The new league announced the signings of 10 players Monday for its inaugural season set to begin in January, half of whom are currently active in the WNBA, with four on team rosters: the Indiana Fever’s Jantel Lavender, Atlanta Dream players Tianna Hawkins and Odyssey Sims and Seattle Storm forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. Courtney Williams, a 2021 WNBA All-Star who was released from the Dream in October after video of an altercation she was involved in surfaced on social media, will also participate.
“Athletes Unlimited provides American players an additional opportunity to play in the United States, an opportunity we have always hoped for,” Lavender, an 11-year WNBA veteran, said. Lavender, who has played in Turkey, Poland and Italy, added that staying in the U.S. “allows us to spend more time with our families, while earning money and not putting as much wear and tear on our bodies, so that we can put out the best product.”
The new signees will join Natasha Cloud of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, as well as WNBA veterans Sydney Colson and Ty Young. The trio were part of Athletes Unlimited’s initial basketball plans, unveiled in October. Cloud, who has played in Turkey and Australia, watched her wife, Aleshia Ocasio, take home Athletes Unlimited’s softball title this past summer.
Because of the WNBA’s short 36-game summer season and historically low pay compared to other leagues around the world, many of the American league’s players opt to play overseas, where they can fine better wages and a longer season.
Athletes Unlimited’s five-week, stateside season stands in stark contrast to the current off-season options available to many of the 144 WNBA players, most of whom have played internationally at some point or another. The new league’s appeal has already started to win over players, but they may not be the only ones in favor of the new model, which could have upside for the WNBA as well.
Many WNBA players, including some of the league’s biggest stars, spend six to eight months playing in countries including China, Russia, Israel or Italy. Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi quipped during this year’s playoffs that she had her “Russian buddies” to thank for her ability to afford the private plane she chartered during the semifinals to make it to the birth of her second child. Taurasi, a three-time WNBA champion, entered the WNBA in 2004 and has played abroad every offseason from 2005-2017, often for Russian teams where she was paid a seven-figure annual salary.
But there are risks—including the physical toll of playing year-round. In 2019, the reigning MVP Breanna Stewart tore her Achilles’ playing in Russia just before the start of the WNBA season.
Athletes Unlimited, which announced women’s basketball as its fourth sport, offers a different model. Basketball, which will tip off in January in Las Vegas, will use the league’s player-centric scoring system, which it also uses in softball, volleyball and lacrosse. Players earn points for individual performances and from fan voting, and new teams are drafted weekly by the athletes atop the leaderboard. Media is also a core part of Athletes Unlimited’s business model, forming the basis of its membership program for fans.
“I think it’s a dope idea,” Mercury guard Shey Peddy, who didn’t make her WNBA debut until age 30 after seven years honing her skills abroad, said in reference to the new league during a WNBA playoff press conference.
While Athletes Unlimited’s domestic option could also present an opportunity for WNBA hopefuls, like Peddy, to get in front of U.S. fans and coaches, it may benefit the WNBA, as well.
The league has long hoped to keep its players stateside, and focused on salary increases and boosted benefits in its 2020 CBA, hoping to keep players fresh by dissuading them from turning to foreign leagues. The agreement pushed the average WNBA player salary into six figures for the first time and made top players eligible for maximum earnings above $215,000, with up to $300,000 more in additional marketing money available.
Still, those financial incentives still pale in comparison to a potential seven-figure overseas payday awaiting someone like Taurasi, or even the money lesser-known players could make.
While Athletes Unlimited, which declined to disclose its player salaries, is likely not paying its participants anywhere close to international teams, it appears to be enough in combination with WNBA wages to keep at least some players in the States for the winter. With those players having more time to rest and train during the off-season, the WNBA would certainly not complain if it did.
(This story has corrected the spelling of Mikiah Herbert Harrigan’s name in the second paragraph.)