The Athletes Unlimited Basketball model is shaking up everything we’ve come to expect from pro women’s hoops, for both the fans and the players — in a good way. Established in 2020, Athletes Unlimited is a brand of women’s sports leagues, that offers a range of innovations to bring athletes and fans a unique and intense version of the sport.
From the start, the startup eliminated sports team owners, choosing instead to give athletes, who have often been financially undervalued, a share of the profits of the league. And they made civic leadership a core element of the league, ensuring it’s woven into every aspect.
“I hope we’ll be known for building a community of athletes across sports and across generations who lift each other up along with their fans and supporters.” said Jonathan Soros, Athletes Unlimited, Co-Founder. So far, the company has seemingly been everything they said they are.
“There’s something extremely special about playing this game here with AUProSports. I can’t put my finger on it. But this brings out the kid in us all, and to be around so many great players. This is adult AAU with all the feels. This is beyond fun.” said AU hooper and Game 6 MVP Rebecca Harris.
She hasn’t been alone in feeling that way. “This is the most fun I’ve had hoopin in a min.” AUProHoops leaderboard leader Natasha Cloud told the world, after second-place leader Lexie Brown said nearly the same thing just two hours earlier.
So what exactly is it that makes the Athletes Unlimited Basketball league so special? Today we take a look at five ways the league is unlike any we’ve seen before.
Beyond taking a bet that fans will gravitate towards players and good hooping, rather than needing to root for a home team, Athletes Unlimited is shaking things up in all sorts of ways. From spectacular and up-close camera angles, to a Barack Obama book on the fan shop bookshelves, there are unlimited reasons to love this new league.
The players are running the show at Athletes Unlimited Basketall. There are no owners, GMs, long-term contracts, or even coaches. Instead, a Player Executive Committee (PEC) meets weekly with AU staff and determines all aspects of the league, from rosters to rules and the scoring system.
And while the league does have four non-playing facilitators (folks with prior coaching experience) who can lend help during training and games, players don’t have to listen to their input. For example, as The Next Hoops‘ Jackie Powell highlights below, while facilitator Shelley Patterson called a time out during a game, the player captain chose to keep the game going. Talk about a power play!
Furthermore, the players are doing their best to not only put out a great quality product on the floor, but also to create a platform that provides more opportunity for female-identifying hoopers. “One of the first things that we said in one of our first meetings was, we’re gonna give those players [who didn’t make it to the WNBA] opportunities.” said player executive committee member Natasha Cloud. And they really have, as sources recently told GrlsTlkSportsTV that WNBA teams including the the Washington Mystics and Connecticut Sun have already inquired about AU hooper Taj Cole.
The Athletes Causes program, powered by Give Lively, provides funding to charities of each player’s choosing equal to 50% of the player’s season bonus. Players can also create their own fundraising pages to support the organizations of their choice.
Some of the 20+ organizations that hoopers are playing for in the inaugural season include the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – dedicated to saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide; Girl Rising – a non-profit working in 12 countries to advance girls right to a quality education; and the Mamba and Mambacita Sports Foundation – a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating positive impact for underserved athletes and young women in sports.
The focus on causes is not only great for supporting organizations doing wonderful work, but also it gives fans (and teammates) insight into what’s important to their favorite players.
As just one example, this season, Kalani Brown is playing for the Kay Yow Cancer Fund in honor of her grandmother, who passed away in 2006 due to breast cancer. “I do it for her. She never had the chance to see me play,” Kalani said. “One thing about my grandmother, she was a diva! So when I do it big, I do it for her. And that’s why I give it my all.”
As another example, Isabelle Harrison is playing for the Lupus Foundation of America in support of her siblings.
Athletes Unlimited production crew is first rate. They have cameras that provide all sorts of interesting angles on the game, including a center court robo camera, which makes tip off intense to watch, and provides an interesting – if sometimes dizzying – perspective in transition.
