New Pro Sports Venture Puts Women’s Sports in the Players’ Hands

New Pro Sports Venture Puts Women’s Sports in the Players’ Hands

New Pro Sports Venture Puts Women’s Sports in the Players’ Hands

New Pro Sports Venture Puts Women’s Sports in the Players’ Hands

Athletes Unlimited did not plan to begin a new league amid a pandemic, nor did it anticipate its new league would be perfect for such a situation.

The first of its three new women’s professional sports leagues will begin in August with a six-week softball season outside Chicago.

The games will take place in one location, and the athletes will all live close to the competition site during the season. It’s a model that some leagues, including the N.B.A., are now planning or exploring as they seek to safely return to play.

But to be clear, Jon Patricof, a founder of Athletes Unlimited, said, this was the organization’s plan all along.

Patricof, a former president of New York City F.C., and his fellow founder, Jonathan Soros, envisioned Athletes Unlimited as a new model for professional sports leagues, one that emulated fantasy sports leagues and catered to fans with more of an affinity for individual athletes than teams.

“We didn’t want to follow in the model that had worked for men’s sports,” Patricof said in a telephone interview, adding that he and Soros initially considered investing in an existing women’s team, possibly in the W.N.B.A. or the National Women’s Soccer League. “We believe this is the new age of fandom, a fluid fandom.”

So they instead started creating the new leagues — with softball starting in August and indoor volleyball coming in 2021 — in which the athletes are at the forefront of all decision making. The model prioritizes individual athleticism and in-house storytelling over the traditional infrastructure of team sports.

Each season will take place in one location. Teams are not tied to any one city, and players are not under contract with any one team. Players can earn points based on both their team and individual performances, and will be ranked accordingly. Lineups will change each week, with the top four players becoming captains who can draft new teams.

There are no team owners, and league investors are capping their returns. Athletes will share in the league profits, be involved in the daily decision making and call the shots in content creation.

“Having played sports professionally, and having been a woman in the sports world, I believe there are so many great untold stories,” said Anya Alvarez, the head of content for Athletes Unlimited and a former professional golfer. 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 appealed to those who signed on as advisers, including Jessica Mendoza, Kevin Durant and Abby Wambach. And it comes at a time when more professional athletes — and possibly student-athletes — are able to leverage their skills, personal brand and influencer status for cash flow.

Wambach said she thought the model put power back in the hands of the individual athletes, letting them control the outcome of their career without any interference of an overarching association or management.

“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.”

That has certainly been the case in the past handful of years, as more female athletes have leaned on their ability to supplement their incomes from teams with sponsorships and partnerships across social media channels.

And as individual athletes have found success in off-platform channels, teams and leagues have looked to follow.

The World Surf League, for example, 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, chief executive of the World Surf League.

There are Athletes Unlimited boot camps in the works that will help athletes make the most of their online presences, and a document is circulating to solicit video ideas for continuing series. The league has even hired comedians to write for its coming series, and has posted extended interviews with athletes on its YouTube channel.

“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.

Perhaps what’s most promising, from Wambach’s perspective as a female athlete who has seen a diverse set of working conditions, is a league with a greater sense of stability.

“This gives athletes comfort and security,” Wambach said. “That never happens with female athletes.”

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