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Sunday, April 21, 2024
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Women’s March Madness Is Making Stars in the ESPN Studio, Too

  • Elle Duncan, Chiney Ogwumike, and Andraya Carter host the network’s studio show for women’s college basketball.
  • The trio is drawing praise from fans as more people tune in to the women’s games.
Courtesy ESPN

It’s not just the players and coaches in women’s college basketball having a moment. ESPN’s studio show is drawing rave reviews as the women’s NCAA tournament is exploding in popularity.

The trio of Elle Duncan, Chiney Ogwumike, and Andraya Carter were widely praised for their funny and expert analysis in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, especially as the NCAA bumbled through an incorrectly painted court.

“Social media can be really nasty,” Duncan tells Front Office Sports. “So sometimes I’m like, ‘Is this a setup? Everybody’s being so nice.’”

As fans took to social media to comment on Hailey Van Lith’s difficulty guarding Caitlin Clark on Monday night, the love poured in for the analysts. Boston Globe sports reporter Ethan Fuller called them “immediately the best studio crew in basketball” in a post, while Chicago Sky player Brianna Turner posted that she wasn’t sure whether she was “more excited for the games or the halftime report.” One fan jokingly referred to them as the three branches of the U.S. government.

“If you’re talking about us, that means you’re talking about women’s basketball. And ultimately, that’s the win,” Duncan says.

Duncan, a SportsCenter anchor and ESPN host since 2016, says she hasn’t received this amount of media attention since she shared a conversation she had with Kobe Bryant about being a “girl dad” in the wake of the superstar’s death.

But that attention came from something tragic and was fundamentally about Bryant. Now Duncan and the studio crew are emerging as Inside the NBA–level stars. Ogwumike and Carter dap each other up on the air. When Duncan counts them down to predict a second-half x-factor at the same time, the duo says the same thing. Carter pulls out chopsticks and mimics “surgery” to explain Clark’s prowess.

While Duncan won’t compare herself to Ernie Johnson, she says their roles of facilitating conversation, adding context, and setting up analysts for success are similar. You can find her opinions on the Elle Duncan Show podcast or Around the Horn, but in the women’s college basketball studio show, she’s allowing the other women on the desk to tell her “where they want the basketball” and feeding it to them.

“For me, the satisfaction comes from the fact that people are getting to see these people be themselves,” Duncan says. “If there’s anything that I hope that any future broadcasters, current broadcasters, or whatever are watching, it’s that you can be you.”

In women’s sports, the talent has always been there, but getting investment has always felt like an “appeal to people’s morality,” Duncan says. Now, it’s just smart business, especially with soaring viewership and record-breaking attendance this postseason. Duncan says she hopes these numbers pale in comparison to future ones, and that fans continue to follow these players beyond their college careers. “I hope that this is not basketball’s zenith,” she says.

ESPN got very lucky that Iowa didn’t get knocked out in its difficult regional, but in the game where it felt closest against West Virginia, the Hawkeyes drew nearly 5 million viewers. The Sweet 16 game against Colorado got close to 7 million viewers. The Elite Eight doubleheader, in prime time on a night without men’s tournament games, should easily pass that mark, and it could even beat last year’s championship, which set a new record for the most-watched women’s college basketball game at 9.9 million viewers.

“It’s just an investment in women, and watching it come to fruition, and it is coming from all the sacrifices of the women that played before, of the women that sat in boardrooms before and begged and pleaded for more investment and resources,” Duncan says. “And now they are seeing all the fruits of their labor.”

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