A new professional women's basketball league is set to debut in January 2022 and will be operated by Athletes Unlimited, which previously launched professional softball, volleyball and lacrosse leagues.
Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud and former WNBA players Sydney Colson and Ty Young have been announced as the first three players to sign with the basketball league, which does not conflict with the summer-based WNBA.
Athletes Unlimited Basketball will have 44 players competing in a season from Jan. 29 to Feb. 28, 2022. All games will be at the same location in one city, which is still to be named. The basketball league will have the same model as Athletes Unlimited's other leagues, which focus more on measuring individual players' success.
There are no owners, general managers or specific teams. Instead, the players start on four different teams that wear uniforms of different colors and have assigned captains. Players compile points based on their teams' results and their individual statistics. At the end of each week, the top four players in the points standings become captains and repick their teams.
At the end of the season, there is an overall points winner. In the volleyball league, which was based in Dallas and had its inaugural AU season in February and March, the winner was Jordan Larson, who then helped lead the United States to its first Olympic gold medal in Tokyo this past summer. Taylor Cummings was the inaugural lacrosse champion in August; that league was held in the Washington metro area.
In softball, which finished its second AU season in September, the champion was pitcher Aleshia Ocasio, who is Cloud's wife.
"I got to see firsthand how great the format was," Cloud said of witnessing Ocasio's experience. "She was happy that the league is player-run, and they feel valued and heard. Those things matter."
Most WNBA players have competed overseas in the winter months since the league launched in 1997. The AU league is not expected to compete with the high salaries of the top overseas leagues in European and Asian countries. But Cloud said the AU league is still a good alternative, especially for American players who would prefer to spend the winter in the United States.
"I think the WNBA and Athletes Unlimited will mesh perfectly together," Cloud said. "We can stay here, it will be really competitive basketball, and we do not have to be away from our families for several months."
The WNBA did not have a statement on the AU league but noted that its players regularly compete in other leagues in the winter months. There are 12 WNBA teams with a roster maximum of 12 players, meaning 144 jobs are available each season if every team has a max roster. But teams also may opt to carry 11 players for salary cap reasons.
"Since we launched Athletes Unlimited in March 2020, basketball has been on our radar," AU co-founder Jon Patricof said. "Certainly, there are a lot of WNBA players who go overseas. But we also recognize there are a lot of great players in the sport who are coming out of the college level or internationally and are not able to find a spot in the WNBA. So this is another potential avenue for them.
"When we identified basketball as an option for us, we reached out to players and started talking to them conceptually about this league. And that's when we heard a lot of people enthusiastic about it."