Athletes Unlimited and the women’s basketball calendar — Kellie Harper talks Tennessee basketball — Must-click women’s basketball links

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, October 13, 2021

Several years ago, long before Athletes Unlimited even existed, I was chatting idly a few hours before a WNBA game with a longtime front office figure. We were lamenting the financial and physical realities of the women’s basketball calendar, and I asked the question: what would it take, financially, to keep players home and avoid this 12-month work calendar, a hamster wheel that begins the moment college ends and lasts well into their 30s.

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“Not as much as you might think,” she answered.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve wondered whether we could reach a new equilibrium for women’s basketball players in the United States — a way to avoid giving over the period of their lives where most of us find love and build out our personal lives, along with the endless wear and tear on bodies, and a ceding of the spotlight at a time the women’s game needs it more than ever.

I thought of it, especially, when the new CBA phased out late reporting from players, which has a direct impact on which overseas teams WNBA players can play for. Either EuroLeague is going to need to blink, or there’s going to be a mass exodus of American-based players from EuroLeague.

All of which leaves those players with months of unfilled time. Offseason rest, sure, but a hole in their earnings.

And that’s what makes the announcement on Tuesday from Athletes Unlimited so intriguing. A five-week season, with TV deals and financial incentives, allowing American players the chance to stay home year-round. Natasha Cloud, naturally, thought of another way this will redound to the benefit of the players, a connection between the added rest and the added money.

“It’s great not only financially but just all around,” Cloud said Tuesday, at the AU kickoff event. “To be able to go into a W season, to play, to get a few months off to rest our bodies — because with going overseas women are playing year-round. That’s wear and tear on your body, that’s wear and tear on the longevity of your career as well.”

It’s true: basketball players have a limited window to make their money. How many years can be added to the end of a career because of rest? How many injuries will be avoided along the way?

I’ve been delighted to see that much of the coverage of this new league understands we’re not talking about some head-to-head competition between AU and the WNBA. This is not USFL/NFL here. These are complementary parts of what, should AU succeed, be a new paradigm for the sport here.

“It really is about marketing opportunity and it’s about visibility,” Boardroom CMO Sarah Flynn explained. “Not just being able to be on television during the offseason, but also to complete brand endorsement deals, to be here for production dates, to do the kinds of things actually help market the WNBA.”

And just like that, a long-held barrier to many of the things that held the women’s game back financially don’t look like barriers anymore. Does AU have to prove its business model? Absolutely. Will the key be how many big names come to play, and how quickly? No doubt.

Does this give the women’s game a pathway to a more normal work schedule and financial reward for its players? I don’t see how anyone can argue otherwise.

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This week in women’s basketball

Jackie Powell wrote about Candace Parker’s journey back to the WNBA Finals.

This is a very big deal from Nneka Ogwumike and the WNBPA.

Alexa has UConn questions.

I agree with Charlotte Carroll, Oregon is dangerous.

Here’s Rachel Galligan on Kahleah Copper’s route to stardom.

This is a deep, deep Arizona team.

More PJ Brown: on NIL and Arizona.

Oral history and Detroit Shock? CLICK.

Sheryl Swoopes joined Sarah Spain to talk WNBA history.

Annie Costabile looks back at the… Kahleah Copper trade. (Is that what it’s called yet?) 

Moravian’s own Kayla Yoegel writes about the disparities between men’s and women’s hoops, and how they filter all the way to the D-III level.

Bria Felicien is right, as always, on the importance of oral histories

And Renee Montgomery joined Around The Rim.

Tweet of the week

Five at The IX: Kellie Harper, Tennessee head coach

KNOXVILLE, TN – October 03, 2021 – Head Coach Kellie Harper of the Tennessee Lady Volunteers during practice at Pratt Pavilion in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Ian Cox/Tennessee Athletics

