October 13, 2021
Inside Athletes Unlimited’s expansion into women’s basketball
Innovative sports league turns to women's basketball to "fill the need" in WNBA offseason.
Athletes Unlimited (AU) announced Tuesday that it would be expanding to create a women’s basketball league with Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and WNBA veterans Sydney Colson and Tamera Young leading the charge.
AU is a player-focused professional sports league that creates player-captained teams without coaches or owners, and a Player Executive Committee steers all team and league decisions. Before its recent expansion, they fielded two women’s softball seasons and a single volleyball and lacrosse season.
In the announcing press conference, AU co-founder Jonathan Soros emphasized the basketball expansion was “filling a need.” With only 144 roster spots and 70% of drafted rookies being roster-less, breaking into the WNBA is near impossible.
Colson expressed the personal gravity of a domestic league outside the W.
“I think it’s gonna be personal for a lot of people,” Colson said. “I’ve been cut from teams. I’ve been in and out of the league in the 10 years that I’ve been out of school. And so every time I’m not in it I do take it personally, but once I saw this opportunity come along, it just made sense for me.”
In 2020 over 100 WNBA athletes went overseas during the offseason to supplement their income. AU’s expansion moves to fill the WNBA-less months by giving existing W players a domestic option and opening up new opportunities for undrafted players.
AU’s model means that from the beginning of the season to the end, athletes have the chance to score points for both individual and team wins and individual statistics, including rebounds, steals, assists and more. Each athlete is ranked, and the four atop the leaderboard each week are selected as captains. Captains choose their team for the week, and the four teams compete in round-robin play. The athlete with the most points amassed at the end of the season will be named the champion.
The basketball expansion will manifest in a five-week season from Jan. 29 through Feb. 28, 2022. This season will comprise of 44 athletes, and according to AU, the pay allows “athletes to earn more in a five-week season than they would playing seven months overseas.”
The total compensation package for the basketball season will be over a million dollars, and players have the opportunity to be compensated in three ways. First, all players receive a base compensation for playing. Second, there are bonuses based on quarter, and overall game wins. Last, the final points ranking determines end-of-season bonuses.
In addition, players select a charity of their choice to play for, an initiative sponsored by Give Lively. Players may choose a charity from the roster of non-profit partners already selected or choose another non-profit and Give Lively will help pair with said organization. The money donated to charity is separate from the previously mentioned compensation.
When asked what it means to play not only for yourself but also for a philanthropic cause, Colson playfully fired back, “It means you can’t suck.”
Like the past AU seasons, all gameplay will take place in a single location. Athletes will relocate to the area for the five-week season, and the league provides housing, transportation, and most meals separate from other compensation. The location of the 2022 season hasn’t yet been finalized.
Cloud, Colson and Young are the only confirmed players and serve on the Player Executive Committee. Last year, Cloud began talks with Athletes Unlimited at an AU softball game her wife Aleshia Ocasio played in.
“It was just really cool to see [Aleshia] be treated like a professional, and I remember talking to [co-founders] John and Jonathan and I was like, ‘this would be amazing for basketball,’” Cloud said. “With trying to keep basketball here in the states, and not trying to go away for seven months and be away from our loved ones… the fact that this is presented to us now is a really really dope thing.”
Other players who are not officially affiliated with AU also expressed their excitement. Phoenix Mercury guard Shey Peddy, who has had her fair share of roster turbulence, applauded the step.
“It helps to probably keep players from going overseas, a little shorter break and it can give more coverage for women’s basketball. It’s not like the summer and that’s it, because we don’t really highlight as much for college women’s basketball, unfortunately. I think it’s dope,” Peddy said. “I’m glad they came together. I hope it’s successful and I can’t wait to see where they go from there… I think it’ll be something that a lot of players will look into for upcoming seasons.”
Overall, the overwhelming feeling from players is a feeling of gratitude and hope to play domestically rather than the often brutal months overseas the current system encourages. As of now, there’s no set timeline for when the official roster will be announced, but AU is in the process of assembling the remaining 41 players.
Written by Gabriella Lewis
Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.
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