Some of the most interesting news to hit pro women’s hoops this year was the announcement, this October, of the launch of Athletes Unlimited’s basketball league. The great news for fans is that the player-driven league’s inaugural season will get underway quickly, beginning in January 2022. So today, we’re taking a deep dive into what the new league is all about, the location, the format, and what’s been announced so far about how to watch!
One reason the league is an exciting development is because it provides a nice opportunity for WNBA players who’d prefer to stay state side. Since the WNBA launched in 1997, most WNBA players have competed overseas in the winter months in order to earn higher salaries. While the Athletes Unlimited basketball salary is unlikely to compete with top overseas salary, it is at least an option for players looking to be with family or to be home, and to still earn income playing the sport they love.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said the AU league is still a good alternative, particularly for American players who would prefer to spend the winter in the United States.
“I think the WNBA and Athletes Unlimited will mesh perfectly together. We can stay here, it will be really competitive basketball, and we do not have to be away from our families for several months.”
The new basketball league is the fourth Athletes Unlimited league, joining a growing women’s sports community that includes softball, volleyball and lacrosse, each led by world-class pro athletes. Athletes Unlimited bills its league as: “Shorter season. Higher stakes. More opportunity.”
Basically there’s tons of competition built into play. With Athletes Unlimited’s unique format and rules, individual points are awarded to players based on stats. Every week during the season on the field, the top four players serve as captains and select new teams. Off the field, the athletes recruit fellow pros, create league rules, and retain equity in the league.
The best parts of fantasy are also brought to life, because in their scoring system, every player can lose or win points during every game. Athletes score points as individuals and as a team to win MVP titles and cash bonuses. Plus, each week, players and fans get a chance to vote for their MVP. Learn even more about how different the model is here.
“Women’s basketball is a growing game. We have seen significant ratings increases in the WNBA, massive growth in the NCAA and a burgeoning landscape around the world. With the launch of Athletes Unlimited, pro women’s basketball will be played during the winter to coincide with fans’ engagement with the NBA, NCAA and international basketball, and brings us closer to the year-round access fans have on the men’s side.” Natasha Cloud said. “I am excited to be joining Athletes Unlimited Basketball and to be a member of the player executive committee.
Natasha Cloud and former WNBA players Sydney Colson (competed in the 2019 WNBA Finals) and Ty Young (Champion and MVP of the 2012 Israeli Cup) were unveiled as the first three players to sign and make up the Athletes Unlimited Basketball Player Executive Committee.
When Natasha reached out to her women’s basketball counterparts about the league that she is helping to spearhead, she was usually greeted with skepticism. Natasha, who has spent the past few months calling players — both in and out of the WNBA — can’t blame them. “Nothing like this has ever been presented to us before,” she said. However the roster ultimately came together well.
The final 44-player roster for the inaugural season is packed with former college, and current overseas and WNBA players: 43 have represented a total of 37 NCAA Division I institutions; 42 have spent time in international professional leagues; 16 have WNBA experience across 97 seasons and six championships.
Coming from the WNBA, there are 11 commitments including second overall pick in the 2018 WNBA Draft, Kelsey Mitchell, WNBA champion Lexie Brown, and WNBA champion Mercedes Russell. As well as former WNBA player Kalani Brown, current Dallas Wings forward Isabelle Harrison, and former WNBA player Imani McGee-Stafford.
They join 2021 WNBA All-Star Courtney Williams, Odyssey Sims, and Tianna Hawkins, who played for the Atlanta Dream this past season; Jantel Lavender of the Indiana Fever (an 11-year WNBA veteran, winning the championship in 2016); and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan of the Seattle Storm. Essence Carson is also joining Athletes Unlimited following a 13-year WNBA career. The roster is rounded out with overseas depth and four hoopers who earned their way on during open tryouts.
The facilitators at Athletes Unlimited Basketball are first-class, too. This year, Team Purple will enjoy leadership from Shelley Patterson, Team Blue has Pokey Chatman, Team Orange has Danielle Viglione, and Team Gold has Plenette Pierson’s support.
Jantel Lavender shared, “Athletes Unlimited provides American players an additional opportunity to play in the United States, an opportunity we have always hoped for. Staying in the U.S. allows us to spend more time with our families while earning money. And not putting as much wear and tear on our bodies, so that we can put out the best product.”
“I am also looking forward to the unique Athletes Unlimited format, every week a new team, playing with – as well as against — some of the best players in our sport every week, I’m excited to be a part of the first group to try this out and I hope it’s something that can be an option for women’s basketball players for many years to come.”
The league will run about 5 weeks, from Jan. 26 to Feb. 26, and will feature 44 players. Check out the schedule here.
In addition to the existing Athletes Unlimited professional staff, the league will be overseen by Ilene Hauser, who managed women’s basketball for Nike for the past 15 years. And Kristen Miles, who spent 10 years with Monumental Sports & Entertainment.
Athletes Unlimited Basketball will also have a network of advisors, including Sarah Flynn, CMO of Thirty Five Ventures. Which will complement the existing 10-member Athletes Unlimited Advisory Board that includes Kevin Durant, Rich Kleiman, and Taylor Rooks.
Games will be at the same location in one city: Las Vegas. And the hoopers will play at Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center of Las Vegas. The center is about 2 miles away from the Las Vegas Strip.
