A new league of professional women’s basketball kicked off last night in Las Vegas with WNBA stars Lexie Brown, Mercedes Russell, and Odyssey Sims taking the court. Athletes Unlimited is hoping to change the game in the U.S. in more ways than one — the question is whether its unusual format and small start will allow it to succeed or will make it nothing more than a flash in the pan.
In a 44-person league with a combination of current and former WNBA players alongside non-WNBA players, Athletes Unlimited won’t name a team as an end-of-season champion — instead, it’s all about the individual players, which is certainly a unique approach to a team sport. There’s another caveat in that the makeup of the teams changes each week of the five-week season, with each team drafted by a captain. The captains can also change each week as the four players who racked up the most points during the previous week of play.
Scoring points isn’t the only way to get AU points — players can gain or lose points on assists, turnovers, steals, fouls, and more. The members of the winning team get extra points for winning, and members of the Unlimited Club vote for MVPs each week, as well.
Athletes Unlimited is starting small on purpose, having learned from previous startup leagues’ mistakes, according to The Athletic. They’ve been around since 2020, and they have existing professional women’s volleyball, softball, and lacrosse leagues that operate under a similar model to the new basketball league. AU offers American female athletes a stateside option that hasn’t really existed before — professional volleyball players, for instance, have been forced to go overseas and play for leagues in other countries because there are no paid professional opportunities in the U.S.
The small start, though, means that the athletes involved aren’t exactly making a living off the AU league, particularly because of its shortened season. Athletes who play women’s basketball abroad during the WNBA offseason make good money, particularly compared to WNBA salaries. This new league hopes to eventually offer a legitimate alternative to that, which would allow athletes to stay in the country and still play in the offseason, but for now, they’re only making an average $20,000 each, with bonuses available.
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The WNBA benefits from its partnership with the NBA, a luxury that many professional women’s leagues have not received as they attempt to get off the ground. While this league offers an opportunity for players who weren’t drafted to one of the 12 WNBA teams to play professionally, it’s going to be a real challenge to get it off the ground as a legitimate option for athletes who are likely deciding between making a living by playing professionally or choosing to forgo the pro life and take on a non-athletic career. The Athletes Unlimited league walks in the space between those lives as it exists right now, counting on athletes to take a chance. It’s not a developmental league, because part of its appeal right now is the big-name WNBA players who are taking part in it.
Sponsored by Gatorade, Geico, and Nike, among others, and with a broadcasting deal with Fox and CBS, they’re not exactly bush league over here. But there are certain expectations that come along with partnerships like that, and with an open mind, I have to say I’m interested, if a bit skeptical, to see whether this model will find success and fandom. The individual point system is the most fascinating and, in my opinion, concerning part of this model — the AU website reads, “We believe the traditional model of pro sports is not built to bring out the best in athletes, or to deliver the most to its fans.” That’s definitely an interesting take, as the traditional model of pro sports is not only traditional but mostly successful. Perhaps for volleyball and lacrosse, which didn’t have existing leagues, this adds a new twist that will bring in more athletes, fans, and viewers, but while AU isn’t competing with the WNBA, they may face the challenge of being compared to the league that’s been in existence for over 25 years.
The positive of veering off the traditional model is that much of the power gets put into the hands of the players — without owners, GMs, long-term contracts, or even coaches, there’s a certain appeal to the almost free-for-all nature of the new league. And several current and former WNBA players have publicly expressed their excitement about, and confidence in, the potential of the league, opinions that certainly hold more weight than mine.
Giving more women the opportunity to stay in the states and play their sport at the highest level is always a positive, and it’s really exciting to see that players and sponsors are ready to invest in something like this. A lot has changed in the past two or three decades — the WNBA was founded in 1996, the first professional women’s soccer league (a predecessor of the NWSL) began in 2001, and we’re just now seeing the field expand into more predominantly women’s sports. If you want to tune in, the next Athletes Unlimited matchups of this week will take place tomorrow night at 7 p.m. EST on FS2.