Holly Rowe Is Doing It All For ESPN Inside The WNBA Bubble

Noble Horvath

About 120 miles away from where the Milwaukee Bucks staged a playoff game strike on Aug. 26, Holly Rowe was watching a similar scene unfold in the WNBA Bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. As she got ready to report on the scheduled double-header on ESPN that night, Rowe […]

About 120 miles away from where the Milwaukee Bucks staged a playoff game strike on Aug. 26, Holly Rowe was watching a similar scene unfold in the WNBA Bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. As she got ready to report on the scheduled double-header on ESPN that night, Rowe realized the WNBA, led by the Washington Mystics and Atlanta Dream, might soon follow the Bucks’ lead. As the only media member in the WNBA Bubble, Rowe sprung into action.

On Twitter, Rowe initially reported games would go on, a sign of the uncertainty the sporting world faced that day, before officially declaring the WNBA would take the night off. With ESPN producers in her ear clamoring for an update, Rowe grabbed Mystics guard Ariel Atkins and Dream center Elizabeth Williams for live interviews to explain their decision. Then, she dashed down the hallway to grab WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert for an explanation on the league’s stance toward the strike. WNBPA executive committee president Nneka Ogwumike had entered the court to help her players make a unified decision, so Rowe threw a few questions her way as well.

Work wasn’t over. As dusk turned to night, Rowe’s phone chirped and she got word of a candlelight vigil being put together by the players to honor Jacob Blake, the victim of the latest police shooting that had spurred the demonstrations across sports, and mourn as a league. Rowe captured intimate video footage that soon went viral.

Another quick foray back to her hotel to edit the video together was interrupted when Rowe received another message, this time from Ogwumike, who wanted her to come sit in on an executive committee meeting. By this time it was morning, but Rowe hustled over to a conference room where she was greeted by the most powerful players in the league, who had a simple question: If they chose not to play again on Thursday, what type of platform might they get? Rowe reached out to ESPN’s producers to gauge the next day’s schedule while at the same time, she texted Doris Burke in the NBA Bubble to get a sense of that league’s plans. Once it was clear the men would not play either, Rowe and the executive committee put together a 12-minute roundtable that ended with a powerful shot of the entire league standing with arms linked in unity.

The strike leading into the roundtable was not only the “most fascinating” 48 hours of Rowe’s career, but a symbol of what it’s been like the past 12 weeks reporting from the IMG Bubble.

“It’s this crazy blend of (being) on television and being a news-breaker and documenting what’s happening in an unprecedented way, and then you’re your own producer scrambling to find a guest to explain the situation,” Rowe tells Dime.

Whereas the NBA Bubble has everyone from Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes doing double-duty with digital content and TNT sideline reporting to Rachel Nichols hosting The Jump on ESPN, in Bradenton there is only Rowe. The shot she captured of the WNBA standing arm-in-arm only happened with the help of the New York Liberty public relations staff, who pointed Rowe’s TVU kit — a live gateway to ESPN broadcasts — at the women from a completely different room than where Rowe was.

“I just want to cry when I think about it because that shot will go down as one of the most powerful if not the most powerful images in WNBA history, and it took teamwork to get it,” Rowe says. “I’m just so proud of all of us pulling together.”

Having cultivated relationships covering women’s basketball for over a decade and earned the trust of ESPN producers who made a big bet on the WNBA this summer, Rowe was ready for the moment. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been trying. After a back-and-forth all summer about whether the WNBA could host her, Rowe got a call on July 15 with the news that she’d have to report to Bradenton that day. A seven-day quarantine awaited her once she arrived, and because of the tighter confines of IMG compared to the Wide World of Sport complex where the NBA lived all summer, Rowe could see and hear everything going on in the WNBA ecosystem while she waited out her quarantine.

Before she could even head out and start working, the intrigue of the Bubble experience had already worn off.

“It was really weird because at first I was really excited and thought I was so creative, I brought my Nespresso, brought a blender, I was so proud of myself,” says Rowe. “And after day three in the hotel room, I was going crazy, like, ‘I’ve done yoga, I’ve learned every TikTok dance, I’ve done 10 or 12 Zoom calls with every team today, and I’ve listened to JJ Redick’s podcast, and it’s 4 p.m. Now what?’”

