The second season of Athletes Unlimited (AU) basketball will tip off in February in a new location and with a WNBA-laden roster featuring Natasha Cloud, Olympic gold medalist Allisha Gray, 2022 WNBA champion Sydney Colson, veteran point guard Layshia Clarendon and All-Rookie selection NaLyssa Smith.
The second edition of the five-week fantasy sports-like league will be played at Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas from Feb. 22 through March 26, the company announced on Tuesday. The season is deeper into the 2023 calendar year than its first iteration and will lead into the NCAA women's Final Four to be held in Dallas from March 31-April 2.
“We’re excited to bring in some new players,” AU head of basketball operations Ilene Hauser told Yahoo Sports ahead of the announcement. “Allisha Gray coming in as a gold medalist in basketball is a huge, big step for us. And then some of our younger talent. There’s some really great young players that are going to be part of AU basketball this year [and] we’re excited to see what they do. I think also we’re fired up to be in Dallas.”
AU has signed 31 players so far out of 44 available roster spots and 15 have significant WNBA experience. Colson, a 2022 champion with the Las Vegas Aces, helped shape the roster and will continue to do so as chair of the basketball league's player executive committee, which establishes the rules and scoring system for its respective sport.
The first season of the basketball league was announced one year ago and was played in Las Vegas from January through February. Tianna Hawkins won the inaugural championship with fellow WNBAers Cloud, Isabelle Harrison and Lexie Brown rounding out the top four. Interest in the league is up after players saw how the sport operated and as the WNBA's prioritization clause of the collective bargaining agreement kicks in this offseason.
WNBA rookies, champions take on AU
Smith, an NCAA champion with Baylor who the Indiana Fever drafted No. 2 overall before last season, is one of the younger players to join AU in their first WNBA offseason. The All-Rookie selection is joined by Naz Hillmon, the Atlanta Dream’s No. 15 pick out of Michigan.
Players who have two or fewer years of WNBA experience are exempt from the CBA's prioritization clause that requires players to report to training camp on time or risk fines. In 2023, they can be suspended for the entire season. Many players arrive late while still playing with their overseas clubs into April and sometimes even into June.
Hauser, who worked with WNBA players for 15 years as the manager of women's basketball at Nike, said the clause plays a role in higher interest in the league. But, she's also noticed fewer players going overseas in recent seasons. More athletes are finding offseason work at home as broadcasters or coaches and some sign more lucrative marketing deals with the league. Salaries are also higher than they were in the former collective bargaining agreement, from a max of $119,000 to a supermax of $234,936 in 2023. The minimum salary grew from approximately $43K to $62K.
“For players that weren’t going overseas, now they’re even more excited to be able to stay home and play basketball,” Hauser said. “And so it’s a win-win for them now.”
The AU season does not overlap the WNBA season and also allows players time off to rest instead of playing year-round and putting their bodies at a higher risk of injury. Returning players include Brown, Cloud, Courtney Williams, Odyssey Sims and DiJonai Carrington. Williams, Sims and Carrington were WNBA runners-up with the Connecticut Sun.
Gray, a guard with the Dallas Wings, won gold at the Tokyo Olympics' first 3x3 competition in 2021. Evina Westbrook, a second-round pick in the 2022 WNBA draft, finished the season with the Washington Mystics after playing the 2022 NCAA final with UConn. Canada is a two-time WNBA champion and Clarendon is back playing in the U.S. after the veteran was waived by the Minnesota Lynx ahead of the season.
Brown, Williams and Canada are WNBA free agents and Sims and Clarendon are not on 2023 contracts. Gray has been tied to trade talks. A number of AU players signed WNBA training camp contracts last year.
AU moves to Dallas amid calls for sports to leave
The second season of AU will take place in Dallas where the volleyball league has held both its seasons. Hauser that relationship with the Dallas Sports Commission allowed the league the option, and the company as well as the Player Executive Committee thought it was a good fit.
“It’s a melting pot for girls basketball,” Hauser said, citing the proximity of top-25 high school programs and collegiate teams. No. 3 Texas, No. 15 Oklahoma and No. 18 Baylor are all within three hours of the city.
It also allows for a smooth transition into the end of the collegiate season, which will be celebrated in Dallas with the women's Final Four festivities. But fans have been calling on the NCAA to move the championship after a bevy of legislative decisions impacting human rights. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed state agencies to investigate care of transgender children as potential child abuse earlier this year as one of the many anti-trans bills introduced in 2021.
