Can Athletes Unlimited succeed with its next-gen approach to professional women’s sports?
Las Vegas is a basketball town. Yes, the Raiders have played their first two seasons at Allegiant Stadium, and the Golden Knights have been lighting up T-Mobile for a few years now. Even so, you can’t discount the grassroots impact that basketball has managed to make on this city. Thirty years of NCAA championships, AAU tournaments, and NBA Summer League action have given this town an insatiable appetite for the bouncing orange ball, whetted by four seasons of the Las Vegas Aces. Alas, since the 2007 NBA All Star Game at Thomas & Mack Center, Vegas has been ghosted by NBA franchises, and Running Rebels fans have been forced to endure losing seasons in a half-empty arena. Regardless, the love of the game lingers on, and like many of Las Vegas’ basketball-crazed netizens, I’ve searched far and wide for basketball that lives up to the city’s larger-than-life reputation.
Enter Athletes Unlimited, the women’s professional basketball league that throws the middle finger up to everything we thought we knew about the game. Teams. What teams? Coaches? Naw fam, don’t need ’em. There’s nothing quite like what they put together at Athletes Unlimited Arena, off Sunset, just south of the airport. The moment you step inside, you realize that everything — from the 40-foot LCD monitor projecting player stats and highlights, to collaborations with sports media companies such as Overtime and House of Highlights — is purposefully designed and packaged for social media consumption. More video game than basketball league, players “draft” their own teams and are encouraged to play for stats rather than wins — creating an entirely different style of basketball: one that’s free-form, faster-paced, and more creative than the traditional college and professional game.
“You don’t have a coach screaming at you and any of those (negative) factors that usually come to play in a basketball game,” says former Duke star and AU athlete Lexie Brown. “Everyone out here plays so free, and it’s been so much fun. It’s just a vibe that I’ve never experienced in any basketball situation that I’ve ever been in my life.”
That’s exactly the type of experience New York City Football Club president and Athletes Unlimited founder Jon Patricof envisioned when he and venture capitalist Jonathan Soros (George’s son) teamed up to launch Athletes Unlimited in 2020 — a multisport corporation that operates women’s professional softball, volleyball, lacrosse, and basketball leagues. AU aims to take advantage of two trends in sports fandom: The move toward following individual players rather than teams and the rise of sports-obsessed female consumers — two trends that, according to Patricof, won’t be slowing down anytime soon. “I think there’s a big opportunity ahead of us,” he says. “Women’s pro sports is the largest untapped opportunity in the professional sports market. I believe that there’s tremendous fandom and incredible talent, and I believe we’re going to see increasing growth.”
Seeing some of the best women’s basketball players in the world play in front of a live DJ is captivating. It made me wonder why the sport hasn’t taken off yet. Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University and the ex-marketing officer for the United States Olympic Committee, believes the answer is simple: time. “The reason why men’s leagues have achieved so much success is because they have existed for a lot longer and they’ve had the benefit of a real symbiotic relationship with the media,” Burton says. “The media hasn’t gravitated toward women’s sports until very recently. Once they get to a critical mass, they’ll be able to will up interest from other media outlets and eventually create a viewership base that can be monetized through things like sponsorship and advertising.”
Looking at what Athletes Unlimited has put together, it’s not hard to believe it has potential. The player-driven business model, in which athletes partner with the league at every step of the decision-making process, is something that has yet to be implemented in legacy leagues like the NFL and NBA. Having athletes call the shots removes the bureaucratic BS that hampers leagues like the NBA and NFL (you won’t see players in AU getting fined for wearing custom shoes or the wrong headbands). This leaves players and the league room to experiment with ideas that wouldn’t gain traction under a traditional ownership model. Ideas like their charity partnership program, where players play for charities of their choice throughout the season. At the end of the season, the league says, it will pitch in an additional 50 percent of the players’ bonuses to nonprofits — allowing players to play for something greater than themselves.
From a purely financial perspective, what Athletes Unlimited is putting forward seems like a gamble. Their gameplay is avant-garde, and their business model is untested; even as a lifelong basketball fan, I needed about 20 minutes to figure out exactly what was going on. Nevertheless, women’s basketball is attracting money — the WNBA recently got a $75 million investment by a who’s-who of financial backers, which included everyone from corporate big wigs such as Michael Dell to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And if there’s any place where something like this can succeed it’s Las Vegas, a city that rewards gamblers and risk-takers. It’s part of our ethos: Don’t come with the heat, don’t go big? Then go home. Athletes Unlimited brought the heat, but only time can tell if the league will cash out on its risk. Even if it doesn’t, the future of sports may be heading in their direction. Φ