Almost a year ago, Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros invited leaders from multiple sports to New York City to talk about their wild idea to innovate sports as we know it. Well, knew it.
Professional softball players Victoria Hayward, Gwen Svekis, and Haylie Wagner were among the small group selected to represent softball. Almost a year later, the trio played the final game of the first season of Athletes Unlimited together on the same team.
We caught up with the trio last week to reflect on their trip to New York, the development of Athletes Unlimited Softball amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and advice they have for the next Athletes Unlimited sports coming soon.
(Parts of this conversation were edited for brevity.)
Softball is unique in that, at the college level, college softball has a massive following and a long-standing broadcast deal. Then there’s a drop off between the college and the pro level. What are your thoughts on this dichotomy in softball?
Gwen Svekis, C: It was frustrating, especially for people like me, Wags and Vic, because we went to top programs. I went to the University of Oregon and I don’t know if I played a single home game in front of fewer than 2,500 fans. So I had a very professional-feeling collegiate experience.
When I got to the professional league and I realized that there was such a drop off, it actually ignited a lot of my passions that I didn’t know I had regarding women in professional sports. So that sort of lit a fire in me because, like you alluded to, there’s a huge fan base for softball, and especially in our country. Ultimately, the biggest problem is lack of visibility.
Victoria Hayward, OF: I love softball. I’m obsessed with softball. I’ve been playing softball at a really high level for a really long time with my time with the (Canadian) national team. But the pro league, it was something that I would do to keep me ready for the national team stuff.
I think when this (Athletes Unlimited) came along, it was an opportunity to actually be professionals. I think that’s what’s been missing. People were playing because they had nothing else to do or playing because they love it. It was people in this limbo phase versus being a professional, acting like a professional on a daily basis, and really having it be their entire lifestyle which elevates the entire sport.
As athletes you’re like, ‘Does it start with us? Does it start with people believing in us?’ There’s kind of that back and forth of not really knowing what helps us get there. For AU to finally have people believe in us and believe in our sport, was a no brainer for a lot of us to be all in.
Haylie Wagner, P: It really was eye opening, seeing where our sport is at post college. Throughout my last five years of playing and getting to the Chicago Bandits here in Rosemont, the Bandits treat us very professionally in a whole different way than my previous team did. But AU has taken that to a whole different step. Just seeing the progression of that has been really great. And knowing that we are moving in the right direction.
How did you end up representing softball in New York City almost a year ago?
Wagner: Cheri Kempf (Commissioner of the NPF) called me out of the blue and she did throw out the other couple names that were going there. I knew these people, and knowing this is something that they were really interested in too helped me decide, yes, let’s go do this. Let’s hop on a plane and take a day trip to New York and see what this is all about.
And from the moment we all sat down there, I think I can speak for them, that we were just so intrigued, so invested. We were really excited to see what this was going to be and how it was going to happen. Now almost a year later, for me personally, it’s exceeded all my expectations. This has been one of the best experiences of my life. The future of softball is just going to continue growing from here along with many other women’s sports.
Svekis: When Cheri first called me, she didn’t show her cards very much at all. But she said to me, ‘I’ve been in this for a very long time and I’ve had a lot of people knock on the door with new opportunities for pro leagues. This is the first one that I think has a long standing potential future ahead of it.’
Cheri said, ‘I want you to fly to New York and represent softball,’ because at the time they hadn’t picked what sport they wanted to launch with yet. So we were kind of pitching softball to them while they were pitching their idea to us.
As presented it was like, ‘Okay, wow, this is really, really cool.’ I remember Vic and I, when we were leaving, we were walking through Central Park on the way out and had this moment where we looked at each other at the same time, it was like, ‘Holy crap, let’s do this. Let’s go all in, we’re all in whatever it takes. If this is the next step for our sport, we’re gonna do it. We’re going to do whatever it takes.’
Hayward: The thing that really stood out to me was the fact that they had done market research, because I don’t know anybody that had been that prepared. That really impressed me. I was like, ‘Okay, regardless of what my own opinions might be on this, research is showing this. So I need to listen and be open-minded.’
I knew that this was going to be in tandem with the NPF, so that was really exciting. I think it put people in a kind of interesting position because they actually had the opportunity to have somewhat of a normal salary as a professional softball player versus really feeling like you needed to kind of supplement it with a real job in collegiate athletics, or whatever that would be.
Softball ended up being selected as the inaugural sport and somewhere in the planning phase the coronavirus pandemic hit. What adjustments did Athletes Unlimited make?
Hayward: Interestingly enough, our model is somewhat normal now, but it was so not normal back when we were thinking about it. The concept of a single location, concept of a bubble-ish, we were perfectly already engineered to be able to thrive in that environment.
We had calls with doctors. We had player calls weekly over COVID guidelines and all those things. So they really continue to do everything within their power to make us feel comfortable. It was challenging to get people to buy into this idea, because there’s no 10 seconds spiel. It’s so dynamic. It’s so multifaceted that it really at times was hard to get people to get their attention really quickly. But when we were presented with quarantine because of COVID and other things being cancelled, I think more people listened than probably would have otherwise, which kind of allowed us to get some really big names. And it was kind of a domino effect after that.
