The second Athletes Unlimited (AU) Basketball season tips off on Thursday in a slightly different setting and on a more established women’s basketball platform. But the same high-intensity, fantasy sports-like scoring system and fan-favorite stars remain.
“It’s a short, tense season,” AU CEO and co-founder Jon Patricof said on a video call with reporters Tuesday. “We like to say every moment counts at Athletes Unlimited.”
The second season of the five-week league that features player drafts and rotating rosters returns three of the four top point earners from the inaugural year. There are 18 players who have WNBA experience and a small group of recent college stars.
The group includes WNBA champions Natasha Cloud (Washington Mystics) and Sydney Colson (Las Vegas Aces) as well as Olympic 3x3 gold medalist Allisha Gray, All-Rookie selection NaLyssa Smith and veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon.
The league’s games can be viewed on WNBA League Pass, a change from last season’s piecemeal TV viewing, and will now be at its single-site spot in Dallas, rather than Las Vegas.
AU, which holds five leagues over four sports, announced in October it would move its basketball league to Fair Park Coliseum, where its volleyball league plays. It also pushed back its season a month to run from Feb. 22 through March 26, leading into the women’s Final Four held in Dallas on March 31 and April 2.
Ilena Hauser, AU’s head of basketball operations, told Yahoo Sports the company’s relationship with the Dallas Sports Commissioner and its being a “melting pot for girls basketball” made it a good fit. The location change came amid ongoing controversy over legislation in Texas impacting critical race theory, voting rights, abortion rights, LGBTQ+ rights and gun laws.
Hosting sporting events draws prestige and economical impact for an area. There is often a debate about whether sports leagues should hold events in states with legislation viewed as restricting human rights. As recently as 2021, MLB pulled its All-Star Game from Atlanta because of a voting law.
Those involved with AU said on Tuesday it’s best to advocate from within Texas than ignore the state.
“I ultimately am looking at it — I’m not actually going to flip you guys off right now,” Clarendon, the WNBA’s first openly trans and nonbinary player, said while motioning with her hands. “But as a big ‘F’ you to all people who don’t think I should play in sports or belong in sports or my uterus should have any rights ultimately. That’s kind of my stance coming here to Texas.”
Clarendon said he knows AU stands for much of what the players collectively believe and that many of the laws in Texas “don’t align with the values of AU from what I understand.” To be in Texas is a big protest in itself, they said.
Colson, a Houston native who penned an op-ed published at Yahoo Sports on the move, said players have brought the same mindset of speaking out that’s seen in the WNBA.
“We thought that us playing here was a chance for us to be vocal, speak out against these things, and also come here and show support to Black-owned businesses [and] women-owned businesses,” Colson said. “Have trans speakers come in to talk to us to educate our players and let people know how to move in spaces where maybe you don’t understand terminology or language, but you can still find a way to be respectful and educate yourself.
“I think AU has done a really good job of making education and calls to actions be a foundation of the things that we do here.”
AU has always incorporated an Athletes Causes program that highlights charities of a player’s choosing. Each player selects a cause and and the program, powered by Give Lively, provides funding matching their season win bonus.
Hauser said she’s excited to be more involved in the Dallas community after contact was limited because of COVID-19 concerns. AU launched its first sport, softball, in June 2020.
There will be a celebration of Black women’s history on Feb. 28 and a partnership with Special Olympics in week 3.
“We’ve also had a lot of outreach to coaches and athletes in the Dallas community and really inviting them to be a part of our season,” Hauser said.
The league’s finale will lead into the Final Four in the same city. A week later on April 10 is the WNBA draft and many names called that night could be future AU stars.
How does Athletes Unlimited work?
AU has four sports and each league is player-run with player coaches who draft their teams weekly. There are no team owners, coaches or managers. A Player Executive Committee (PEC) meets weekly with AU staff and determines all aspects of the league, from rosters to rules and the scoring system. The basketball PEC consists of chairperson Colson, Cloud, Ty Young, Kirby Burkholder and Lexie Brown.
Four teams each play three games per week, typically at 6 and 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. There is an individual winner at the end of the five-week season based on points accrued. More on that below.
The top four point scorers every week are named team captains and draft their team on Sundays for the upcoming week of contests. The teams are separated by colors: gold (No. 1 scorer), blue (2), orange (3), purple (4). Each captain is allocated up to two minutes per draft pick. There will be 11 players per team.
A group of facilitators helps guide captains and athletes throughout the season. Pokey Chatman (Storm assistant coach) and Danielle Viglione (Sacramento Skills Academy owner) return for their second seasons. They are joined by Seimone Augustus (Sparks assistant), Carlos Knox (former Fever interim coach) and Zak Buncik (Wings assistant).
Who is playing in Athletes Unlimited?
