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Athletes Unlimited brings more pro basketball to Las Vegas

The Sport Center of Las Vegas on Sunset Road was obsolete, dormant and dilapidated after years of inactivity. But Ilene Hauser didn’t see the fraying facility for what it had become.

She thought about what it could be: a studio for basketball, and the temporary headquarters for 44 of the world’s best basketball players. For Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural basketball season.

“We’re at the point now where it’s more important for us to create amazing content than it is for us to have 10,000 people in a venue,” said Hauser, a former Nike executive who canvassed the facility in October as AU’s senior supervisor of operations.

“I only saw the potential when I walked through those doors.”

So, too, did the hundreds of spectators who walked through those same doors Wednesday night for the first two basketball games in AU history. The women’s sporting organization is contesting its first basketball season at what’s now called Athletes Unlimited Arena at the Sport Center of Las Vegas — playing two games three nights per week through Feb. 26.

The upstart league features 16 players with WNBA experience, including active standouts like Washington Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud, Seattle Storm center Mercedes Russell and former Aces like Tamera Young and Sydney Colson.

Its immersive experience fosters hope among its participants that it’ll have staying power in an increasingly competitive sporting landscape and provide players a domestic alternative to playing abroad.

“I truly, truly believe that this is the next big thing for women’s basketball here in the States,” said Cloud, a WNBA champion and the de facto face of AU this season. “We all just want to leave this game better than we found it. That’s what I’m most excited for.”

What is it?

Think of AU as a tree and its respective sports as the branches.

The idea of the organization was conceived in 2018 by Jonathan Soros and Jon Patricof. Soros is the son of billionaire George Soros and a veteran investor. Patricof is formerly the president of the MLS franchise New York City FC.

While working in MLS, Patricof said he was “struck by what I think is the biggest opportunity in pro sport.” That being the growth of women’s professional sports.

Patricof sought not to duplicate the traditional sporting model, though, with franchises in certain cities, owners, general managers, coaches and players. Instead, he focused on developing a new model predicated on the players and their experience.

“We wanted to … try to create a unified organization where the players and league were really organized as one,” he said, noting that he believes fans tend to cheer for certain players as much or more than certain teams.

A shorter season also appealed to Patricof, who spent more than a year tinkering with the player-friendly structure that would come to define AU.

The organization launched officially on March 3, 2020, right before COVID-19’s inevitable surge around the country and world. AU debuted in Chicago with a five-week softball season in August, during which there were no managers, owners or general managers.

Players instead were divided into four teams by captains who would double as participants. They’re evaluated and uniquely scored through their individual statistical and team achievements during the week. The top four performers become captains the following week, leaving one champion at the end of the season.

AU’s basketball season is employing a similar scoring model.

Cloud’s wife, Aleshia Ocasio, played in the inaugural season. Cloud watched her play in Chicago alongside Patricof. She told Patricof that she’d be interested in playing should AU ever launch basketball. And sure enough, she was the recipient of one his first phone calls.

“I was able to see AU firsthand and all that it had to offer. From everything to being treated like a pro. Having adequate care, treatment, housing, all that stuff,” Cloud said. “The players literally control everything from top to bottom. Our hands are in every decision made for this league. That’s like no other league anywhere.”

The opening tip

AU launched volleyball and lacrosse before circling back last year to basketball with Cloud, who helped key recruitment as one of five on the player executive committee. Hauser parted ways with Nike in April after 15 years as its women’s basketball marketing manager, joining AU in July.

The organization was originally scouting facilities in New York City, but Hauser’s comprehensive web of connections helped her identify the Sport Center of Las Vegas as a prospective location. She finalized the venue in November, and AU contracted local construction crews to revamp the facility.

Within two months, the plumbing and electrical systems were restored, and a basketball court installed. The facility now features a store rife with AU merchandise and a comprehensive video board opposite the bleachers.

Players will be paid between $20,000 and upward of $40,000 for their five weeks depending on their performance, per Patricof, and housing, transportation and childcare are also covered by AU. Television partners include Fox Sports, CBS Sports and Bally Sports’ family of regional networks.

Sponsors include Nike, Gatorade and Topps.

Players convened last week in Las Vegas for the training camp portion of their season, scrimmaging privately while cultivating a feel for the league and its potential.

“We all have our certain expectations for how you want things to go, and right now everything is going as planned,” said Odyssey Sims, an eight-year WNBA veteran and former All-Star serving this week as one of four captains. “It’s all about building relationships. … (Taking) advantage of what we’re surrounded by, honestly.”

For the first time this season Wednesday, players were surrounded by spectators and fans. Like Aces All-Star forward Dearica Hamby, who sat courtside with her daughter, Amaya. Russell’s team beat Sims’ team in the first game. DiJonai Carrington’s team topped Kelsey Mitchell’s in the nightcap behind 18 points, 13 assists and six rebounds from Cloud.

They’ll do it again Friday and Saturday. And next week. And next year.

And the year after that, if all goes according to plan.

“For me, personally, it’s hard to have expectations because there’s never been anything like this,” said former Southern California and UC Santa Barbara standout Drew Edelman, who was picked this week by Sims.

“Being around great competition and having an environment like this with so many fans … AU has already exceeded all my expectations. And we’re like a week and a half in. “

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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