A new professional softball league built around player-ownership and a unique scoring system is coming to Chicago this August.
Co-founded by John Patricof, the former president of MLS club NYCFC, and Jonathan Soros, Athletes Unlimited is hoping to capitalize on both softball’s national popularity and a growing trend toward athlete empowerment. Both founders believe that women’s sports have been undervalued relative to their potential and that there are ways to improve upon the traditional model of professional sports, which relies on team owners and city-based allegiances.
Rather than play in multiple cities or venues, Athletes Unlimited will begin with all four of its teams based in Rosemont, Illinois, part of the Chicago metropolitan area. Individual players will earn minimum compensation of $10,000 and will be able to earn a combined base and bonus of up to approximately $35,000 over the course of the season.
Players will also earn 50% of the league’s revenue and receive profit participation for 20 years. (This means a player who participates in 2020 will receive a share of any profits generated by the league through 2039.) Such a pay-system is intended to incentivize and reward players who commit to developing the league. Player housing will also be covered, as will health insurance, if needed.
“Our league is very much about the athletes,” said Anya Alvarez, Director of Content and Digital. “We’re giving players the autonomy to make decisions about their sports’ futures along with empowering them financially.”
Additional sports beyond softball will launch in 2021. In making the decision to begin with softball, the league cited the massive popularity of the Women’s College World Series and the lack of professional opportunities for many of college’s most popular players. (The 2019 WCWS averaged more than 1.1 million viewers over 15 games, up over 25% from the year before.)
“We were just kind of dumbfounded with how the sport wasn’t getting more traction and more support from the outside, especially at the professional level,” said Alvarez. “There’s tremendous interest and participation in the sport all across the country.”
The inaugural season will include 56 athletes on four teams each playing 30 games over five weeks. There will be no coaches, and teams will be redrafted each week by the four players who earn the most points the previous week.
The scoring system is unique to the league, and is designed to allow for comparisons between pitchers and position players. The majority of a player’s points will come from her team winning games and innings, with additional points being awarded for individual stats.
The league is banking on the fact that fans are more interested in following individual athletes rather than teams.
“Take an athlete like Megan Rapinoe,” said Alvarez. “If she were to no longer play for OL Reign, her fans would still follow her on a new team in a new city. LeBron is another good example. His fans aren’t just Lakers or Cavaliers fans, they’re LeBron fans through and through.”
Alvarez credited the rapid growth of social and digital media with powering this trend toward player-focused fandom.
“More than ever before, athletes are able to own their stories and intimately connect with their audiences.”
Athlete-centered storytelling will be a major aspect of Athletes Unlimited’s strategy, as the league looks to both invest in and capitalize on the personal relationships their players build with fans.
While no formal relationship as yet exists with USA Softball, the league does have a partnership with National Pro Fastpitch, another professional softball league whose season will end before Athletes Unlimited’s begin. Many players will play for both.
“Ultimately we’re viewing both leagues as funneling into one another versus trying to compete,” said Alvarez. “Our goal is to provide extended opportunities for athletes to continue their play. We want to create a new way for fans to consume and enjoy sports, while providing more opportunities for underappreciated athletes to compete and make money.”
With regard to the potential impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Alvarez said the league is monitoring the situation day by day and that they are not hosting any events with their athletes for the time being. Given their August start date, they will wait to see how the situation unfolds before they make any major decisions.