The second season features 18 of 44 rostered players who have WNBA experience. It’s a way for players to avoid heading overseas, where there is often a large paycheck, but high risk and no true offseason from basketball.
“What attracted me to AU is an opportunity to play [and] a chance to play in the states,” said Clarendon, who was waived by the Lynx ahead of the 2021 season and went unsigned until agreeing to a 2023 training camp contract with the Sparks. “I do not want to go overseas, I have not gone overseas for many, many years. And I’ve often spent the offseason grinding in the gym on my own, usually trying to find guys to play pick-up. It was totally a no-brainer. This is a dream for a person who wants to live in the states to have this opportunity.”
The range of WNBA experience in AU varies from longtime vets like Clarendon to rookies like Smith. Veronica Burton (Wings), Lexie Hull (Fever), Kierstan Bell (Aces), Naz Hillmon (Dream) and Evina Westbrook (Mystics) are coming off their rookie WNBA seasons.
Lexie Brown (Sparks), Kelsey Mitchell (Fever), DiJonai Carrington (Sun), Isabelle Harrison (Sky) are amongst the WNBA stars returning for a second AU season. Cloud, Harrison and Brown finished second through fourth in the first season’s standings. Tianna Hawkins won the title, but is not signed to play this year.
Other players are potentially looking to play their way into a WNBA training camp contract. Jenna Staiti (Georgia), Mya Hollingshed and N’dea Jones (Texas A&M) are recent college stars.
Courtney Williams (Sky), Odyssey Sims (free agent), Taj Cole and Cloud are captains for week one and drafted their teams on Saturday.
How to watch Athletes Unlimited: TV schedule
WNBA League Pass will air 25 of the 30 Athletes Unlimited games live in a mutually beneficial partnership between the two domestic women’s leagues. They will also be archived for later viewing.
“The WNBA has been incredibly supportive since day 1,” Hauser said. “I think they stayed a little quiet early on just trying to see what it was going to look like.”
Hauser said the entire league, from commissioner Cathy Engelbert on down, has lent its support because it realizes AU offers a “great opportunity for their athletes.”
The other five games consisting of the doubleheaders on Feb. 26 and March 15 and a season-finale game on March 25, will air on CBS Sports Network. Select games will also air on Bally regional networks and the Women’s Sports Network, an ad-supported streaming service.
The TV schedule for the first week of games is as follows. The full five-week schedule is here.
Team Williams (blue) vs. Team Sims (orange), 6 p.m. ET, WNBA League Pass and Women’s Sports Network
Team Cloud (gold) vs. Team Cole (purple), 8:30 p.m. ET, WNBA League Pass and Women’s Sports Network
Team Cole (purple) vs. Team Sims (orange), 6 p.m. ET, WNBA League Pass and Bally Sports
Team Williams (blue) vs. Team Cloud (gold), 8:30 p.m. ET, WNBA League Pass and Bally Sports
Team Cole (purple) vs. Team Williams (blue), 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
Team Sims (orange) vs. Team Cloud (gold), 4:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
How does the AU scoring system work?
Players can accumulate points in three major ways: team win points, being voted game MVP, and individual stats on both sides of the ball. Individual work matters, but team wins are still most important as those points account for approximately 64% of the points a player earns during each AU season.
“The scoring system is very different and I think it’s the fun part of it,” Smith said. “You get to learn how to play and every shot you take it’s going to cost you something or you’re going to gain something.”
Win points are awarded to everyone on the team and are awarded during individual quarters as well as the overall game. Individuals on the team that wins a quarter (scores more points) earns 50 points. Quarters that are tied roll over to the next quarter with 100 points (50 for each quarter) then up for grabs. The team that wins the game earns 100 points. There are no win points in overtime.
Game MVP points are voted on by players and members of The Unlimited Club, the company's exclusive fan club. There are three MVPs in a game, much like hockey's three stars. The top vote-getter receives 90 points, the second vote-getter receives 60 and the third receives 30.
Then there is a long list of individual stats that can be both earned and lost. There are no individual points in overtime. The point structure is as follows.
Single point on the court — 10 points each (Made free throw is 10 points, 2-pointer is 20, 3-pointer is 30)
Assists, steals and blocks — 10 points
Offensive rebound — 10 points
Defensive rebound — 5 points
Shooting or personal foul drawn — 4 points
Offensive foul drawn — 8 points
Players can lose points for missed field goals, turnovers and committing fouls.
Missed shot (FT, 2-pt or 3-pt): -10 points
Turnover: -10 points
Offensive foul committed: -16 points
Shooting, personal, other foul committed: -8 points
Point totals are referenced and shown throughout a game. Fans can keep up with points on the leaderboard that ranks all 44 players. The top four of the leaderboard after the week's games become captains for the following week. The top point-getter at the end of the season is the Athletes Unlimited champion.