A Rising Star in Sports Journalism, Arielle Chambers is Intentional About Women’s Sports and Culture
A rising star of sports journalism, Arielle Chambers is the Talent and Social Media Manager at Bleacher Report. Chambers covers the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).
Chambers’ interest in sports started when she was four years old in her native Raleigh, North Carolina. As an athlete, Chambers was a competitive cheerleader, who competed in championships annually in The Cheerleading Worlds, under the United States All Star Federation (USASF) and the International All Star Federation. Chambers says many people don’t understand the competitive side of cheerleading.
“I did competition cheer. We didn’t say any cheers,” explains the twentysomething sports reporter. “It was stunting, jumping, tumbling, and dancing, and we would compete every weekend. It’s a huge thing that many people aren’t aware of. In The Cheerleading Worlds, we have international championships. More people attend The Cheerleading Worlds than they do the Super Bowl, and that’s a fact. I have been a competitive cheerleader for most of my life. I also played volleyball; I was a middle hitter.”
Chambers’ interest in women’s basketball also started in her formative years. She grew up in the era of the late Kay Yow, who was the longtime women’s basketball head coach at North Carolina State University, and Sylvia Hatchell, who was the women’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Yow and Hatchell, who were two of the nation’s most successful female college basketball coaches, had a significant impact on Chambers’ interest in women’s sports. “When I was in elementary school, we would take field trips to the North Carolina State Women’s Basketball games and I just noticed how nice both of them were to me. We would wait after the game and talk to the players and the players would sign our cards, and it made a difference. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked on women’s basketball.”
Her passion for the sport continued into high school. “My best friend, Lakevia Boykin, was the star of our high school team and I was the girls’ basketball manager,” she recalls. “Lakevia went on to play for Wake Forest University, which is an ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference] school. With Lakevia, I was always surrounded by girls who were good at basketball. To see them take it to the next level stayed with me, and I’ve wanted to cover women’s basketball ever since.”
Chambers is a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she received her Bachelor’s degree in Communications Media. She later studied at the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England.
Chambers, who also spent time as a runway model, now focuses on commercial fitness modeling with two of the biggest brands in sports: Foot Locker and Nike.
“With fitness modeling, I get to be myself in front of the camera, as opposed to walking down a runway,” she says. “Though I love the runway, I’ve come to a place in life where I don’t need clients to tell me I need to be thinner. I don’t need clients to tell me I need to shut up and just model. I only work with clients that are aligned with where I want to go. I’m fortunate that those clients are already right beside me. So that’s where my modeling career is now, it’s for wholeness and enhancement of my brand, and for that, I’m thankful.”
Gwendolyn Quinn: As a woman covering women’s sports, what has been your challenge as a journalist?
Arielle Chambers: The challenge is getting people to care about women’s sports, convincing people that women’s sports matter. Only four percent of the media covers women’s sports, and I want to change that. Overall investment in the women’s side has been a big challenge, but I’m fortunate enough to have a company like the Bleacher Report who backed me in my passion and gives me the resources I need to cover women’s sports properly. I’m thankful to be a contributor to The Next, which has always been a step ahead in women’s sports coverage.
Women working in the sports space are few and far between. We’re in this position for a reason. We have to break barriers.
GQ: How has the coronavirus impacted the WNBA?
AC: We see the impact of coronavirus on all sports. The WNBA had to figure out a way to have a season because they couldn’t necessarily afford not to, but they settled on a twenty-two-game season and we’re now in the playoffs and finals. It’s been an exciting time, but it’s strange because the training camp normally starts in early May. They have a month at training camp and figure out who’s best for the team, and see who to cut and who to keep. But this time, the players went down to IMG Academy in Bradenton [Florida], the single-site location where they played the games this year. With a two-week training camp, they had to learn fast. Some of the players hadn’t been as active since March because of the pandemic. Many of them had to figure out a way to get in shape quickly.
There were more injuries [this season]. The games are scheduled every other day. But ultimately the WNBA did a great job with posting a season under the circumstances. The WNBA players were like the guinea pigs outside of the NWSL [National Women’s Soccer League]. The WNBA was the first league back, and they set the standard. The NWSL and the WNBA set the pace on how a season should go and be executed.
There were no positives that happened within the Wubble [the IMG Academy, aka the WNBA bubble]. The players were COVID-free for the season, with a couple of inconclusive tests.
