they touch anything to do with competition. So, if you were going to change the lengths of the quarters or the breaks between or the number of innings or anything like that, it’s going to the player executive committee.

They look at hotels, talk about venues and host cities. They look at virtually everything that has to do with that sport, and that includes, by and large, selecting the other players who are part of Athletes Unlimited. The players drafted out of college into the league are finalized by the players executive committee. They weren’t drafted by the league and handed to the teams.

Really, from start to finish players are playing a very big role in operations, competition, and what the league looks like.

Last year, a number of Athletes Unlimited basketball games were streamed on the WNBA app. That seems to be an example of the culture of collaboration that is a big part of the organization. Can you talk more about that culture?

It’s unique. The very nature of sports is competition and sometimes it’s even more intense, and certainly sometimes uglier, behind the scenes in the business of sport. I was the commissioner of another professional softball league, National Pro Fastpitch, for over 13 years. And so many people came along and rather than contribute and work with the league, they wanted to tear it down or destroy it and have their own thing.

When (Athletes Unlimited Co-Founder) Jon Patricof, first called me I was the commissioner of that league. Immediately, within a minute of talking with him, I knew this guy was different. He’s not here to destroy us. It’s evident that he understands that if we can both exist, the sport will be stronger for the players that play it. We will grow and expand player opportunities for this generation and the next ones. So, I gave him my attention and my time because I knew he was on the right track. There was no reason not to work with him, because the players were going to win, it was very clear.

I think collaboration is at our core. I think that for our co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, it is their nature to collaborate. I think they’re fair to a fault sometimes in terms of really being open and transparent to people and saying, “We’d like to work with you, because this will make the whole space stronger.”

The WNBA relationship is a prime example of that. We had a director initially in basketball, Ilene Houser, who had good relationships with the WNBA. We immediately from my perspective, started talking about broadcast coverage, what that might look like, and if there was space on their app. They were very open to it, very receptive. Our season takes place when their’s doesn’t, so there is no competition. Again, it’s really a way to amplify and magnify the presence of the athletes, and I think we both get that.

I grew up in team sports. It will always feel good to me to collaborate with people, and it feels good to be around people that are like-minded. At the end of the day, women’s sports are in a in a great place, but it’s not all going to flip overnight. If we can, in some way, strengthen what the WNBA has to offer, and they can certainly in ways strengthen what we have to offer, why wouldn’t we do that?

In February 2024, Athletes Unlimited signed a multi-year rights deal with ESPN. How important is that relationship with ESPN?

Visibility is everything. Exposure is everything. It’s a case of “If a tree falls in the woods and no one’s there to hear it…” For years and years and years, women’s sports have been that tree that fell that no one was there to hear. It’s still majestic and huge and has a big impact, but nobody’s there to hear it. I think that television and mainstream media offer you that exposure to start to make your sport and your players interesting.

I was alive and awake and aware when ESPN carried zero college softball games in the regular season and the Women’s College World Series broadcast was only the championship game and it came on at 2 a.m. Now, ESPN is carrying thousands of games and every second of not just the Women’s College World Series, but the NCAA Tournament field of 64.

What affected that, first, was when softball was added to the 1996 Olympics. It was announced around 1992 that softball would be an Olympic sport for the first time ever. So now softball falls under the NCAA’s Olympic sport category, which means more focus and more money, because those athletes now have somewhere to else to go. They are going to be on the Olympic stage.

Then you saw the Southeastern Conference, which is  one of the most dominant college conferences, add softball. Not only did they add it, but they, had an arms race on stadiums and facilities and venues. So that’s your trickle down – it gets added to the Olympics, it falls under the Olympic sport category, and now all of a sudden, television is interested.

So, ESPN tries it. They stick a toe in the water, put one regional on TV, and the numbers are there. It’s captivating. People aren’t changing the channel. People are starting to talk about this. Then it’s more and more and more to the point it is today where the tournament and the Women’s College World Series is appointment viewing for people.

I was an analyst for ESPN when they were saying, “Look, there are people tuning in that don’t understand the nuts and bolts of this game. Make sure you help them understand.” It was a conscious effort by ESPN, and it succeeded. Monumentally, it succeeded. They helped people be exposed to the sport, and by doing that people fell in love with it. They were invested. That’s how it works.

All of a sudden everybody hears the tree crash.

What do you think needs to happen to sustain the current popularity of women’s sports and expand it even further?

It’s no different than it ever has been. We need corporate America to know that our advertising spots are important. The 30-second spots in our shows, our in-game features or in-game mentions are worth spending your time and your money on. That’s for starters,

There needs to be that investment from the networks to say, we’re not going to give you the windows that are leftover. We’re going to give you some good windows. We’re going to give you some primetime and we’re going to give you a good lead-in.

 If you look at the Big Ten Network this year, they had some amazing numbers on women’s volleyball. You know what they did? They’d go to a volleyball match out of a football game. So, you have this audience that’s already watching. The game ends and they toss it to the volleyball game and you retain some of that audience. That’s a big difference than having a taped program, with very few people watching or interested in, leading into your women’s game. TV windows are important and your windows matter.

I also think people cannot say “Oh, we made it,” and ease up. We have to keep going. We have to keep elevating stars. What we should all learn from Caitlin Clark is that all boats rise when a star comes along. I think you have to lean into stars.

We have to keep the pedal down, and corporate America and network television are critical elements.

What advice would you give to young women who want who want a career in sports?

Well, I love this question, because there’s so much going on in sports behind the scenes. As these leagues pop up, guess what, there’s a whole element of management and operations that are coming with these leagues. Everything from in-venue operations to the technical aspects of scoring and operating video boards, to broadcasting and being able to produce. Most people gravitate to on-air talent, but there’s so many opportunities. I think women have a propensity for storytelling, do it well and understand what resonates and how you grow an audience just by telling interesting, touching moving things about people.

We talk about the sports entertainment business, and we talk a lot about the athletes, but I’m telling you television production is also a very male dominated industry. In 30 years of working in broadcasting and production, I can still count on one hand, the number of times I’ve ever had a female director and producer. I’d love to see more of it. I’d love to have the person who’s producing graphics, deciding what’s interesting, what should we have in the lower thirds of your TV screen, be a woman.

I don’t think a lot of people understand the depth of opportunities, career wise, that exist in sports and sports broadcasting, and I love to expose girls to those opportunities.

Amy Moritz

Public Relations Manager

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