At the 2022 Final Four in Minneapolis, fans at a panel chat with NCAA and WNBA leaders voiced displeasure that they would have to spend money in a state with such laws. People have called on the NCAA, which is hosting the men's Final Four in Houston, to leave Texas in the aftermath of the elementary school shooting in Uvalde because of its gun laws. And calls were renewed late this summer when the state's de facto abortion ban went into effect following the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
There is precedent for moving out of a city for human rights issues. The NBA pulled its All-Star Game and the NCAA pulled championships out of North Carolina in 2016 following the controversial HB2 law that required individuals to use the bathroom for their gender assigned at birth. And MLB pulled its 2020 All-Star Game from Atlanta because of a voting restriction law.
Hauser said the volleyball league's Player Executive Committee evaluated the same situation last year ahead of its second season. Cassidy Lichtman, a former outside hitter for Team USA and chair of the committee, wrote a piece for AU explaining their decision to stay after the players had "strongly considered pulling out." Advocacy groups encouraged them coming to the city would be better than a boycott.
“At the end of the day, we felt we can make more of an impact when going there,” Hauser told Yahoo Sports of the decision to move the basketball league to Texas. “Especially with the nature of our league and being there for five [or] six weeks, we could make more of an impact by going there than not going there.”
One thing Hauser said she and players are looking forward to is the ability to interact more with fans at the arena after contact was limited in early 2022 because of COVID-19 concerns. That interaction is also why Hauser said a boycott wasn’t the best choice.
“A big part of that piece is that our athletes are role models,” she said, “and we have an opportunity to go and touch a lot of fans and young fans [in] the girls basketball community by being there and sharing our messages than not being there at all.”
The initial roster release by AU includes four Texas natives, including Colson, who all attended college in-state. Additionally, N’dea Jones starred at Texas A&M.
“I think that there’s actually a lot of energy about going there and being back home and being able to impact that community,” Hauser said.
2023 Athletes Unlimited basketball roster
Roster as of Tuesday. Players listed with their 2023 WNBA status and most recent teams.
Natasha Cloud, 5-9 guard, Saint Joseph’s — Washington Mystics
Allisha Gray, 6-0 guard, South Carolina — Dallas Wings
Jordin Canada, 5-6 guard, UCLA — free agent (Los Angeles Sparks)
Odyssey Sims, 5-8 guard, Baylor — free agent (Connecticut Sun)
NaLyssa Smith, 6-4 forward, Baylor — Indiana Fever
Naz Hillmon, 6-2 forward, Michigan — Atlanta Dream
N’dea Jones, 6-2 forward, Texas A&M
Layshia Clarendon, 5-9 guard, California — unsigned (Lynx/Liberty/Sun)
Evina Westbrook, 6-0 guard, UConn — reserved (Mystics)
Lexie Brown, 5-9 guard, Duke — free agent (Los Angeles Sparks)
Essence Carson, 6-1 guard, Rutgers
Kelsey Mitchell, 5-8 guard, Ohio State — Indiana Fever
Drew Edelman, 6-4 forward, USC
Courtney Williams, 5-8 guard, USF — free agent (Sun)
DiJonai Carrington, 6-0 forward, Stanford — Sun
Sydney Colson, 5-8 guard, Texas A&M — free agent (Las Vegas Aces)
Karisma Penn, 6-2 forward, Illinois
Kristi Bellock, 6-1 forward, Texas A&M
Taj Cole, 5-9 guard, Virginia Tech
Rebecca Harris, 5-7 guard, Illinois
Kirby Burkholder, 5-11 guard, James Madison
Laurin Mincy, 6-0 guard, Maryland
Jessica Kuster, 6-2 forward, Rice
Akela Maize, 6-5 center, NC State
Antoinette Bannister, 5-10 guard/forward, East Carolina
Danni McCray, 6-1 forward, Ole Miss
Air Hearn, 5-8 guard, Memphis
Meme Jackson, 5-11 guard/forward, Tennessee
Destinee Walker, 5-9 guard/forward, North Carolina
Ty Young, 6-2 guard/forward, James Madison
Whitney Knight, 6-3 guard, Florida Gulf Coast