PHOENIX – Sophie Cunningham is entering her sixth season with the Phoenix Mercury and has no intention of retiring anytime soon, but she may have already found her second career.
WNBA fans across the country know what Cunningham can do on the court, where she is averaging more than 11 points per game as a starter the past two seasons and has become a leader on the squad. The Phoenix guard has cemented herself as one of the core players on the team, but now she is establishing herself at the studio desk.
The Phoenix Suns hired Cunningham in December 2022 to work alongside Suns broadcaster Tom Leander and Suns Ring of Honor member Tom Chambers as a guest analyst on the pregame and postgame shows as well as providing halftime analysis. Chambers and Cunningham have formed a friendly rivalry since she was hired and Leander – now in his 30th season with the Suns – can attest to how that mutual respect and her youth in the industry makes her a lot of fun to work with.
“I think it’s really refreshing to work with her because a lot of people that go through formal training to be a broadcaster feel like they have to fit into certain boxes, and she just lets it fly,” Leander said. “She reacts to Tom Chambers. She reacts to the different topics with just an honesty and an insight that is very unique and enjoyable to hear.”
Cunningham, 27, has the nickname “Spicy Sophie” and it’s easy to see why when watching the broadcasts. She knows that there are times when she needs to be serious when giving her opinion, but she also understands that she brings an immense entertainment value to the table.
“It’s OK to crack jokes,” Cunningham said. “I know it’s basketball, and you’ve got to talk about the numbers and all the analytics and everything like that. But I also think people want to be entertained. People want to know the fun things, like what people are wearing. They want to see the funny moments in the game as well.
“For me, I want to keep it knowledgeable but also lighthearted where people want to listen to me and they enjoy listening to me.”
The Mercury guard attended the University of Missouri, which has one of the top journalism schools in the nation, but she didn’t study journalism at Mizzou. Instead, the Columbia, Missouri, native was born to be in the industry with her family connections. She did have broadcast experience, however, on networks including ESPN, SEC Network and NBA TV.
“I just did sport management at Mizzou,” Cunningham said. “My mom and aunt actually graduated from the J (journalism) school. And so just growing up, my sister and I were just taught how to speak in front of people, in front of a camera, and so I guess I just had pretty good interviews in college.”
It also helps that Cunningham has a team around her with plenty of experience to help her become a better broadcaster. Suns executive producer Bob Adlhoch has worked with the team for 23 years and was one of the people who decided to bring the Mercury guard onto the broadcast crew.
So how has Adlhoch helped Cunningham transition from the hardwood to the studio? Well, basketball and broadcasting are more similar than one might assume.
“You can see – if you know the conversations behind the scenes – how she’s made little incremental steps here or there or cleaned up the ways she was saying this,” Adlhoch said. “She’s just very, very, very coachable. I’ll tell her it’s like a jump shot. She’s a sharpshooter. You have to keep doing it. It’s just about getting your reps and kind of formulating the muscle memory.”
Cunningham has certainly been getting her reps with the pregame and postgame show, but she recently added some other roles on the broadcast. The five-year WNBA veteran made her color commentary debut on Jan. 16, when the Suns completed a 22-point comeback in the fourth quarter to take down the Sacramento Kings at Footprint Center. She was also the sideline reporter when the Suns traveled to play the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 24 after Amanda Pflugrad, the Suns’ primary sideline reporter, was out due to an ear infection.
With a full calendar year in the booth under her belt, Cunningham has demonstrated she is capable of branching out to these other roles and has passed with flying colors. She will have more opportunities in the future, but the studio desk is where it all started and that is where her personality shines the most.
Cunningham hopes to play in the WNBA for another decade. She is a basketball player first and foremost, and a player who is ready to help the Mercury compete again when the season tips off May 14.
After she finally hangs up her sneakers, who knows what the future has in store for Cunningham?
Both Adlhoch and Leander think she could work NBA broadcasts on TNT or ESPN if she decides to pursue that route. For now, “Spicy Sophie” is a Mercury player who enjoys being a Suns broadcaster in her leisure time, and has made a lasting impression on her new teammates.
“For me, it’s like having a new friendship,” Leander said. “Almost like a younger sister. A much younger sister. She’s so much fun to be around. She makes everybody feel comfortable and everybody feel happy.
“That’s the kind of environment you want around your broadcast, you want that at work and want that in your life.”