The league name says it all: Athletes Unlimited.
Set to debut its softball season on Saturday, the professional sports organization could be the biggest industry disruptor since the advent of player free agency.
Athletes Unlimited is a collection of women’s sports leagues striving to put players first. There are no team owners; there aren’t even any teams. Instead, the athletes are the “owners.” A new scoring system doesn’t change the way the game is played, but adds more incentive during each at-bat.
There’s also player representation on the board of governors — including Team Canada softball captain Victoria Hayward.
“We invest so much of our life in it and we’re not in it to make crazy money that maybe other professionals are,” said Hayward, 28, from Toronto. “And so to really have ownership in the direction of our league and what we’re representing is why we keep playing.
“We keep playing because we love the game. We want to make it better.”
Hayward became the youngest person to ever join the Canadian national softball team when she made her debut at 16 in 2009. She’s played in every world championship since and was named to both the 2015 and 2019 Pan Am Games teams, though she missed the latter due to injury.
Patricof, 47, serves as president of Major League Soccer’s New York City FC after a previous stint overseeing the Tribeca film company. Soros, meanwhile, is the 50-year-old son of billionaire investor George Soros and currently runs a private investment firm.
The timing was originally meant to build off the momentum of the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, it will now be used to build a following before the players show up in Japan for the rescheduled 2021 Games and then again a few weeks later back in Illinois for season two.
“The dynamic will completely change but it’s a great training opportunity for us and an opportunity to play softball with everything going on, and then be able to have momentum going into next year,” Hayward said.
Patricof said players will receive approximately half of league profits once the financial backers are paid back with some interest. In year one, players share equally in that money. Every athlete that participates earns a profit share for that season plus 19 years into the future, with interest accumulating for each game played.
“We recognize that reaching profitability in the short term is going to be a challenge, but we want to make sure that the players have a stake in the league and a share in the profits going forward,” said Patricof. “And I think that’s something you’ve heard from so many athletes in general, who help build a sport and then don’t have a long-term stake in the value of the culture.”
The innovations don’t end at the players’ wallets. The season format is also something never tried before.
Of the 56 players, 52 are drafted on to new teams weekly. The scoring system is both individual- and team-oriented. The game itself will look like normal softball, but with a fantasy twist: players earn points based on their contributions (eg. 10 points for a single, minus-10 points for being caught stealing).
Players and fans vote for MVPs on a daily and weekly basis, and the four highest-scoring players each week become team captains the following week, when they draft new squads.
“It definitely takes a little bit of getting used to, but that’s the beauty of AU is we’re turning the game upside down,” said Hayward.
Some of the league principles go against everything athletes are taught growing up in a team sport: individual stats don’t matter as long as the team wins. That ideal is something Hayward says isn’t lost on the participants.
“It’s great because I am rewarded for my own performance, which is incredibly rewarding individually, while also still maintaining the structure and what we love about the team.”
Hayward also points out that the system prevents boring blowouts. Instead, every pitch and and every at-bat maintain some bit of significance — if not necessarily for the team, then for the player herself.
The fan buy-in, then, is key. With no teams to which an audience can pledge allegiance, the athletes once again become central to the plot.
“We think the storytelling is the most important thing above all else. Yes, fantasy is important. Yes, gambling is important. All this technology is good, but the most important thing is telling the stories of the players,” Patricof said.
To back that up, Patricof said original content is the biggest investment the league is making in its storytelling. It’s already launched four original series by players, including a podcast hosted by American star AJ Andrews.
Meanwhile, players receive behind-the-scenes training from a league advisory board that includes NBA MVP Kevin Durant, softball great Jessica Mendoza, hockey Hall of Famer Angela Ruggiero, World Cup champion Abby Wambach and tennis star Caroline Wozniacki.
Those workshops include brand development, financial management and more, all in an effort to make the athletes the focus of the budding league.
Athletes Unlimited plans to branch out from softball too, with an indoor volleyball league scheduled for 2021 and a third sport Patricof hopes to have running by 2022.