Athletes Unlimited is adding basketball to its network of professional women’s sports leagues later this month with a 30-game season slated to tip off in Las Vegas on Jan. 26, and now a pair of the league’s television partners have signed on to broadcast 17 of the inaugural season’s contests. Fox and CBS will tag-team coverage of the campaign, which will be headlined by WNBA star Natasha Cloud and a number of other current and former WNBA players.
The move continues CBS’ inroads in professional women’s basketball after inking a multi-year deal with the WNBA in 2019, but marks a new foray for Fox Sports, which has historically stuck to college hoops. Athletes Unlimited’s basketball entrance comes on the heels of the most-watched WNBA regular season since 2008. Viewership was up 51% over the 2020 bubble season.
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Athletes Unlimited is banking its success on that increasing popularity, and the need for a U.S.-based option for players during the WNBA offseason, when many play abroad to supplement their earnings. If viewership of the 2021 season across the WNBA’s television partners—who also include Disney’s ABC and ESPN networks—is any indication of fan appetite for women’s basketball, Athletes Unlimited could be in luck.
Notably, ESPN is not involved in any of AU’s initial basketball programming, despite having televised the WNBA since the league’s debut in 1997. ESPN was an early partner of Athletes Unlimited, signing on for its first softball season alongside CBS Sports, but its involvement since has been limited to international distribution.
A second season of volleyball will follow Athletes Unlimited’s basketball debut. Both CBS and Fox Sports will return after televising the sport’s inaugural season together last winter.
Fox Sports will pick up 14 of Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball contests and another 12 volleyball matches, while CBS Sports Network will air a trio of basketball and seven volleyball games to be played in March in Dallas. The Bally Sports RSNs, a new distribution partner for the league, will air an additional eight basketball games and four volleyball matches. The remaining contests will stream live across Athletes Unlimited’s social media accounts.
Athletes Unlimited CEO and co-founder Jon Patricof said the broadcast partnerships will make both seasons available to fans, “without a separate subscription, ensuring fans will have access to the games from wherever they are located.”