GQ: How has the coronavirus impacted your coverage of women’s basketball?
AC: I’m the type of person who likes to be in-person with athletes. I like to be in close proximity. But I’ve had more access that I wouldn’t have had due to this pandemic. It’s great that I can send a message to the athlete or their agent to see if they’re available for an interview. I can host an Instagram Live or a Zoom phone call recording and produce content. Even though they’re through a screen, they’re easier to access. As a result, it has heightened the content. I’m able to get their stories. The whole point of what I do is to share players’ stories. That’s all I care about, is to share the stories of the women.
GQ: On a collegiate level, what are some of the challenges women face in basketball and their prospect of advancing their careers to the pros?
AC: I think that it’s almost better to be a women’s collegiate athlete than a women’s pro athlete, because at least their college population is loyal to them because of the college. Despite all the misogyny that the women’s pro teams face, I think that’s shielded by school pride when they’re in college. But again, overall coverage of it could be way better. Overall investment in the women’s side of things could be better.
But we have platforms now that shine a light on girls in high school; there’s a hype around them when they get to college. Paige Bueckers is entering her first year at the University of Connecticut [UConn Huskies], and we’re excited to see her play. She was the Gatorade Athlete of the Year, and that was because of her talent and social media.
We have Zia Cooke, who went to the University of South Carolina [The Gatecocks] a year before and balled out in her first year. She did great. If we had that access to the women players, that would generate more excitement and therefore more eyes and ultimately more investment.
GQ: What are some of the things that are improving for women in college sports?
AC: The media exposure for talent is improving. They’re able to go viral on social media, so that generates excitement. And then you see coaches like the legendary Dawn Staley, the head coach of the University of South Carolina, who can create a culture where tickets are sold out every single game for those women. Also, programs like the University of Notre Dame and Yukon University that can have these sold-out audiences that generate more excitement around the game.
GQ: What impact is collegiate basketball having on the Black Lives Matter movement and women players?
AC: Players like the athletes at the University of Texas who are joining together in unison and have said, “We’re not going to stand for this anymore. You need to see us as humans and not as your form of entertainment.” Athletes are becoming empowered to speak out about their humanity because, at the end of the day, they are human. They are not just a basketball player, not just an athlete. When they take off that uniform, they enter the real world, and they have to deal with the consequences of living in the skin that they’re in. I’m proud of them because before now, it was never a situation where they could be so audacious because of the fear of what would happen to them. But now that people are becoming more informed, it’s more acceptable to speak out on behalf of Black lives. Before Colin Kaepernick, the WNBA athletes were at the forefront of the movement.
In 2016, the Minnesota Lynx stood up on behalf of Black lives and against police brutality. And the police at the Minnesota Lynx game said, “We’re not going to work your games, because you don’t value us.” So the players put their lives at risk to speak out on behalf of the injustices of the world. The WNBA has a social council that’s been developed over the season to fight against all these injustices. That’s what’s so unique about the WNBA — when they decided to take the day of reflection, all one hundred-forty-four of them joined together and said, “We’re not playing today.” I thought that was dope.
GQ: What are some of the challenges that women of the WNBA face?
AC: The women in the WNBA face misogyny. They face homophobia. Overall, they face people not wanting to support a league that’s eighty percent Black women. They face being mothers during a time where Black Lives Matter is at the forefront and they have to worry about their Black children. In 2013, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt [Los Angeles Sparks] dealt with a situation where on her draft night her cousin got murdered by the police. I know the tragedy comes full circle in 2020 when all of this social unrest is happening, that’s heavy on her heart.
Player Damiris Dantas [Minnesota Lynx] lost her best friend and her father to COVID, and she’s playing with that weight on her heart. We have many challenges within these players’ stories. Amanda Zahui B’s [New York Liberty] father was trapped in the Ivory Coast and couldn’t come back to Sweden because of the borders and the racism over there. They’re playing in a world that doesn’t value them as Black women, that doesn’t maybe value the LGBTQIA+ community, that doesn’t understand why women play basketball. They’re fighting against all these odds, and they still want to play and have their passion at the forefront, and knowing that their voices are heard and utilized to make a change.
GQ: What are some of the areas improving in the WNBA?
