Photo courtesy of Athletes Unlimited
EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS MEDIA

Athletes Unlimited Basketball Has a Story to Tell

In its inaugural season, the professional women’s basketball league is innovating on and off the floor with a nuanced approach to coverage and content — and the results have been astounding.

When the inaugural Athletes Unlimited Basketball season tipped off on Jan. 26 at the Athletes Unlimited Arena in Las Vegas, the players knew they were starting something special. But even with the anticipation and excitement, there was no way to know just how dynamic of an experience the league’s first campaign would soon become. 

That first week boasted wild on-court action — a triple-overtime game and highlights that would fit in seamlessly into SportsCenter‘s Top 10 — but it’s what was happening elsewhere that ultimately caught the attention of basketball fans near and far.

In the run-up to the season, AU tapped six content creators, journalists, and thought leaders in women’s basketball to cover the action from all angles. Paired with one of the most innovative social media teams in the game, it was tough not to tune into the coverage of the sport’s newest league. It was even tougher to ignore that Sheryl Swoopes — the WNBA’s first-ever signee and a Basketball Hall of Famer — was handling commentary on AU’s broadcasts.

Boardroom caught up with several players, creators, and executives to understand Athletes Unlimited’s distinct approach to the art of storytelling.

Building the Bench

Nearly two years ago, Washington Mystics star guard Natasha Cloud opted out of the 2020 WNBA season.

“For the first time, I got to fully commit to supporting my wife while she was in-season,” Cloud told Boardroom.

Her wife is Aleshia Ocasio. The former University of Florida all-time great is now a star pitcher in Athletes Unlimited’s professional softball league, where she was named the 2021 AU Softball champion with 2,096 points.

After closely observing throughout the softball season, Cloud approached Athletes Unlimited founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros. “I told them that I felt that [the AU format] would be great for basketball, and when that happens, I’d better be your first call,” she said.

Months passed, and she waited patiently: “Volleyball comes, and I’m like, This is awesome, where’s the basketball? Then lacrosse comes, and I’m like, This is awesome, where’s the basketball? Then, finally, I got that call one day and they were like, ‘Are you ready?’ And I said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this moment for almost two years.’”

Cloud helped source talent, putting in a call to all of her WNBA peers that were not planning to play overseas in the offseason. She was clear in stressing to them that the league did not exist in opposition to the WNBA, but rather as a complementary tool for growing the women’s game.

Soon, she had built a Player Executive Committee and netted a slate of committed recruits. The league was ready to take off.

One of those committed players was Sydney Colson.

When Cloud approached Colson, she saw the vision immediately and signed up.

“It was easy to hop on because you could see that [AU] had successfully done this in three other sports,” Colson told Boardroom. “You could see that it wouldn’t end up as a hoax. As a women’s basketball player, you hear about other things that are going to come around and talk about it, but it’s never anything legit.”

The Texas A&M Hall of Fame guard notes “a big part” in wanting to be a part of AU was the mutual support between the league and the WNBA from coaches and fellow players alike.

“People were trying to pit the leagues against each other — [as if] it was a world where both can’t exist,” she explained. “It’s really cool to see that the support goes both ways. It’s good for the game.”

Athletes Unlimited carefully considered how to position itself in women’s basketball, and the powers that be wanted to make a lasting first impression.

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“Our goal in the first season is to create incredible content, and that’s been a priority,” said Ilene Hauser, AU’s senior advisor of operations. “We want to create a visual that everybody will be attracted to, and then you throw in the incredible athletes that we have and the competition and the passion for sports for all of these women across all of these leagues. It’s just a really different model.”

Drawing from the success it had experienced in volleyball, softball, and lacrosse, the Athletes Unlimited team curated every detail. The league consulted with various people, including Twitter’s Head of Sports, TJ Adeshola. They tapped six well-known journalists, content creators, and advocates of the women’s game, including Jasmine Baker, Ari Chambers, Greydy Diaz, Terrika Foster-Brasby, Victoria Jacobi, and Khristina Williams,

To Kristen Miles, AU’s director of basketball, the process of selecting the voices around the game was a simple one: “[Each of these individuals] elevates the overall game for women. They are advocates. You want people who… enjoy telling the story and being a part of it to really be engulfed in it.”

Adds Jon Patricof, AU CEO and co-founder: “These women love the game as much as the athletes themselves.”