When she was let out, Rowe got to work immediately. Not only was she the on-site eyes and ears for each of ESPN’s 37 regular-season broadcasts and the network’s coverage of each of the league’s 22 potential playoff games, but she has fueled content across ESPN’s digital platforms as well. Rowe shot the viral pictures of the Storm and Mercury wearing “Vote Warnock” shirts as part of their endorsement of Rev. Raphael Warnock in the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. She is working with The Undefeated on a documentary short on the league’s fight for racial justice this summer, as well as a separate short for ESPN’s digital platform on life in the #Wubble, which players delightfully renamed the IMG Academy.

Shortly after the season began, WNBA PR head Ron Howard sat Rowe down with reps from all 12 teams in the league for a breakfast pitch meeting. Team reps got the chance to give Rowe their best ideas for what could be featured in a halftime feature story or a SportsCenter feature this season. Rowe grinded to get all 12 done before the end of the season, which lasted less than two months.

Still, Rowe has had to find a balance. Because she is so tightly wound up with the players, referees and executives of the league, she has had to craft her own line in the sand as a reporter. When Rowe fell off her bike while recording from her phone and trying to steer midway through the season and had to take some time off, she was told by league medical staff to do some rehab work in the pool to ease the pain. Right next to her during an early session were Sydney Wiese and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt of the Los Angeles Sparks, who were also rehabbing from injury. Rather than “crossing a boundary,” Rowe decided whatever news she gathered from moments like those would be for others to report, not her.

“I’ve had to be really careful (and) I don’t just report everything I see here because I’m here at the pleasure of the WNBA and I want to be respectful of all else,” Rowe said.

As a reporter, Rowe has felt a bit conflicted to be “at the pleasure” of anyone rather than stationed as an unbiased observer, but the nature of the pandemic and the Wubble has changed the shape of journalistic ethics a bit for her. Many have wondered why the WNBA only allowed one reporter in, even as the Bubble emptied out for the playoffs, meaning there was even more pressure on Rowe to nail the opportunity. So if the choice was to stifle certain news-breaking impulses in order to cover the season, the decision was relatively easy.

“I am conflicted because you’re a reporter because you have news instincts,” Rowe explained. “I’ve had to kind of be like, ‘It’s OK if that news gets out another way or if that gets out through the team and how they release it instead of me breaking news.’ That’s not my job here, to break news, my job is to cover games and be respectful.”

At the same time she is navigating the WNBA calendar, Rowe still hosts a daily Big 12 football show on SiriusXM from her hotel room. Because Rowe is on-campus with the players unlike in the NBA Bubble where media is separated from teams, she shares a wall with Las Vegas Aces guard Jackie Young, who will sometimes overhear Rowe when she winds up for her loudest takes on air. Rowe recently ordered a box of chocolates for Young as an apology for the noise.

All these projects fill up the extra time in her schedule, but game broadcasts are a full-time job. Because everything is virtual these days, Rowe sat through meetings with all four coaches from that night’s double-header before another meeting with producers and broadcasters in Bristol before running away to do in-person interviews with players. Those interviews fill in the gaps where NBA broadcasts are able to do “Wired” segments on players and coaches or cut-aways to broadcasters who are in the building. While ESPN’s WNBA team of Ryan Ruocco, Rebecca Lobo, Pam Ward, and LaChina Robinson call games from ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Rowe configures most of the broadcast from on the ground.

“We certainly wouldn’t have had the quality of broadcast we had, if it wasn’t for Holly not only being in the bubble, but Holly being in the bubble,” says Lobo. “She just brings something a little bit different than anybody else, and some of that is her relationships with the players, some of that a lot of that is, she just has a really … exceptional ability to just take in everything she’s seeing.

“She is a great observer, and that adds a lot to our telecast, even if it’s been she’s relaying all of that on the air.”

