Athletes Unlimited Softball 2020 inaugural season launching this August.
Amanda Chidester is the first member of the U.S. Olympic softball team to sign with Athletes Unlimited, the new professional softball league scheduled to begin play in August.
Chidester confirmed the move Monday.
“If someone is out there willing to put money toward our sport, to try and grow our sport, why wouldn’t I give it a shot?” Chidester told ESPN. “I think it’s amazing that Athletes Unlimited is wanting to invest in softball and help us try to grow this game on another level because we all know it has been struggling at that next level.”
A versatile catcher and infielder, Chidester, 30, played for the U.S. in three world championships, winning gold in 2016. She was not part of the team that retained the world title in 2018, but she regained a place on the 15-player roster through last fall’s Olympic trials.
The U.S. team had already qualified for the recently postponed 2020 Olympics, the first since 2008 to include softball. After the Games were rescheduled for next summer, USA Softball canceled the remainder of a five-month pre-Olympic exhibition tour.
Chidester last week also re-signed with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch. She was the NPF’s Player of the Year in 2019 after hitting .374 and leading the league with 15 home runs and 35 RBIs in 129 at-bats.
Athletes Unlimited and NPF are separate entities, but NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf is an advisor for the new league and the leagues do not intend to compete at the same time. Athletes Unlimited announced at the time of its launch that it would play all of its games at the Ballpark at Rosemont, the Chicago-area home of the Bandits, after the completion of the NPF season.
There is no announced timetable for the start of the 2020 NPF season. In March, the five-team league postponed its college draft and canceled opening games in April. The Aussie Peppers and Canadian Wild teams subsequently announced they would not compete in 2020. Those teams are stocked with players from the Australian and Canadian national teams, respectively.
A spokesperson for Athletes Unlimited confirmed it still plans to begin play in Rosemont in August, with the league considering all scenarios, including playing without fans if necessary.
Launched in early March shortly before the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down sports, Athletes Unlimited proposed a new look to professional softball. The league’s four teams will have no set rosters, with players redrafting teams before each of five weeks of games. Scoring will be based on both team and individual performance. Players will receive base compensation of $10,000, with performance-based bonuses potentially taking that to $35,000.
For Chidester, who has played professionally in just about every available setting over the past decade, from the NPF to Japan to Italy, the new format marks a radical departure.
“The girls picking the teams, I’m curious how that is all going to play out,” Chidester said. “If people are going to continue to pick the same players or are they going to continue to switch it up? Do you know this player is always going to pick that player? Or is it going to be a strategic approach? Or is it going to be a friends approach? I’m most curious about how that pans out.”
Chidester was in the Pacific Northwest when Team USA began to postpone games because of the pandemic in March. Thinking the tour might resume, she went to stay with her brother in California rather than return home to Michigan. She has been there ever since, staying in shape by running while hoping a batting tee will soon arrive in the mail.
She sees Athletes Unlimited as both an opportunity to hopefully create a sustainable business model for future players and as a potential bridge to her own delayed Olympic dream next summer.
“I have lived this type of lifestyle for a long time,” Chidester said of giving lessons and hosting clinics when not playing. “I usually work a lot in the fall and winter, and then I save up and kind of live off that for an extended period of time. I was setting myself up for that during this time anyway because I was going to be on tour [with USA]. So I’m OK right now. But the bigger chunks of money, yes, are dependent on playing. Especially with the pandemic, I don’t even know if lessons are going to be a thing for a long time.”
Chidester isn’t the only high-profile addition for Athletes Unlimited. The league confirmed that infielder Jessica Warren has also signed for 2020. Warren will also continue playing for the USSSA Pride, the team that left NPF for independent status after the 2019 season.
An All-American in her time at Florida State, Warren last year won the Rawlings Gold Glove while playing for the Pride. In addition to its annual position-by-position defensive awards for Major League Baseball, Rawlings in 2016 added an award for one NPF player each season.