On this being her third year at Tennessee:
“You know, it has flown by. Starting year three I feel like we have made a lot of progress. I feel like we are going out to practice now and our players can play in practice, they can tell you what the drills are about, they understand who I am better, the familiarity is there. We went through a lot this year, as did everybody. It threw a kink into things, and I thought our players handled things well, they were able to be flexible. But because of that year it has made it feel as though time is hard to adjust to because one of those years was a COVID year. It has been quite unusual.”
On getting the program to the top:
Absolutely, when we are talking to players and recruits, we are always telling them when you come here you are going to want to win a national champion. That is the goal, that is the tradition and the expectation. You know, we have a lot of work to do, but I think for us it’s every day how good can we be, how good can we be today, how good can we be tomorrow? This gets us closer to maxing out our potential and giving us a chance at the end of the season.”
On losing Rennia Davis to graduation/WNBA and how they will adjust without her:
“You know, I think the first thing is we won’t be able to replace Rennia Davis with just one person. That just is not going to happen. She brought a lot to our team, but we do have a lot of players who have experience and big-game experience. They walk around with a little different confidence level now than they did a year ago. I think that is good for our program. It’s just maturity. I think players have grown up and feel good about what they can do. We are excited about our returners and how they can progress, their attitudes, their work ethic and how they carry themselves. I think it has been really, really positive. I love to see that growth this summer and fall.”
Follow-up question on whether it will take a collective team effort:
“You know, I think that when you have a player like Rennia who can do so many things, it sometimes stalls out your other players because they are willing to give her the ball and maybe sit and watch. Now, we don’t have that luxury to let Rennia bail us out. So now it takes everybody. I think we are going to look different, and that is okay. Our team will look different and our approach and how we play as well. I think we have to move the ball better, we’ve got to be able to play the inside a little bit more with the post players, we’ve got to get up more threes, we’ve got to knock some threes down. I just think our philosophy hasn’t changed but how we will get there will.”
On the impact of graduate transfer Alexus Dye:
“Well, Alexus is coming in, and she practices hard, she is an unbelievable athlete, spreads the floor, great rebounder, knocks down jump shots. She is going to have a big impact on our team. That was apparent from the first day she stepped on this campus with our team. She is fun to coach. We are continuing to work with her skill set and even seeing her improve this year as well.”
On Keyen Green’s recovery from injury and how big an impact it is to get her back:
“So, Keyen has been in practice. We are still monitoring her reps a little bit, but she looks terrific. I think in the last week and a half she has really progressed a lot in terms of getting her explosiveness back. One of the best things that she did was rebound, and now we are starting to see that consistently in drills. Her confidence level the more she plays is going higher and higher. She was a great voice for us last year and had great leadership qualities. It will be nice to have her on the court.”
On expectations for the freshmen:
“First off, our freshman have come in and culturally have made a big difference already with our team. They are really, really good people and high achieving in everything they do. They are gym rats; they have consistently been in the gym getting shots up all summer and fall. In terms of what they are going to help with the team outside of those intangibles, they have already brought a lot. I think Sara Puckett in her versatility, her ability to shoot, her size and her strength. When you walk in and see her, she does not look like a freshman. Kaiya Wynn is bringing a real aggressiveness defensively on the ball, rebounding, her offense. She has really taken this summer to work on her decision making, and I think she is doing a really nice job for us right now. Brooklynn Miles has been tough. She’s small. Brooklyn is a small point guard, but as of late she has shown some grit and some toughness that we need in that position. Karoline Striplin, that is one of the most determined young women I have ever coached. She is going to figure it out, she is going to give us something positive because she is going to will herself to do it.”
On Sara Puckett’s skill set:
Sara Puckett can really shoot. She can really score, if there’s a possible skill set on the court, Sara Puckett has it. She is unbelievably skilled.”
On handling adversity and relating back to her playing days:
“I think one of the biggest challenges that this group is going to have is being able to play through adversity. When things are going well, we are going to be really good. But the great teams figure out a way to be really good when things aren’t going well, and I think that’s been our message.  It’s been pretty consistent. We worked on addressing it the last couple years, but I think now is the time we can really push forward, I think some of our players are old enough now to understand it and mature enough now to grasp that concept. So, we’ve talked about trying to get under their skin a little bit more in practices, trying to find ways to challenge them through adversity and then also just having them recognize, ‘oh, yes, this is what we’ve been talking about. This is when we have to be great.'”
On the NCAA’s decision to use “March Madness” for both men’s and women’s basketball:
“I’m probably not the one to ask, because I’ve always said March Madness anyway for our tournament. I know it wasn’t official. It makes sense because in that regard you’re talking about basketball. You’ve got the same calendar. It makes sense. You know, the tournaments obviously now have been documented as being run very differently, and I think it’s something that the NCAA is addressing now and that’s good for women’s basketball. It’s tough for players to go out and see they’re not being treated equally, and social media really exposed a lot of things this year.”
On the effect the Michigan loss in the NCAA Tournament had coming into this year:
“Honestly, we’ve not talked a lot about that. That will be something we do address at some point. I do talk about the physicality of the SEC, and that game will be a game that I can reflect back on with our team as well. We didn’t handle that very well. The way we were trending as a team, I knew they were going to be physical, and we didn’t like it, so I was a little concerned about that going into the game. But also, sometimes having that game under your belt makes a difference. So, for our players – Jordan HorstonTamari KeyRae Burrell, for those players that played big minutes and had a big role, Jordan Walker, in those (NCAA) games, in that game, they’ll be better when put in the exact same situation because they understand. You don’t overlook things, and you understand how physical it can be in those games. We’ll be better because of it, but obviously it’s something we hope our team is better this year in.”

Written by Howard Megdal

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