The Women’s Pro League Offering More Basketball Options in the United States – The Undefeated

While locked in a bubble at a USA Basketball training camp in early February, some of the game’s best American players traded stories about how they spent the WNBA offseason.

For a handful of players, training camp and the FIBA ​​World Cup qualifiers that followed served as a break from their seasons abroad, with many converging on Washington from different corners. from Europe.

Washington Mystics goaltender Ariel Atkins came from Ukraine. Connecticut Sun teammates Brionna Jones and Alyssa Thomas flew in from the Czech Republic. Minnesota Lynx guard Kayla McBride and Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum landed from Turkey.

Kelsey Mitchell had also traveled to Washington midway through her pro season. But unlike his peers, Mitchell flew domestically. She arrived at training camp in Las Vegas, midway through the inaugural season of Athletes Unlimited, a new women’s professional league. The Indiana Fever fourth-year guard was peppered with questions about his freshman year in Athletes Unlimited.

“Everyone asked, really wanting to know what the opportunity looked like,” Mitchell said. “Kelsey Plum spoke to me. Me and Ariel Atkins talked about it. Me and Allisha Gray talked about it. Stefanie Dolson. Kayla McBride.

Athletes Unlimited, which officially ends its season on Saturday, finds itself in a unique position within a WNBA offseason on the brink of potential change. Conversations around prioritization, a clause in the WNBA’s (CBA) collective bargaining agreement that will require players to prioritize the league over the foreign teams they play for in the offseason, are growing louder. . Athletes Unlimited could quickly become a major force for players who need alternatives when the WNBA is not in season.

According to Lexie Brown, one of the Athletes Unlimited participants, “I think this can change the landscape of women’s basketball in the United States.”

Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud is one of 11 WNBA players who participated in the first season of Athletes Unlimited.

Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

In its first season, Athletes Unlimited took a bold step in an attempt to establish itself as a player in the winter sports landscape and prove that year-round professional women’s basketball is viable in the United States.

The league, which is made up of four teams of 11 players, prides itself on its identity as a player-centric system. Players compete on a point system that rewards individual and team performance. The top four ranked players serve as team captains for the following playweek, with a draft changing each team’s roster each week.

Athletes Unlimited players will earn an average of around $20,000, including performance-based bonuses. The best players in the league can win between $40,000 and $50,000.

“I just hope we can continue to be an option for the players, a good option.”

— Jon Patricof, CEO of Athletes Unlimited

On the pitch, Athletes Unlimited has created a special atmosphere for its players. The rosters are made up of people with varying levels of playing experience, ranging from college overseas to WNBA champions in the case of players such as Natasha Cloud, Tianna Hawkins, Jantel Lavender and Brown.

There are no official coaches in Athletes Unlimited, although the league has brought in veteran WNBA coaches such as Plenette Pierson, Pokey Chatman, and Shelley Patterson to serve as “facilitators” for each team.

The league also uses a Players’ Executive Committee, a group of five that includes founding players Cloud, Sydney Colson and Ty Young, which serves as a source of feedback for the league.

The games, played at the Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center in Las Vegas, were watched by intrigued and newly minted fans looking for their favorite new league players. Those streaming the games can hear a familiar basketball voice in WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes, who provided color commentary.

The player-focused nature combined with the changing composition of the rosters has resulted in a result on the pitch that marries a summer league vibe with pro-level intensity. Mitchell likened the on-court environment to being like a kid on the playground.

“It’s still a professional league, but there’s so much about a professional atmosphere that has been cut out of it,” Brown added. “The politics, the jealousy, the envy – all of that is gone. Everyone is just here playing basketball. Everything here is really about basketball.

Rather than going overseas, Chicago Sky guard Lexie Brown (right) opted to stay in the United States and play in Athletes Unlimited during the WNBA offseason.

Kena Krutsinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Players across the league spoke positively about UA’s investment in the player experience over the season. Players live in hotel rooms during the season. During public holidays, they have access to rental cars to explore the city. They have access to weight rooms and various body recovery tools such as ice tubs and massage guns after games.