AUProSports Basketball player Sydney Colson shared that she’s excited about the location. “Ever since the announcement about Athletes Unlimited basketball, the feedback has been nothing but positive which is great. Knowing that we’ll be playing in Las Vegas took it up a few more notches! The Vegas fan base was so incredible when I played there. And I can’t wait to see familiar faces as well as new fans in the stands at all of our games!”
Tickets will go on sale in December 2021, along with the announcement of the league’s national and international broadcast schedule. Here’s how to watch the games from home.
Curious about how you could make an appearance in the league? Athletes Unlimited basketball held a tryout in the Atlanta metro area on December 11-12th, 2021. No walk ups or guests were accepted. At least one spot on the roster was offered to an athlete who attended tryouts. (Actually four athletes made the league!)
Athletes Unlimited and Aspiration recently entered a historic multi-year partnership, setting the stage for Athletes Unlimited to run the first U.S.-based carbon neutral professional sports leagues, beginning with the inauguration of Athletes Unlimited Basketball in January 2022.
Aspiration CEO Andrei Cherny said: “Teaming up with Athletes Unlimited, a game changer in the sports industry, feels like the perfect fit. We both are founded on values of conscience and concern for people and the planet. We couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity to share the deep understanding we have when it comes to sustainability, and how we can continue expanding this partnership with Athletes Unlimited.”
That makes Aspiration the latest, in a rapidly expanding list of corporate partners dedicated to growing Athletes Unlimited’s network of leagues and providing engagement opportunities for its fans. The partnership – which runs through 2023 – will ensure that the fight against climate change is built into Athletes Unlimited’s daily activity, as well as athlete and fan experiences.
The partnership is the largest in Athletes Unlimited’s history, and involves the organization’s first-ever jersey sponsorship, with basketball and volleyball uniforms set to include Aspiration patches for the next two seasons. The partnership will also involve the integration of The Aspiration Difference programming in each Athletes Unlimited league, including ‘Trees for Threes’ in basketball with 10 trees planted for every successful three-pointer. Aspiration will receive physical and digital signage elements across all four leagues, and will become the presenting partner of five national broadcasts for each league per season.
Athletes Unlimited also announced the addition of three new partners and the extension of six others. Global professional services provider EY joined as Official Professional Services Partner of Athletes Unlimited Basketball and Volleyball, and Baden Sports became the Official Ball Partner of Athletes Unlimited Basketball.
Meanwhile, official partners Nike (Official Uniform, Footwear and Training Partner), Gatorade (Official Beverage Partner) and Topps (Official Trading Card Partner), along with Supporting Performance Insole Partner VKTRY, have extended their relationships with Athletes Unlimited through 2022, while WEST + WILDER (Official Wine Partner) and Blue Sky CBD (Supporting CBD Partner) have renewed through the first two seasons of the year. Further, Athletes Unlimited and GigLabs will continue their NFT-based partnership through 2022.
As part of its sponsorship during the 2022 basketball and volleyball seasons, EY will present a new civic leadership award for activity completed across Athletes Unlimited leagues over the past year. EY will also deliver a workshop as part of the Athletes+ program, which provides resources to help athletes achieve success off the field of play.
In addition to Baden being the official ball of Athletes Unlimited Basketball, the partnership also involves the creation of ‘The Baden Assist,’ a program that gives each of the four podium athletes plus the Defensive Player of the Year the opportunity to donate 100 Baden basketballs to an organization or community of their choice.
Blue Sky CBD, Gatorade, Nike and VKTRY will also continue serving as partners of the Athletes Unlimited Innovation Lab, which provides access to cutting edge, validated and scientifically proven products to reduce injuries and optimize performance on and off the field of play.
Most recently, Sportradar Integrity Services, a global supplier of sports integrity solutions and a division of Sportradar (NASDAQ: SRAD), and announced a multi-year integrity services agreement with the league. The partnership, which Sportradar Integrity Services secured as part of a competitive selection process, underscores the group’s leadership position in North American sports while also reflecting the rapid growth of women’s sports in the marketplace. Sportradar Integrity Services will be protecting Athletes Unlimited competitions from match-fixing and betting-related corruption.
Athletes Unlimited Co-Founder/CEO Jon Patricof said, “The new and continued support Athletes Unlimited is receiving from blue-chip brands is testament to growing interest in our innovative model and women’s professional sports. These sponsorships align with our values as an organization and help amplify our programming on and off the field or court, while providing robust and purposeful exposure opportunities for the partners.”
The league’s games should prove to be intense and fast-paced. Fans can expect unprecedented access to players, robust off-court digital programming, and world-class game broadcasts. So be sure to stay tuned, and follow AUProSports on Instagram and Twitter for the latest news.
“Since the launch of Athletes Unlimited Basketball less than a month ago, we’ve had tremendous interest in and excitement for the league.” Athletes Unlimited CEO Jon Patricof said. “We know that Las Vegas has been a great home for women’s basketball. And we only hope that we can add to and build on the momentum, success, and fandom already in place.”
Up next, read all about rookies joining another professional women’s basketball league, the WNBA.
Header photo captured by Jade Hewitt for Athletes Unlimited.
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