Athletes Unlimited is expanding to basketball with the announcement on Tuesday of its fourth league set to launch in January 2022.
The league has already signed Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud and WNBA veterans Sydney Colson and Ty Young. The final roster will be a mix of current and former WNBA players as the league runs complementary to the WNBA.
Athletes Unlimited launched with a softball league in 2020 and has since introduced volleyball and lacrosse. It's a unique format that puts athletes all in one place for a six-week season that incorporates a fantasy sports element to games.
It is launching at potentially the right time as interest in women's basketball continues to grow despite attempts to quell it and as a clause in the WNBA collective bargaining agreement is set to go into effect beginning in 2023 that aims to keep players from going overseas to play. The Cloud signing also adds legitimacy to it out of the gate.
What is Athletes Unlimited?
Athletes Unlimited (AU) provides player-driven leagues with key decisions made by the Player Executive Committees. Players serve as the coaches/general managers and each week draft a team. They earn points for individual and team performances (think rebounds, points, steals, assists, winning a quarter) with one player named the champion at the end of the six-week season. All games are held in one location, eliminating costs of travel and the like for multiple teams in multiple cities.
It also has a deep commitment to civic leadership and social responsibility with players playing in part for a charity of their choice.
“We think there’s a lot of interest, from fans, from media, from players,” Athletes Unlimited Co-Founder/CEO Jon Patricof said, via AU. “We think there’s room for much more high quality professional sports on the women’s side. If you look at men’s basketball, or soccer, you’ve got multiple leagues operating in the same sport. In men’s lacrosse, you have two pro men’s leagues. We think that there continues to be room for more leagues in women’s professional sports.
“The WNBA is a huge success. Women’s basketball is clearly resonating not just with sports fans but at a cultural and a societal level. I don’t think there’s a sport that’s more relevant and connected both to sports fans and to the broader world we live in.”
The basketball league will feature 44 players and run from Jan. 29 through Feb. 28, 2022. That is the offseason for the WNBA. Cloud, a 2019 WNBA champion with the Mystics, has been involved with Athletes Unlimited through her wife, Aleshia Ocasio, who won the 2021 softball championship title this summer.
“I am excited to be joining Athletes Unlimited Basketball and to be a member of the player executive committee,” Cloud said. “I have seen first-hand what Athletes Unlimited has done in its other leagues and have loved the high quality, fast pace of play and most importantly how the players have driven the decision-making on and off the court. Now we are going to bring that same energy and format to the sport of basketball.”
The league launches at a time when interest is high and the business has already seen success with its other offerings.
How Athletes Unlimited might fit into the landscape
It could be a really good time for AU to launch a basketball league.
There is a clause in the WNBA collective bargaining agreement with the players association titled “WNBA Prioritization” that will come into play in 2023. It’s exactly what it sounds like, and players have voiced concerns over if it will have the intended impact.
Most WNBA players go overseas in the WNBA offseason to continue playing and subsidize lower league salaries in the U.S. and a lack of big-time marketing and sponsorship deals afforded other athletes. Chicago Sky point guard Courtney Vandersloot, the six-time assists leader, said she's taken off one month every year. That’s one month total, not one consecutive month. Players such as Breanna Stewart make five-to-10 times what they made in a WNBA season and Diana Taurasi even sat out a WNBA season because her Russian team paid her more to take time off.
Overseas commitments, and specifically the playoffs there, are why players show up late to camp and occasionally miss regular-season games, which impacts the start of a season when there are more eyeballs on the league. Historically, the league has let this go as market reality.
But beginning in 2023, the CBA stipulates the league itself (in addition to the team) will fine players under contract for not reporting to camp. Players will be fined 1% for each day of missed camp and will be suspended without pay for the season if they do not report by the start of the regular season, or May 1, whichever is later.
This has sparked debate by WNBA players who enjoy playing at home in the world’s elite women’s basketball league, but are chasing money to live comfortably and save for life after basketball. Napheesa Collier, who missed Minnesota Lynx training camp and three games, called it “a bad move” and Arike Ogunbowale, speaking on Collier’s podcast, also has concerns.
The Athletes Unlimited league, a short commitment that won’t interfere with the league’s season, could be a fitting spot for younger, top-end players such as Collier and Ogunbowale depending on the offered salary. In a story on Cloud signing, AU wrote the incentives "allow athletes to earn more in a five-week season than they would playing seven months overseas."
It will also give players vacation time they rarely have and time to work on specific skills just as NBA players do in their offseasons. As it stands now, most players have a week or two off, if that, before a WNBA season, and leave immediately after WNBA for overseas.
The league itself also puts the game in the hands of players — and player agency is taking off right now — making it popular with athletes. It has never intended to be the one league for a sport, but rather a new way to invest and look at it while lifting women athletes.
Room for more women’s leagues in U.S.
The WNBA is the only professional women’s basketball league in the United States and it does not have a developmental league as a feeder. The 25-year-old league can realistically hold expansion with the talent level and parity, shown so clearly this week with a No. 5 seed and No. 6 seed squaring off in the WNBA Finals.
There are two key aspects at play. With the league's long-established stars — such as Taurasi, going for her fourth WNBA title, and Sue Bird, seriously mulling retirement for the first time — playing into their 40s, the longer careers are creating fewer roster spots.
Meanwhile, more high-level talent than ever can come into the league via the college ranks. There is more investment in youth leagues, which results in developing better skills quicker, as the generations pass after Title IX. Yet players drafted in the second and third rounds of the WNBA draft are long shots to make rosters. Even the 12 taken in the first round aren’t locks, as we saw with the 2021 draft class.
These are players with already established fans from their collegiate careers (think Sedona Prince and her reach on TikTok) who will follow players into their next phase.
There is clearly room to fill, but how Athletes Unlimited does it will be the key. Signing Cloud, Colson and Young will bolster it out of the start and provide a recruit of sorts for the league. AU said the final 44-player roster will be a mix of current and former WNBA players plus other talent both domestic and internationally.