May 20, 2020 - Sports

A plan to reimagine women's sports

Illustration of a chalkboard.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Athletes Unlimited is a new network of leagues that hopes to reinvent women's sports by bucking the traditional city-based model in favor of a more modern approach.

Driving the news: The plan is to launch three women's leagues over the next three years, beginning with softball, which will debut this August in Chicago, and volleyball, which will debut next February (location not announced).

  • The founders: Jon Patricof, former president of NYCFC and former COO and president of Tribeca Enterprises (operates the Tribeca Film Festival), and investor Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire George Soros.

How it works: Women's sports leagues have typically mirrored their respective men's leagues, but Athletes Unlimited replaces the "pink it and shrink it" strategy with a reimagined model that leans into modern fandom (think: fantasy sports and athletes being more popular than teams).

  • Single market: Unlike most leagues, where teams are city-based, Athletes Unlimited teams will have no city affiliation and each season will take place in a single location.
  • Short seasons: Seasons will last just six weeks.
  • Dynamic rosters: Rosters will be selected weekly by captains, so players will constantly change teams.
  • Fantasy-style scoring: Athletes will accumulate points for team victories and individual performances and be compensated based on where they sit in the points-based rankings.
  • Player governance and profit-sharing: Athletes will be heavily involved in decision-making, and investors have agreed to cap their financial returns, meaning the vast majority of profits will go towards players.

I spoke with Patricof about how Athletes Unlimited was born and what fans can expect moving forward.

  • KB: What was the impetus behind starting Athletes Unlimited?
"Two things: We think there are huge opportunities in women's sports, and we also think there's a new way to create sports leagues that addresses the structural and cost inefficiencies that come with trying to be in multiple cities, especially when you have to rent stadiums."
  • KB: Why softball and volleyball?
"We looked for sports with a proven following and an existing landscape that would allow us to attract the top players in that sport."Softball has had huge success at the collegiate level, and the viewership numbers on ESPN have been impressive. As for volleyball, more high school girls play volleyball than basketball and 900 million people play it worldwide. There's a massive opportunity."
  • KB: What is the single biggest advantage of this model?
"Storytelling. Athletes will be in the same market for six weeks, so we're with them for the course of 42 days and we see every one of those days as an opportunity to capture and create content, both on and off the field."I'm a big believer in making sports culturally relevant, so we're thinking about food, we're thinking about music, we're thinking about film, and how we integrate all of that."
  • KB: How will COVID-19 impact softball's launch in August?
"In Chicago this summer, we're going to heavily limit interaction. No fans will be permitted at practices or games, and we're taking everything we were going to do on-site — youth clinics, things like that — and moving it online."

What to watch: Patricof says the focus for now is on women's sports, but that he and Soros believe this model is the future of team sports more broadly (outside of the big four), and that they could ultimately expand to men's sports, as well.

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