Each Athletes Unlimited player also plays for a cause of their choice during the season for which the league will provide funding equal to 50% of their season bonus. Causes range from cancer research and family planning to the Mamba & Mambacita Sports Foundation.

Another feature of the league was the approach to childcare. AU encouraged mums to bring their children, provided a playroom in the designated players’ lounge and recommended babysitters during their stay – although other players readily offered their nanny services to those who had need a break. Odyssey Sims, whose son Jaiden was born just before the 2020 WNBA season, said the support has been a real plus for league moms.

“Little things like that make us as moms feel more comfortable because it’s not easy being a full-time athlete and a full-time mom,” Sims said.

Eleven of the 44 total players in UA’s first season were WNBA players. But there’s reason to believe that number will increase in its second season.

With the new CBA, many players will have to decide how they spend their offseason. When the new prioritization clause takes effect in 2023, WNBA players will be fined for failing to show up for training camp. By 2024, players who fail to show up for camp will be fully suspended from the WNBA season.

Players in their first two years in the WNBA are exempt from prioritization. Additional exceptions will be made for reasons such as national team commitments or graduations.

The issue was highlighted earlier this month when Seattle Storm star Breanna Stewart said that for her, prioritization was “the biggest talking point in the WNBA.” While leagues such as Athletes Unlimited are unlikely to attract players like Stewart, who can make seven figures overseas, it’s worth noting that one of the faces in the league has put the issue of prioritization first. shot of the offseason speech.

“I think if the WNBA is wise it will work out with AU,” said Brown, who opted not to return to his overseas season in France after the holiday season. “I hope UA will grow and improve so that players who are due back for training camp will have another opportunity in the United States.”

Athletes Unlimited CEO Jon Patricof told The Undefeated that he has yet to have any discussions with Athletes Unlimited players or WNBA staff on the topic of prioritization.

“I realize that’s a priority and I realize that it seems like Athletes Unlimited is fitting in really well with that this season,” Patricof said. “I just hope we can continue to be an option for the players, a good option.”

Even with the looming prioritization, players say they were long tired of the demands of an away season. While all recognized the earning potential of playing internationally, the mental and emotional costs that come with such a commitment have deterred them from returning this offseason.

“I think a lot of times now it’s the mind is a bit more important,” said Mitchell, who played in Israel before breaking his nose and returning to the United States in November 2021. “Being able to be in your own comfort zone, be at home. It’s a bit more important for players now.

Isabelle Harrison, who plays for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, said, “I’ve spent more time with my family than I have in years. I can actually enjoy the city I play in. I am able, in a sense, to get my life back.

Harrison was one of Athletes Unlimited’s best players all season and served as team captain for four straight weeks. She says the visibility that came with her performance helped her build her brand in a way she might not be able to achieve overseas.

“I got a lot of attention from this league,” Harrison said. “I feel like people are starting to respect my name.”

This recognition also extended to several players in the league. Since the start of the AU season, four players have signed training camp contracts with WNBA teams during the season. Kalani Brown, a former first-round pick in the 2019 draft who was waived by the Atlanta Dream last May, has signed with the Aces. Lauren Manis, who was a third-round pick in the 2020 draft, has signed with Seattle. Two players, Taja Cole and Jamasha “MeMe” Jackson, were previously undrafted. Cole signed with the Sun while Jackson signed with the Mystics.

Harrison, Brown, Sims and Mitchell each said they would strongly consider returning to the AU next offseason, adding that they had all been in contact with other WNBA players who expressed interest in playing in the league in the future.

“I try to have a good level of humility and recognize that this is our first season and there is a long way to go,” Patricof said. “Our aspirations are to build a league that has been around for a very, very long time.”

Sean Hurd is associate editor of The Undefeated. He thinks the “flying V” is the most important formation in the history of the sport.

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