AC: The media coverage has been much better this year. It’s at an all-time high. Our WNBA draft was by far the most viewed in several years. We have more network games this year, and people can consume the games on ESPN and ABC and their affiliates. The accessibility is overall improving, therefore more fans are watching the game and want to purchase merchandise and a league pass. The orange hoodie went viral after a couple of WNBA players’ influencers wore it. The overall investment and passion for the league are growing in media coverage as well.
GQ: Are American women basketball players still seeking out professional opportunities in Europe?
AC: Yes. Some of the WNBA players are immediately going from the Wubble to Europe to play. Whether it’s the Euro League or the leagues in Russia or China, the check is bigger overseas. The Euro League is popular. In China, players can make a great deal of money. Australia is a growing landing spot for these athletes as well. The owners of the teams are invested in women’s games. The owners tend to pay more for the American players. The WNBA players are the best of the best. Many of the players might not make the WNBA but are still paid adequately overseas, because of the overall investment in women’s sports.
GQ: What have been your top two stories covering women’s sports and why?
AC: The storylines of the mothers in the Wubble. I think that it’s amazing that moms like Dearica Hamby [Las Vegas Acres], Bria Hartley [Phoenix Mercury], Skylar Diggins-Smith [Phoenix Mercury], Tianna Hawkins [Washington Mystics], Bria Holmes [Connecticut Sun], and Candace Parker [Los Angeles Sparks], who can balance and manage motherhood and play at an elite level while dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, isolation, and Black Lives Matter. It’s such a joy to see the babies in the Wubble, too.
Also, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt [Los Angeles Sparks], who had to deal with a personal occurrence with police brutality. I love Ariel Atkins [Washington Mystics], who has been keeping us informed about different women whose lives have been taken at the hands of police officers. She’s been working silently but impactfully to mention their names and keep the focus on what we’re fighting for. Both Natasha Cloud [Washington Mystics] and Renee Montgomery [Atlanta Dream] have opted out of the season, but they’ve been fighting for social justice. They’ve been at the forefront of these protests. They’ve been on broadcast, screaming to the top of their lungs about it.
GQ: In women’s sports, what stories have you covered that moved you emotionally?
AC: In 2018, Maya Moore of the Minnesota Lynx, who is with the Jordan brand, had a poster that was released with her arms outstretched, like Michael Jordan’s poster. And Liliana, a four-year-old, who is a fan of the Minnesota Lynx, stood in front of the poster with her arms outstretched just like Maya, and the image went viral. I interviewed Maya about it, and Liliana’s father, Justice, saw the interview and reached out to me. He said, “Liliana would love to meet you during WNBA All-Star [in Minnesota].” I said, “Of course.” I met up with Liliana. She’s cute with a curly ponytail. She ran up to me and took off my press pass and put it on her neck and stared at me. And I held her and it was adorable.
The next day her dad contacted me and said, “All Liliana can say is, ‘Daddy, she had hair like mine.’” And at that moment, I knew that it was the representation. I cried for days. Every time I thought of it, I would break down and cry. I had an impact on her. It helps her to see that there are no limits and that she could do what she wants to do. And she doesn’t have to change anything about herself, not her complexion, not her hair. Liliana and I are still in touch through her father. Liliana is a model now.
GQ: What are some of your career highlights covering women’s sports?
I love the NCAA Final Four. It is the one time where it’s a single site of all the elite teams. It’s always a reunion for everybody that you grew up with that are now coaches and now cover the games.
GQ: Who has had the greatest impact on your career in sports?
AC: I would be nothing without my tribe. I have great sisters in sports and media. I have Meghan McPeak, Monica McNutt, Angel Gray, Erica Ayala, Ashley Simmons, who have always been there for me. My mentor is LaChina Robinson [college basketball and WNBA analyst and reporter for ESPN]. I walked up to her years ago and said, “I want to be like you. You’re my goals personified.” And she said, “Take down my number, I already know who you are.” And she invited me to Atlanta to shadow her and do some color commentary. And she introduced me to the sports world.
Also, Howard Megdal of The New York Times was the one who believed in me to get in front of the camera to start talking to players. I had done it before, but he inspired me to do that and he inspired me to write. And then Doug Bernstein of Bleacher Report. Doug found me on Twitter and offered me this job to start up HighlightHER, which was back then named “We Are Jayla.” He trusted me to do things my way and to build up the platform. If it weren’t for all of them, I don’t know where I would be.
GQ: Is there something you would like people to know about women in professional sports?
AC: Yes. We belong, we’re excellent, and we’re here to stay.