There’s also a hand-held camera, that AU staffer Ci Michel takes court side with the players, and into the stands for up-close interviews and action with fans, and player’s partners and relatives. Furthermore, there’s a court side jib, which can capture a ton of shots smoothly, including overhead and long sweeping moves, and can film a complete 360 degree shot. Plus, there’s a chair set up on each sideline where any player can chat with the broadcasters. Basically AU is providing up-close access to the game in a whole new way.
They also wire one player per team, per game, so there are some in-game sound bites providing insight into more of what’s happening on the floor and how the team is (or isn’t) working together. Check out Game 1 to see for yourself!
The behind the scenes:
The fans’ view:
The inaugural basketball season is hosted in Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center of Las Vegas, less than two miles from the Las Vegas Strip. What’s impressive though is that the venue was transformed for the duration of the season specifically to showcase the women’s game.
The beautiful branding on the floor and walls is topped only by the top-notch acoustics and visibility. The fans are able to enjoy seats court side and an intimate atmosphere. Plus, the merchandise in the fan shop is like no other — including mini-hoops, sweatshirts, tees, and hats. There’s even a section of books featuring books by Black authors including Angie Thomas and Barack Obama.
Award-winning women’s sports culturalist and WNBA merchandise queen Jasmine Baker said, “Having Black literature in this section is everything. All these titles have been supplied by Marlin’s Closet and Bookstore, a Black-owned business…I love how intentional AU is about this. Shout out to the players for making sure this was included. Basketball and education you know what time it is: AU!”
OK, first, there’s the broadcast team full of women. We get color commentary from Hall of Famer Sheryl Swoopes and former coach Carol Ross, while play-by-play duties are handled by Cindy Brunson. Sheryl Swoopes – who should need no introduction – is the first player signed by the WNBA, and won a championship at every level of competition including three Olympic gold medals and four WNBA titles.
Carol Ross, a former SEC Coach of the Year and WNBA Coach of the Year has covered women’s basketball for the SEC Network and ESPN. Cindy Brunson has served as a sports anchor, play-by-play commentator and analyst for the PAC 12, Phoenix Mercury, FOX Sports Net Phoenix, Bally Sports and ESPN.
Also from the jump the league is collaborating with an All-Star cast of basketball content creators (as first coined by Lyndsey D’Arcangelo) including Jasmine Baker, Greydy Diaz, Terrika Foster-Brasby, Khristina Williams, Arielle Chambers, and Victoria Jacobi to give fans an inside look at the first weekend of action.
For example, Khristina Williams was tapped to join Athletes Unlimited Basketball for the opening weekend, and produce content and engage with fans through initiatives such as a live watch party, Instagram takeovers, weekly mailbags, and written content for their website.
Meanwhile Arielle Chambers is creating a multi-episode series, featuring her leading a roundtable discussion with Athletes Unlimited Basketball players. Covering everything from playing abroad to music, and never-before-heard stories about their lives on and off the court, these conversations focus on topics and themes that are important to the athletes.
And finally, AU has its own team of digital-first creators, including reporter Savanna Collins, photographer and videographer Jade Hewitt, and AP Sports writer Willie Ramirez who crank out top-quality content fast. Plus, a strong social and PR squad that ensure the content gets seen.
With the players in the driver’s seat, we’re seeing some really smart and fun play making. Like the Natasha Cloud to Dijonai Carrington bucket below. The way Natasha Cloud and Dijonai Carrington sell it, is what brings it home. Tash brings the ball up the court, and does a smooth behind the back pass back to Dijonai who’s trailing her. Tash then cuts to the basket and calls for the ball, drawing the defense with her. Dijonai uses a casual pace to step into the ball, and doesn’t look at the basket, keeping her defensive player relaxed and sagged. Then she releases quickly – and it’s game over!
Now that you’re ready to catch the action, tune in every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday for two games each night, for the entire five-week season. Here’s how to watch.
Header photo captured by Jade Hewitt for Athletes Unlimited.