Since its inception in 2020, Athletes Unlimited has been pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in women’s sports.
First there was softball, which gave many of the best players in the world a platform to compete and elevate their sport. Volleyball and lacrosse seasons followed. But, for a league founded on the principle of growing women’s sports, running three sports seasons in eight months wasn’t enough.
“We think we’re filling an important need in the landscape,” Athletes Unlimited Co-Founder Jonathan Soros said during a recent press conference introducing AU Basketball, set to debut in January 2022 as a five-week season featuring 44 players.
“There’s plenty of opportunity to grow the sport of basketball and create more opportunities for the athletes who are well-served by the WNBA but often don’t have enough opportunity.”
When Soros and co-founder Jon Patricof were discussing the idea of making basketball AU’s next sport, they considered a wide range of factors. The sport’s deep talent pool and growing fan base were key, but the most convincing response was the resounding yes they got from players when the prospect of AU Basketball was floated to them.
One of those players was Sydney Colson, a seven-year WNBA veteran and the first person to sign on for the inaugural season.
“Without being too dramatic, it’s almost like I’m the Sheryl Swoopes of AU,” Colson quipped. “They’ve built something that’s super innovative for the fans and the players. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
"It brings out a competitiveness in everyone." @T_Cloud4 talks about the unique format that Athletes Unlimited is bringing to professional basketball 🏀#BeUnlimited pic.twitter.com/hLJpaS1Qtd— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) October 22, 2021
"It brings out a competitiveness in everyone." @T_Cloud4 talks about the unique format that Athletes Unlimited is bringing to professional basketball 🏀#BeUnlimited pic.twitter.com/hLJpaS1Qtd
In the spirit of providing more opportunities for top women’s basketball talent, Athletes Unlimited also hopes to fill another need by giving players the option to stay home in the offseason.
Roughly two-thirds of the WNBA’s players head overseas when their season comes to an end. The international leagues give them a chance to supplement their WNBA salaries (the league’s minimum salary in 2021 was $58,710 for players with zero to two years of experience) and improve their game before WNBA training camps reopen.
“With going overseas, women are playing year-round,” Washington Mystics guard and AU player Natasha Cloud said. “That’s wear and tear on your body. That’s wear and tear on the longevity of your career as well.”
“It’s going to provide people with one more option,” Colson told Just Women’s Sports. “It’s a good chance to do something different.
“There’s been nothing but positive feedback. I think women’s basketball players understand the need for a league like this and the need for more opportunities in professional women’s basketball.”
There’s also the matter of the WNBA’s new CBA, which is phasing out late reporting to camp. Beginning in 2023, players will be penalized for not joining their teams on time for preseason. With overseas seasons typically running from late fall to early summer, players could run into contractual conflicts with the two leagues.
Athletes Unlimited’s plan for a five-week season running from late January through early February gives players another option without the scheduling challenges.
“I think it’s a perfect match for the W,” Cloud said. “To be able to keep players home, to make sure that they’re getting adequate care and treatment, that they’re still working out and playing at a high level against competition.”
“What AU prides itself on is having top-notch athletes take part in all of its sports,” Colson added. “We don’t plan to be any different.”
The AU season will also give players the opportunity to prove themselves to WNBA coaches. With only 144 roster spots available in the 12-team league, a plethora of talent (and especially young talent) gets left out in the cold. For example, of the 36 players drafted in 2021, only 17 made it on to rosters as active players. Shyla Heal and Stephanie Watts, two first-round draft picks, were waived early in the season, before they had much of a chance to prove themselves.
As calls for WNBA expansion become more urgent, Athletes Unlimited hopes to fill the void right now. AU Basketball will have 44 roster spots for the 2022 season and, as it does with its other sports leagues, will tap the four top players every week to draft new teams, giving players the ability to showcase their individual talents.
“Sometimes people just need an opportunity to show that they’re capable,” said Colson, who has bounced in and out of the WNBA herself and is currently a free agent.
“People are talking about that now with Shey Peddy being in the league for Phoenix. From several teams, people will be surprised sometimes if players pop out of obscurity in their mind. But really, people have been around — they just haven’t been given an opportunity.”
Emma Hruby is an associate editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.