The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 26, 2022
Courtney Williams, then of the Atlanta Dream. (WNBA Media Central)
Happy Basketball Wednesday! It is opening day for the new Athletes Unlimited basketball league. As I’ve mentioned here before, this strikes me as a terrific and necessary opportunity for women’s basketball here in the United States. That said, there are some key questions the league is going to have to answer. Let’s break down what’s at stake over the next few weeks.
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For many of the players in AU, the decision to play comes down to making a case for a return to the WNBA. So you can be sure there are plenty of players, both those participating and those who are sitting this one out, who will be looking at the kind of contracts signed by the AU folks this WNBA offseason. Free agent deals can be inked starting February 1. Will Imani McGee-Stafford play her way back into the league? Will Lexie Brown get a more significant deal than last season’s contracts in fits and starts? Will someone not even on the radar play her way into a camp? This will all matter, since AU’s biggest role right now is as an effective G League for the women’s game.
How many people will watch?
The grumbling from around the WNBA when Athletes Unlimited signed a TV deal out of the gate that included 17 national games was palpable at every level. But now, to continue on that path, AU has to deliver. And this is where some of the great unanswered questions of the AU model begin to receive real-world data.
Are basketball fans going to watch without a team to root for? Is the loyalty to players greater than loyalty to a uniform? Is a league starting in the midst of a college hoops season, with habits already ingrained, going to struggle to rewire women’s basketball fans? Is the league well-positioned to grow beyond that group as well? I know I’m going to watch, and you probably will, too. How big the group surrounding us will be shall dictate future TV deals and the viability of the league itself.
What happens if a player gets hurt?
To be clear, AU players didn’t need to clear it with their WNBA teams to play. And you see players head overseas all the time. But with any new venture, the early results tend to skew how many stakeholders feel about it. If something like the Breanna Stewart injury takes place in Las Vegas, will that change how players and teams alike view AU?
A corollary to this: the WNBA did a masterful job of navigating COVID protocols. It was announced this morning that two players, including Courtney Williams, will miss opening week due to COVID protocol issues. Doing this in the omicron surge is no easy feat, even for an experienced league.
Can AU add a superstar?
It’s fair to say there’s parity among the AU group playing this season, with some legitimate strong talent on board. But no one in the WNBA’s top 20 in WAR is playing in AU. The next step — and one that would help with viewership, to be sure — is if, say, Elena Delle Donne decided to get some of the rust off by playing, or Breanna Stewart signed on for a few games, or A’ja Wilson rewarded her hometown fans with some in-market brilliance.
Ultimately, this is great news if you love women’s basketball. I can’t wait to see how the experiment goes.
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