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WNBA to air Athletes Unlimited games live on league pass, further expanding women’s basketball coverage

The Athletes Unlimited basketball league will be available on WNBA’s League Pass, the leagues announced Tuesday, in a partnership that widens AU’s reach, keeps WNBA players centered for fans during the league’s offseason and further expands women’s basketball coverage.

AU Basketball, a five-week fantasy sports-like league, will tip off its second season next week in Dallas with 18 of 44 rostered players who have WNBA experience, including headliners Natasha Cloud, Layshia Clarendon, Allisha Gray and NaLyssa Smith. WNBA League Pass, which costs $24.99 annually, will livestream and archive 25 of the 30 games at no additional cost to consumers. The other five will be broadcast by CBS Sports Network.

“WNBA League Pass is the destination for women’s professional basketball and Athletes Unlimited is just the latest addition to our programming lineup,” WNBA Chief Growth Officer Colie Edison said in a league release. “We are committed to expanding our direct-to-consumer offering with year-round content, bringing our fans closer to the game they love. With a number of WNBA players set to star in AU’s upcoming season, and with an additional group of talented, young players on AU rosters looking to make their mark, WNBA League Pass provides a terrific platform to further showcase these players and women’s basketball and a great leadup to the upcoming 2023 WNBA season.”

Though there is no type of formal partnership beyond the League Pass carriage deal, a symbiotic relationship has formed between the two professional women’s basketball leagues in the United States.

For the WNBA, having an option for players to fill their offseason while staying stateside is beneficial for marketing purposes as well as the new prioritization clause that requires players arrive for training camps on time. For AU, having WNBA players in the league based around individual stats over any city-based team victories lends credibility and their own way of marketing the action toward already established women’s basketball fans. A content deal for AU on the WNBA platform assists both sides’ initiatives.

WNBA to air Athletes Unlimited games live on league pass, further expanding women’s basketball coverage

Team Carrington guard Natasha Cloud controls the ball against Team Russell center Mercedes Russell during an Athletes Unlimited game last season in Las Vegas. (Lucas Peltier/USA TODAY Sports)

AU will reach larger, already established audience

Athletes Unlimited Basketball aired its first season on Fox Sports (14 games) and CBS Sports Network (three) as well as regionally on Bally Sports. The rest aired on AU’s YouTube, Facebook and Twitter pages.

A move to League Pass, which expanded its own reach in August by joining as an app on Roku, will provide a targeted reach to an already established fan base in WNBA fans. And in the age of ever-growing subscriptions, that it will be free to subscribers is a huge plus for anyone already with a plan.

“We are thrilled to partner with the WNBA to bring Athletes Unlimited’s exciting brand of basketball to the most passionate fans of the sport, WNBA League Pass subscribers,” AU senior vice president Cheri Kempf said in a release. “Fans will enjoy seeing world-class athletes competing as individuals with our unique scoring system and fast-paced season.”

AU’s various sport offerings are based on a fantasy sports format in which players collect points individually for statistics on both sides of the ball, team win points and being voted a game MVP. The four players with the highest point totals at the end of every week draft their teams on Sunday for games played on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Available points per play or quarter as well as point totals are referenced throughout the broadcast and fans can check the season leaderboard throughout the game and week. The league leader at the end of the season is named the champion.

The league moved its season back a month to flow directly into the NCAA women’s Final Four also held in Dallas from March 31 to April 2. A week later is the WNBA Draft on April 10.

WNBA able to market own players, coaches through AU

Placing AU games on its streaming arm allows the WNBA to market its own players in the offseason without supporting any direct competition given AU’s season length and timing. It is part of the league and commissioner Cathy Engelbert’s initiative to showcase its players and keep them centered while there are no games. The year-round conversation and prominence helped fuel the growth of the NBA and NFL in past decades.

It also expands their direct-to-consumer offerings on League Pass, an aspect Engelbert has also stressed as a way to reach fans. Subscribers have access to certain live WNBA games (up to 130 out-of-market games, per the league), condensed replays, highlights, archived games from previous seasons and off-the-court features. The league released a short documentary, “We Are the W,” last season. Those who do not have a subscription might be prompted to buy one as purchasing now would also cover the upcoming WNBA season.

WNBA stars, coaches lead AU Basketball season 2

AU features 18 players with WNBA experience as well as players attempting to work their way onto a team’s training camp roster. All four opening week captains are WNBA stars: Cloud (Washington Mystics), Courtney Williams (signed with Chicago Sky), DiJonai Carrington (Connecticut Sun) and Odyssey Sims (Sun/Minnesota Lynx in 2022). The first draft is Sunday and the first game on Feb. 23. The league is player-led and rules are decided through a Player Executive Committee.

Captains are assisted by facilitators who make suggestions, but do not coach. Four of the five in 2023 were on WNBA coaching staffs, including Pokey Chatman, a multi-time coach of the year winner, and Minnesota Lynx legend Seimone Augustus, a four-time WNBA champion and Los Angeles Sparks assistant coach.

WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes, the first player to sign a contract in the league, will provide analysis on games and Cindy Brunson will do play-by-play. Certain games will also be simulcast on Women’s Sports Network and Bally Sports regional networks.

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