Athletes Unlimited Basketball Gets WNBA Streaming Boost

Athletes Unlimited, a network of women’s sports leagues, has found a new digital home for its upcoming basketball season: WNBA League Pass, the W’s streaming platform. League Pass will live-stream 25 of the 30 games slated for Athletes Unlimited’s five-week hoops season, which tips off from Dallas later this month, at no additional cost to subscribers.

The deal provides additional inventory for League Pass and presents an opportunity for the W to promote many of its athletes, more than a dozen of whom will compete for Athletes Unlimited this year, during the quiet winter months without league play. At the same time, it spotlights a domestic offseason option for players as the league ramps up efforts to keep its talent from pursuing opportunities abroad.

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CBS Sports Network will air the five remaining contests; this is the network’s second season airing Athletes Unlimited basketball after sharing rights to the first with Fox. CBS is also a partner of the WNBA and has picked up several of Athletes Unlimited’s other sport seasons in individual deals. ESPN is Athletes Unlimited’s only broadcast partner signed to a multiyear pact, having agreed to a two-year deal to cover softball and lacrosse in early 2022. Additionally, the new Women’s Sports Network and Bally Sports regional networks will simulcast select games this season.

Access to the WNBA’s audience—in particular, the fans passionate enough to subscribe to League Pass, which saw a 10% jump in subscribers in 2022, according to the WNBA—is huge for Athletes Unlimited. The league will again feature several WNBA players on its rosters, including Los Angeles Sparks’ Lexie Brown, Chicago Sky guard Courtney Williams and the Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud. They are joined by Athletes Unlimited first-timers Sydney Colson (Las Vegas Aces); Kelsey Mitchell, Lexie Hull and NaLyssa Smith (Indiana Fever); and Naz Hillmon and Allisha Gray (Atlanta Dream), among others.

“We are committed to expanding our direct-to-consumer offering with year-round content, bringing our fans closer to the game they love,” WNBA chief growth officer Colie Edison said in a statement. “With a number of WNBA players set to star in AU’s upcoming season, and with an additional group of talented, young players on AU rosters looking to make their mark, WNBA League Pass provides a terrific platform to further showcase these players and women’s basketball and a great lead-up to the upcoming 2023 WNBA season.”

The 2023 WNBA Draft will take place April 10, and its 27th campaign tips off on May 19.

Many WNBA athletes typically play abroad to supplement their WNBA salaries during the offseason. In countries such as China and Russia, the W’s biggest names could earn as much as seven figures—with some players taking home more in a single international season than the WNBA’s salary cap ($1.4 million).

However, overseas options, for myriad reasons, have become less tenable and practical for WNBA players in recent years. The pandemic forced the first shifts in the international landscape, eliminating opportunities in countries like China, which were under strict lockdown. Brittney Griner’s detention in Russia added another level of geopolitical complexity to the choices WNBA players make each offseason.

Athletes Unlimited’s compensation is not comparable to what top earners could make playing abroad; the league offers an average base salary of $20,000 for its five-week season and the potential to earn as much as $50,000 with bonuses. But there are advantages—the U.S.-based season is significantly shorter than a full international campaign, and it ends well in advance of the WNBA’s start.

The frequent intrusion of international commitments into the start of W’s season led to a new WNBA rule requiring athletes to prioritize the W’s summer season over overseas play.

The reporting rule will be phased in starting this season, calling for fines on players with more than two years of experience who do not report to their teams by May 1 or in time for the start of training camp (whichever is later). Those who miss the start of the regular season will be suspended for the year. In 2024, players who fail to join their teams by the start of training camp will face a season-long suspension. Some players will be forced to miss the end of their seasons abroad to comply, clouding their futures in the WNBA—particularly for players who earn much of their living competing internationally.

In turn, it makes sense for the league to promote Athletes Unlimited, an offseason option that doesn’t conflict with its timeline and offers WNBA players what the league has long hoped for: a chance to stay stateside with less wear and tear on their bodies.

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