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Athletes Unlimited Basketball Tips Off Inaugural Season In Las Vegas

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What does a 2019 WNBA champion have to say about the inaugural season of the latest women’s basketball league on the block?

“Athletes Unlimited is going to be dope as f***,” Natasha Cloud said, followed by permission to edit her enthusiasm.

Starting today, Cloud and 43 other athletes will tip off the first basketball season of Athletes Unlimited, an athlete-led league in which players serve as coaches, general managers and ownership teams, all in a five-week season. “I’m just really excited for this opportunity to be trailblazers and to progress women’s sports forward,” Cloud said.

She serves on the Athletes Unlimited players’ executive council. The leadership team will determine the 44-player roster to compete in the first season, which will tip off today in Las Vegas. Cloud, Ty Young and committee chairwoman Sydney Colson were tapped to ensure athletes are part of the Athletes Unlimited decision-making process, from recruitment to social justice initiatives.

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Cloud didn’t compete in the ’20 “wubble” season following her 2019 title. Instead, she chose to focus on using her platform to draw attention to social justice. During her time away from professional basketball in the United States, Cloud got to see the new league’s maiden voyage in action. She entered the single softball site, known as “The Shield,” alongside her wife, top performer Aleshia Ocasio. That’s where she got hooked to the AU model.

Athletes Unlimited began in a different era than the WNBA and might be a model that suits the growing trend of an athlete-led – or at least informed – sports business model. In wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, no league has been more consistently committed to elevating social justice than the WNBA, and Athletes Unlimited hopes to follow suit.

“I think it’s the new wave,” Cloud says. “I think it’s changed upon generation. You can look back at The Last Dance and see how NBA players thought back then. And Michael [Jordan] wasn’t the only one to say, ‘Republicans wear sneakers, too’ or whatever it may be. You also had Charles Barkley that said, ‘It’s not my job to be a role model.’”

The player executive committee has already decided it will discuss whether the national anthem will be played before games, Cloud says. The leadership group is waiting until the 44-player roster is complete to make a decision.

“Our generation is the generation that understands our responsibility, understands that we can use our platforms not only individually but collectively to create progress and to shed light on issues that plague that we all come from.”

WNBA Impact

Women’s basketball will be the fourth Athletes Unlimited sport, behind softball, indoor volleyball and lacrosse. It is natural to wonder what Athletes Unlimited will mean for the WNBA, which was not the first women’s basketball league in the United States but is the only model with its brother league as an investor.

Going overseas is a very lonely experience and leaves little time for vacations, family or anything not involving basketball. Players come straight from Europe into the WNBA season and vice versa. A condensed five-week season in the United States that starts in February would give athletes four months to recover from the WNBA. Additionally, the short season still concludes with enough time to head abroad.

“Athletes Unlimited is offering a chance for people who have maybe been doing that grind for a long time, even if it’s just overseas, but maybe they want to take just half of the season off. With the leaderboard and the way that money can be made, you still have an opportunity to make a good amount of money in six weeks and potentially still arrive late to a team,” Sydney Colson told me.

In the case of Imani McGee-Stafford, its the opportunity to play competitive basketball once again. McGee-Stafford has stepped away from the WNBA as she pursues her law degree. A five-week commitment sans travel is much more manageable than a condensed WNBA schedule. It is also better than not playing at all.

Finally, WNBA fans are also larger basketball fans. Although we often unite under #WNBATwitter, we also uplift the game at all levels. “Women’s basketball fans in general—they’re a very committed and dedicated group of fans,” Colson added. “They’re an educated group of fans. They’re involved in sports. They have good ideas.”

AU must think so as well because they are bringing in people like Ari Chambers, Jasmine Baker, Khristina Williams, and Terrika Foster-Brasby to connect fans with their athletes.

Legends of women’s basketball like Sheryl Swoopes and Pokey Chatman have also been brought in as broadcasters or facilitators, respectively. In this way, Athletes Unlimited is doing what even the WNBA has been slow to do – it is starting with Black women at the forefront.

To me, this is one of the largest signs that AU is integrating the suggestions of its athletes in real time. Women’s basketball players and fans know who has their finger on the pulse and I for one am elated to see what I would call the All-Stars of women’s basketball coverage working with the league.

Where The Money Residences

Athletes Unlimited is not the path to million-dollar women’s basketball contracts in the United States, at least for now. To that end, not all WNBA players who find themselves out of the upper echelon of earning capabilities will run to sign with the new pro model.

Cofounder and CEO Jon Patricof told me Athletes Unlimited provides an average base salary of $20,000 with housing, transportation, and “most meals” covered. Benefits include childcare and other accommodations for athletes’ families to join them during the season, as Cloud did for a time during the 2020 softball season.

Top performers in an Athletes Unlimited season can make upward of $50,000 during a five-to six-week season, including bonuses, Patricof says. Base salaries can be negotiated but don’t stray far from the average. Sky star point guard Courtney Vandersloot made a team-high $200,000 for the 27-week WNBA season and collected an $11,356 bonus for winning a title, to place AU’s pay structure into context.

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Athletes Unlimited was designed to be a season played in a single location before the coronavirus pandemic made that a necessity for sports and beyond, at least for a time. Travel and operating costs for several venues are nonexistent.

The Athletes Unlimited points system ranks players based on their team and individual performance. The top four athletes are appointed team captains and draft their roster from among the player pool. Two-time WNBA champion Mercedes Russell, Kelsey Mitchell, Odyssey Sims and DiJonai Carrington are the Week 1 captains.

At the end of the season, only one player is crowned as champion. All competitors are provided a base salary and bonuses, say, $50,000 for a winner, based on their performance. Additionally, bonuses are matched up to 50% and designated to nonprofit causes of the athletes’ choice.

How To Watch

The Athletes Unlimited basketball season will air on FOX Sports (14 games) and CBS Sports Network (3 games) with Swoopes working alongside Carol Ross and Cindy Brunson for a national tv audience. International viewers and the cord-cutter audience can also stream the basketball and volleyball seasons on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter channels.

“The scale of our operation is really significant, and I think people are gonna start taking more notice of the fact that we’re now one of the larger professional sports organizations,” Patricof told me. “We’re going to have 120 games across all four leagues. A very significant number of those will be on national television.”

While he knows the overseas leagues and the WNBA will go on, Patricof believes Athletes Unlimited will be an alternative choice to the year-round global grind that, before now, was inevitable in women’s pro hoops.

“When you combine the financial opportunity but also what this might mean from a personal family perspective to say that in the United States and also from an overall wear and tear on players’ bodies, a more condensed experience may be better than it would if they were overseas through a grueling seven-month season.”

While it will not overtake the WNBA, which is 25 years strong and still going, it very well could innovate the rat race that is women’s professional basketball in the United States and abroad.

The AU basketball season runs from January 26 to February 26 at Sport Center of Las Vegas.

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