The questions Athletes Unlimited basketball must answer — Vanessa Nygaard talks Mercury hiring — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 26, 2022

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.

Continue reading with a subscription to The IX

Get unlimited access to our exclusive coverage of a varitety of women’s sports, including our premium newsletter by subscribing today!

Join today

How much of a springboard will it be?

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.

This week in women’s basketball

Dawn Staley caught up with Alex English.

It’s not your imagination: there’s a lot more coverage of men’s college basketball than women’s college basketball.

Brandon Sudge with a tear-jerker.

Marissa Sisk and Derek Willis break down the Big Ten.

Don’t miss Bria Felicien on Lusia Harris.

Shaq, the Bria Felicien of men’s basketball, wants to make sure more people know about Harris, too.

Shaina Pellington is finding another level.

Zoe Young is just getting started.

Sure hope Aubrey Griffin gets healthy, she’s such an exciting player.

Sabreena Merchant on the HerHoopStats pod!

Get to know Tamika Dudley.

Real ones know the Big Five should include Drexel.

Dawn Staley and Ari Chambers in one podcast? You better believe it.

And at FiveThirtyEight, I dove deep into Baylor’s offensive revolution under Nicki Collen.

Five at The IX: Vanessa Nygaard’s introduction

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By: Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon, Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal, The Next
Thursdays: Golf
By: Addie Parker, @addie_parker, The IX
Fridays: Hockey
By: @TheIceGarden, The Ice Garden
Saturdays: Gymnastics
By: Lela Moore, @runlelarun, Freelance Writer

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.