The coronavirus has created a unique year for the sports industry. While traditional sports leagues scramble to return, one organization is looking to further revolutionize the sports industry.
Despite not planning to launch their new league amid a pandemic, Athlete Unlimited (AU) looks to be a perfect solution to captivate a new type of sports fan.
In August, AU will launch the first of its three new women’s professional sports leagues, starting with softball.
Chicago will play host to the six-week softball season. All games will take place in one location. While the athletes will all live close to the competition site during the season, a model that the traditional leagues plan to utilize as they seek to safely return to play.
AU was the idea of Jon Patricof (@jpatricof) and Jonathan Soros (@imjonasaurus), who envisioned a new model for a professional sports league.
Initially, the duo looked at investing in current female sports organizations, such as the WNBA and NWSL. Instead, they chose to create a new league, starting with a professional softball league.
The model for the league was designed to emulate a fantasy sports league. While catering for modern fans who have more of an affinity towards individual athletes rather than teams. The new format is hoping to engage with younger fans, who prioritize their favorite athlete.
“We didn’t want to follow in the model that had worked for men’s sports,” Patricof said. “We believe this is the new age of fandom, a fluid fandom.”
“This format tests really well with fans – especially for those that go beyond the traditional fans of the sport,” said Patricof, added. “It’s like fantasy sports come to life, and every play counts.”
Several professional softball players have already signed on to compete in the inaugural season, including A.J. Andrews (@aj_andrews_), Kelly Barnhill (@kkatlyn111), Kylan Becker (@KylanBecker), Caleigh Clifton (@caleigh_20), Emily Crane (@ecranesthename), Sara Groenewegen (@saragroe), Victoria Hayward (@VictoriaHayward), and many more.
"We’re really excited for the opportunity for athletes to make more income, play and for fans to engage with the best, top-quality softball," added Patricof.
The model moving forward for the AU seasons will remain the same, with one city playing host to the entire six-week season.
One interesting factor within AU is that the competing teams will not be tied to any one city. Furthermore, players will not be under contract with any one team.
Instead, players will compete individually through an innovative scoring system.
Players will earn points based on team victories and individual performances, giving them the chance to win financial bonuses based on the end-of-season standings.
For the players, there will be three ways to accumulate points. The first is through their team, points will be given out for victories and inning-by-inning performance.
Secondly is the MVP vote, where the players involved in that game vote on who the MVPs of the game. If selected the athlete receives points.
The third way comes from the athletes. individual performance. You get 10 points for a single, 20 points for a double, 30 points for a triple, 40 for a home run. If you’re a pitcher, you get points for every out you record and you lose points for every run you give up.
Every week will start with a new draft; the top four highest-scoring athletes will be selected as team captains and will pick who will play on their team for the week.
“We really believe strongly that fans are increasingly following players over teams,” Patricof said. “So there is this opportunity to really take advantage of that aspect and how you rethink a pro league where the athletes themselves are put front and center and where you give fans the opportunity to engage and track athlete performance in a new way.”
Along with having an innovative approach on the field, AU will have no team owners, and league investors have already capped their returns. This means that the athletes will earn more of the profits as the league succeeds
Players have the opportunity to earn around $35,000, across the six week season. By contrast, the average salary in the established National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) is below $10,000 for a roughly three-month season.
“Our athletes are pathbreakers who deserve to share in the long-term value they help create for the players that follow in their footsteps,” Soros said.
Moreover, players will also be at the forefront in daily decision making, and call the shots in content creation.
“Empowerment goes beyond profit-sharing – having a group of softball players in the room, making decisions, and helping craft the league and determine where we want this to go? With that kind of investment, you’re more inclined to help push it forward,” said Canadian softball captain, Victoria Hayward (@VictoriaHayward). “It adds a layer of responsibility, but it allows us to really receive the fruit of what we’re bearing.”
Head of content for AU and a former professional golfer, Anya Alvarez (@anya__alvarez) said“Having played sports professionally, and having been a woman in the sports world, I believe there are so many great untold stories.”
She said her team looks to the athletes when making storytelling decisions. If they aren’t excited about an idea, they won’t do it. “We defer to the athletes,” she said. “We’ve created a very open-door policy with them.”
The model has even appealed to other sporting icons such as Jessica Mendoza (@jessmendoza), Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5), and Abby Wambach (@AbbyWambach), who will serve on an advisory board.
“You’re getting players in the mind-set of being their own bosses and having control over what their outcome is going to be,” Wambach said. “In the women’s sports world, being able to monetize yourself in all the possible ways matters. It could mean paying your mortgage.”
The advisory board will assist players on how to supplement their incomes from teams with sponsorships and partnerships across social media channels.
“We couldn’t ask for a more impressive group of individuals to rely on for guidance and support. They have already been enormously valuable and their commitment to our mission is inspiring,” Soros said.
Traditionally women's professional leagues have followed the path of men's sports leagues. However, AU has been looking to shake-up the traditional models.
“People look at starting new leagues, you really have to be disruptive,” Patricof added. “You really have to think differently. So our goal was not to replicate the model that’s used in other pro leagues and really think differently about how we can create something that engages younger and different fans and broadens the entry point for people into the sport.”
“Female professional sports are generally just mirrored on what other men’s leagues are doing – the WNBA to the NBA,” said Hayward. “What sold me on this was that it was transitioning away from ‘pink it and shrink it’ and doing something completely different to cater to a new era of fans.”
On the field and off the field the league will be different, as it will focus on the individual athletes. AU will look at the examples of the sports leagues such as the World Surf League (WSL) instead, as it follows the innovation over tradition.
Following the blueprint of a sports organization such as the WSL could prove successful as it has drastically increased its creative output in 2020, releasing 269 episodes of new content across 18 series. That is more than 70 hours of content, which is impressive given the league stopped competitions in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s part of the league’s transition from a “sports league to a media company wrapped around a sports league,” said Erik Logan (@eriklogan_elo), chief executive of the World Surf League.
“We have a special opportunity to help develop brands for these women individually and help get their stories out there,” said Alvarez. “The athletes themselves will lead the charge on what content we should post and what will connect with their fans – there is such a white space to have fans connect with them on a deeper level.”
AU will also set up boot camps that will help athletes make the most of their online presence.
“While other leagues will have to invest in ticket sales and ticket marketing, we are taking those resources and putting it into building a digital community and a digital storytelling presence,” Patricof said.
With AU offering $1 million in compensation across the 56 competing athletes, softball looks like it could be steering in the right direction, as it competes for attention post coronavirus.
“We are well aware of the challenges that are ahead of us,” Patricof said, “but many of the innovations we had already developed - shorter seasons with all athletes in one location - are exactly the ideas other leagues are now looking at to compete during the pandemic.”
“When I look at softball, the power of the women that play the sport, and the passion of the fans, we think the time is right,” Patricof added.
Furthermore, along with a softball league, AU announced it would be launching an indoor women’s volleyball league in 2021.
The volleyball league will feature 48 of the world’s best players including members of the U.S. National Team, accomplished professional players, and recent NCAA graduates.
“We are excited to be partnering with USA Volleyball to expand our growing network of pro sports leagues and are thrilled that Jordan (@JordanLarson10), Foluke (@fakinradewo) and Molly (@MollyMcCage) are on board to help lead the effort in building our player-driven league,” Patricof said. “Volleyball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S. and it fits perfectly with our model of faster play, dynamic teams and next-level competition and engagement.”
Hopefully, AU will see success in the new athlete-centered approach giving female sports a new opportunity to reach the heights that their athletes deserve.