Back in Bristol, Lobo and her counterparts are calling games from a studio that might normally house a halftime show. Big monitors cloak the walls around them as producers orchestrate the broadcast nearby, negotiating camera angles and commercial breaks. All the while, Rowe is in everyone’s ear with tidbits of news or stories to watch.

Shouldering the success of a league’s entire national television slate would be stressful for most, but for Rowe, who had been antsy to get back on the court since finding out the NBA shut down while in a gym at the women’s Big 12 tournament, it was a gift.

“I don’t think pressure is what I would say, but more excitement,” Rowe says. “I had been sitting home without sports for five months. The more games, the more opportunities to work, the better for me.”

The pride in her work and ability to coax out interesting stories is what makes Rowe so easy to work with for Lobo and others at ESPN, but it’s also what makes for great broadcasts. During the opening day of WNBA games in late July, Layshia Clarendon and Breanna Stewart took a moment pregame to dedicate the season to the Say Her Name campaign and the movement for Black lives. Teams left the court prior to the playing of the national anthem in an act of dissent. Throughout the weekend, players refused to answer basketball questions in favor of drawing attention to Breonna Taylor’s case in Louisville and ongoing systemic racism in the country.

Rowe was able to pivot quickly to these issues in a compassionate way while also keeping the broadcast moving, balancing basketball and the big picture just like the players on the court. When it comes time to ask a tough question — or question Bill Laimbeer’s haircut — it’s a natural conversation.

“Because of her personality, she has a way of being able to do things without in any way being off putting” Lobo says. “She’s like this bossy teddy bear, she gets the content that is so good just because people like her.”

Anyone watching would understand that some of what sports reporters have had to confront in 2020 is more visceral than in years past as the line blurs between sport and society, but Rowe still sometimes worries that the emotional response in certain moments goes too far. When players like Ogwumike are standing and pleading for fans to care about Black life and join their effort to beat back racism, it’s hard not to respond genuinely to it. And to not do so would be against who Rowe is.

“Sometimes I second-guess myself and think that’s unprofessional and (I) shouldn’t be like that, (I’ve) gotta be stoic and just a reporter, but it’s who I am and I just have to be myself,” Rowe says. “I think I’m just a really big-hearted, soft person that loves people and I got into sports because I love telling stories and I’m such a fan of people. That naturally transcends to my reporting.”

Yet as players like Paul George and Fred VanVleet have attested to on the NBA side, the Bubble is enough to compromise anyone’s cheer and positive outlook. Rowe has been in the same squished hotel room for three months. She hasn’t seen her son since she jetted out after that call on July 15. She has watched as players have left with joy on their faces, happy to escape even as their seasons came to an end. The sick trick of the Bubble is that those who play the best must suffer the longest. For reporters, the job’s not over until a champion is crowned.

Rowe recently ordered shirts for the playoff teams left on campus that said “I survived the Wubble” and has heard from even ultra-competitive players like Diana Taurasi that the chance to leave and be back home was enough to outweigh the disappointment of failure. “Unless you’re here, you don’t understand the mental challenges,” Rowe says. “I don’t know if anyone will truly understand.” Still, Rowe remains energized after moments like that one with Taurasi, when the legendary scorer offered a sincere thanks to Rowe for sticking it out. “It was important,” Taurasi told Rowe.

Her assignment is winding down as the Finals between the Storm and Aces now reaches a potential conclusion with Seattle up 2-0 heading into Game 3, but Rowe earned the opportunity to see the season through even as her college football slate picks up. Lobo and Ruocco are still calling the Finals from Bristol, where they’ve fashioned a great routine with Rowe from hundreds of miles away. At this point, it’s hard to see the season throwing Rowe a curveball crazier than what she’s already seen. Rowe has made sure every women’s basketball fan knows the temperature in the Wubble from start to finish.

Whether it be Laimbeer’s haircut or the union reps’ roundtable or a pitch meeting over eggs and bacon, the WNBA family knows what to do when something happens: Find Holly.

“She really is unique in this business,” Lobo says. “It’s just different. People love Holly Rowe, and it comes across on the air. If it’s Holly, she just gets more.”

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