More WNBA players will suit up for Athletes Unlimited’s second season, as a complex geopolitical landscape and new league rules on reporting dates make playing abroad more complicated for the athletes.
Athletes Unlimited’s 30-game season, slated to start in late February in Dallas, will include 44 total players on four teams. About half of the 31 players who have signed on to compete so far in this winter’s campaign have WNBA experience, and AU expects to add more players from the W as it rounds out its 2023 roster. This past January, before AU’s inaugural basketball season tipped off, the league only had six players under contract who were with the WNBA, according to co-founder and CEO Jon Patricof.
The Los Angeles Sparks’ Lexie Brown, Connecticut Sun’s Courtney Williams and Washington Mystics’ Natasha Cloud are among the 21 players returning for their second Athletes Unlimited season. They will be joined by teammates DiJonai Carrington and Odyssey Sims from the Sun, Jordin Canada from the Sparks and Evina Westbrook from the Mystics. Among the other active WNBA players participating are 2022 WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces’ Sydney Colson; Indiana Fever’s Kelsey Mitchell and NaLyssa Smith, fresh off her All-Rookie campaign; Atlanta Dream’s Naz Hillmon; and Dallas Wings’ Allisha Gray.
Patricof attributes Athletes Unlimited’s bump in WNBA talent to players spreading word about the league, but the uptick also comes amid a complicated offseason for women’s professional basketball.
“When we went out this time last year and were talking to players, they had seen what Athletes Unlimited had done in other sports, but they hadn’t obviously seen the basketball season, [which] last year was a huge success,” Patricof said in a phone interview. “Player experiences were incredibly positive. And going now into season two, athletes are talking to players who played last year and that has made attracting even more of the top players from around the world easier.”
More than half of the WNBA’s 144 players typically compete abroad each year to earn additional income, but this year is different. Brittney Griner remains imprisoned in Russia, a once-popular offseason player destination, and on Tuesday, a court refused the Phoenix Mercury star’s appeal of her nine-year sentence for drug possession. China, another common outlet, continues to limit international participation due to the ongoing pandemic and the country’s “zero-Covid” policy.
There are also WNBA rules changes that further complicate this offseason campaign. The start of the W’s season has long overlapped with the international basketball schedule. Hoping to keep players from leaving the U.S. during the offseason, the league will slowly implement new rules starting in 2023 that require players to prioritize their commitments to the WNBA. Players who fail to report to their WNBA teams by each year’s established deadlines will be fined or possibly even suspended.
Players may need to miss the end of international seasons in order to make the 2023 reporting deadlines. Athletes Unlimited’s short winter season concludes before WNBA players would have to report to their teams, wrapping up in Dallas before the Women’s March Madness Final Four tips off there in March and long before the May start of the WNBA’s first 40-game season.
Athletes Unlimited, which recently raised $30 million in funding from investors including NBA star Kevin Durant and Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils co-owner David Blitzer, said salaries for the upcoming five-week season will remain on par with last year. The debut campaign’s participants averaged $20,000 in total compensation, including base salary and bonuses, and were also provided with benefits including housing, food and childcare services where needed.
Patricof said the basketball compensation system has “remained effectively the same” for 2023 but did note that Athletes Unlimited has started offering multi-year contracts in some of its other sports. “Where we’re further along, we’ve started to offer base bumps in some cases or we’ll start to offer consideration for players who have played three years in a league—that’s where we’re heading. We haven’t yet determined what we’re doing specifically. But those are the types of focus we have right now, rather than a dramatic change in the compensation.”
(This article has been updated in the sixth paragraph to include news of a Russian court’s ruling to uphold Brittney Griner’s sentence.)