What were some of the conversations that the three of you were involved in when it came to recruitment and being able to champion for this league with other softball players?
Wagner: Recruiting 56 of the best athletes and softball athletes, it’s a difficult task. We first started off with making a depth chart of our ideal, top athletes for each position, and then kind of breaking it down from there of what we wanted to make to fit the 56, now it’s 57.
Then we just started reaching out to people who we knew were good athletes, people that were represented well on social media, and just good human beings that would represent Athletes Unlimited and softball really well.
Speaking of recruiting, both you and Victoria have been team captains. What was that experience like?
Wagner: I was the first gold captain. It was kind of nerve wracking. But I did have a few mock drafts done beforehand. Us three, we would run through a mock draft, just to make sure everything would run smoothly.
That experience just for me in the first week, compared to now is completely different.
Hayward: I think there are so many different elements. You’re trying to balance individual performance and trying to get the best individual performers. But ultimately, you need the best team chemistry.
So every single team has had a completely different personality. They’re all unique. We had team names, which was really fun just buying into a concept and kind of a culture even though it’s only for a week. Those emotions and connections have been super long standing. So to see the impact that it’s having on people and the memories that are being made on each individual team has been super rewarding.
Gwen, your experience has been like none other. This weekend made five straight weeks with Team Osterman. What has the experience been like, not switching teams but also not having the same roster?
Svekis: It’s been pretty interesting because my experience is way different than I think everybody else in this entire league’s experience, arguably, except for Cat (Osterman) maybe. I knew where I was going. It’s been very interesting for me because it’s been a little bit complacent in a way which this league is anything but complacent. It’s constantly moving. It’s high tension, like everybody goes into the draft with a little bit of anxiety or excitement about where they’re going to go and who they’re going to be with. And for four straight weeks, I knew exactly where I was going. This last week was a little bit more exciting for me, because I knew she wasn’t going to pick me first.
But on the other end, it’s been really rewarding to be able to just walk in with one pitcher. The battery situation in this league is hard. You’re constantly juggling relationships with pitchers that you don’t know, or on the pitching side, catchers that don’t know you.
So the league keeps you on your toes. And it’s been exciting. But also, like I said, I’ve had a little bit more of a calm and complacent feeling because Cat and I have been together the whole time.
Athletes Unlimited is now done until Volleyball picks up in February What advice do you have for the next crop of Athletes Unlimited athletes?
Wagner: A big thing with this is trusting everybody, trusting the athletes, trusting each other and working well with each other. So being able just to trust each other, and know that this is going to make a difference. This is just the beginning of so much more.
Svekis: Go after people who you work well with and who you have good chemistry with. I found that that will take you a lot farther than just on paper talent. My best teams that I’ve been on here, I’m not necessarily looking at them like, ‘Wow, we are just so stacked on paper.’ It’s, ‘Wow, we have great energy in the dugout, we have great camaraderie among us’.
Buy into who you do have, try to create that culture of acceptance and celebrate each other throughout the week. Because it’s just fun to be with new people and also to be with people that you know you work well with.
Hayward: My advice to volleyball and sports moving forward are that it’s so much more than just the sport on the field. We’ve had our most successful, most impactful, most life changing moments off the field with the group in some of the things that we’ve been able to do together. And we’ve seen that come back full circle, on the field and through that impact. So do all the things, be vulnerable would be my advice.
What message would you give to the other Athletes Unlimited softball athletes?
Wagner: Thank you for experiencing this. Thank you for buying into this, and thank you for helping grow softball and women’s sports. I think this has been such an amazing opportunity and has helped a lot of athletes fall in love with the game again after so many years. The future is so bright for softball and women’s sports that the fact that we’re the first season and we have helped grow this, there’s just limits beyond belief that we can ever imagine and being able to finally see it happen, it’s all because of the buy-in and all because of the dedication to this and just loving women’s sports and growing the game.
Hayward: I’m so impressed with the level of buy-in. It’s been life changing, just everybody putting the league before themselves, being willing to live in a bubble, being willing to follow all the rules. We didn’t know what to expect, but everyone’s buying has literally blown our minds. I’m so grateful for all that.
Svekis: Just like Haylie said, thank you. Because I think when the three of us jumped into it, we were like, ‘This sounds awesome, but we’ll see if we can get it to happen.’ And I think now it’s like, wow, I am so thankful to all the people that said yes, even if it was just to cash a paycheck or for whatever reason it was. I’m so thankful that they said yes, because now we have officially laid the foundation of something that I really believe will be long standing and be here for a while, not just in softball, but hopefully across multiple sports. We are the first ones to ever, ever, ever put Athletes Unlimited across our chest. And I think it’s really going to have a long history. So I just want to thank all 57, even if our player group looks way different next year, these 57 are the ones that bought in, said yes, pulled the trigger and said, ‘I’m all in.’ So they’re unmatched. We will always remember this is history and I couldn’t be more thankful.
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