For Foster-Brasby, a self-described “Twitter nuisance” who has covered women’s hoops for a decade, the opportunity presented a new one as a journalist. She saw herself as part of a collective. She and each of her colleagues were hand-picked to apply their own lens to the growing game.

“The creators that were chosen, we didn’t know what each other may be doing, but we know each other well enough to know where we fall,” Foster-Brasby said. “When I see a Jasmine Baker, I instantly think, ‘She’s got to be doing something with merch.’ I see Khristina Williams and I say, ‘That’s our newsbreaker, that’s our storyteller,’ so I know she’s bringing something about free agency or what the women have been doing to prepare to get to this point. For me, it’s uplifting the voices and bringing a fun side.”

In January, all six showed up courtside in Vegas for the competition’s first weekend and got to work.

The 360-Degree View

Unlike other major sports that are built around the biggest stars, Athletes Unlimited intentionally pursues the opportunity to work with each of its 44 players to tell their own stories about their lives on and off the court.

The opportunity to humanize players and create content about their lives is a driving force for Jenny Jeffries, Director of Social Content at AU.

Several years ago, when working for the NWSL’s OL Reign, Jeffries remembers then-team captain Keelin Winters saying to her, “Soccer is what I do, not who I am.” This became her own mantra, and helping athletes tell their stories beyond the sport has guided Jeffries in her career ever since.

This AU hoops season is the culmination of that ethos.

AU invited the team of outside creators to join for the first full week of on-court action and promised a whole new level of access. They did so by knitting together a strategy that integrated the best of viral sensations, like League Fits and House of Highlights, while pioneering new opportunities for creative expression.

The access “enabled an openness, willingness, and timeliness for everything,” Chambers said. The results spanned from roundtable discussions to courtside interviews, giving fans an intimate and unprecedented window into their favorite players.

Foster-Brasby pointed to this manner of collaboration as a game-changer. “Anything you needed to tell your stories better, they were able to provide,” she said. “As a journalist, it’s not always easy to get access, to have people wanting and willing to be forthright with you about various things.”

Not only did it put the creators in the mix, but it allowed them to build relationships — both with the athletes and with one another — that took their craft to the next level.

The Art of Storytelling

Athletes Unlimed built its leagues with athletes at the center. As a result, its hoopers came to express a willingness to share their own stories. And when paired with great storytellers, the results were undeniable.

“I’ve seen nothing but an outpouring of love and a genuine interest to learn about the emerging players,” Chambers said. “AU allowed the space, energy, and investment to build content around the players.”

For Chambers, this allowed for her signature approach to journalism that focuses on the complexities of an athlete’s experience.

“[I want to tell stories that show] that Blackness in this space isn’t monolithic, that womanhood isn’t monolithic,” she said.

And over the last five weeks, an endless number of storylines have emerged — Taj Cole‘s rapid rise led to a WNBA training camp contract with the Connecticut Sun. Danielle McCray‘s side hustle as the owner of a trucking repair company has even gotten some love.

The players appreciate the attention and the opportunity.

“It’s the best marketing that I’ve ever been a part of!” Cloud beamed as she waved her hands enthusiastically. “I make sure to tell them that every single day, because sometimes, when you get in the professional settings, you only get a few stories here and there of the faces of the league. But here at AU, you get to know every single player on such a deep level because of the storytelling. That’s what makes it so special and so beautiful. And it has allowed us, as the 44 players, to connect on such a deep level [within] this environment that is fostered here.”

Cloud had thought about this a lot in the year she sat out from the WNBA. She found herself under a microscope as a professional athlete, and she committed to using her platform as a microphone for issues bigger than her that deserve attention: “I am constantly fighting for intersectionality, for what it means to be me.”

Individuality is literally embedded within the fabric of AU, as there are no fixed teams and the leaderboard is based upon an individual points system. While every week presents a redraft and reshuffling of teammates, AU basketball director Miles says it best: “The team is the [league’s] 44 players.”

The five-week season finishes this Saturday, Feb. 26. And regardless of which of those 44 players finishes atop the leaderboard, the real victory is the barriers that have been broken and the paths paved toward ongoing success in the future.

“It’s my goal [that] in five years, people won’t be playing overseas in the [WNBA] offseason anymore,” Cloud promised. “They’ll hoop with AU.”

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