Welcome to the Grand Softball Experiment

One startup league is tailoring itself to today's tastes: no head coaches or owners or locked rosters, just draft after draft ...
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Haylie Wagner, Gwen Svekis and Victoria Hayward all ran into one another’s arms upon the final out of their softball season, on Sept. 28. Wagner was the starting pitcher, Svekis her catcher and Hayward the center fielder, and theirs was the standard embrace of teammates winning a championship game: exhaustion mixed with joy, streaked with happy tears. Except that this situation was not standard at all. Almost a year earlier, they had been the first three players to sign on with an upstart, experimental league; and while they were, for this moment, on the same squad, they’d separated and rejoined sporadically over the course of the six-week season, acting as teammates one week and opponents the next. Though they had just won the final game of the season together, they had not won a championship. In fact, no team title was awarded. Instead, players were ranked individually, using a unique scoring system, and the lone gold medal went to one of their teammates, the staff ace, who had not even pitched that day.

This is the foundation of Athletes Unlimited: team sports reimagined to focus on individual players, with no head coaches, no club owners and no locked rosters. The novel new outfit is led by its performers, both in the sense that they draft their own teams and develop their own game strategies, and in the sense that they each have an ownership stake in the league. Every decision, from uniforms to sponsorships, runs through a player-run executive committee. With some success, the league’s founders hope this will all serve as a roadmap for the future of sports—and they believe their best chance at getting there is to start with women.

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When Wagner, Svekis and Hayward embraced back in September, they felt less like they were celebrating the end of a season and more like they were cherishing the start of a movement. Indeed: After a successful initial run with softball last summer, Athletes Unlimited will apply its model next to volleyball, starting on Feb. 27; lacrosse, in July; and a second season of softball, in August.

“We were crying,” remembers Svekis. “It was so joyful to look at all these women. … It was so rewarding, feeling like we truly laid the foundation for the future of our sport. It was just pure nirvana.”

For all the changes that professional sports have seen in the last century, most major leagues have stuck with the same basic structure: A set number of teams are scattered across a map. … Fans engage with and follow their favorite clubs. … Owners and front offices rule. Variations on this norm, from co-op leagues to touring models, have been scattered and mostly low-profile. They have also been, on average, far from revolutionary. A red-white-and-blue basketball here, a new kickoff format there, but the structure has almost always been left largely unchanged.

Jon Patricof didn’t originally set out to disrupt this model. In 2018, his third year as president of MLS’s New York City FC, he observed a disconnect between rising cultural interest in female athletes and stagnant support for their professional leagues, and to him it seemed like a business opportunity. He found a partner in investment manager Jonathan Soros (the son of billionaire-philanthropist George Soros), and together they pored over data on the market conditions. The existing structure of pro sports, they found, didn’t seem like a particularly great fit for a new league. Fans didn't engage the same way that they had a hundred years ago—and athletes, sponsorships and media didn't work the same way either. If one were to create a sustainable model for female athletes that could really work, what made the most sense was "to start from scratch," Patricof says.

In their research, four trend lines in fan behavior stood out: 1) Supporters were more likely to exhibit passion about individual players than they were about entire teams. 2) They were engaging with sports on a variety of platforms, just as likely to play in a fantasy league or consume highlights on Instagram as they were to watch actual games. 3) They were increasingly interested in athletes’ personalities and off-field lives. And 4) They took close notice of “values orientation,” the standards and ideals that a league and its athletes center on.

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Patricof, a Harvard MBA who began his career in strategic planning at Disney, brought other insights from his time in MLS. Like: If you wanted to build a national or even global fan base, it didn’t make sense trying to crack a slew of new local markets. It seemed much smarter to center a media strategy around streaming deals and social networks than around regional cable. And: Why would you want to deal with the inefficiencies of operating a dozen stadiums (and managing travel between them) when you can put everyone in a single place? And: Why not get rid of team owners and front offices entirely? Build it all around players and you’d have a more streamlined system.

In 2019, after Patricof left NYCFC, he and Soros roped in Angela Ruggiero, the CEO of Boston-based research firm Sports Innovation Lab, and posed a question: If you could throw out the playbook, how would you structure a new league? Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic hockey medalist with the U.S., is passionate about women’s sports in general, but even from a business standpoint she knew they had hit on a particularly good moment to build around female athletes. “Now is the time for women’s sports, not just from a social-movement perspective, but also from a technology and innovation perspective,” says Ruggiero (who today is on the advisory board for Athletes Unlimited). “You can go direct-to-consumer with social platforms. You can tell more stories.” And that, she says, “is allowing the women to have more of an opportunity to compete with the men.”

In other words, the existing model of professional sports has been difficult to navigate for any upstart league, particularly for women’s leagues, which tended to be shut out of mainstream media coverage. But if you were building something new—if you weren’t necessarily worried about filling stadiums in a dozen different markets or landing a major cable deal; if, instead, you marketed directly to an existing segment of fans—you could make it work.

Ruggiero helped Patricof and Soros land on a general plan they thought could thrive across a variety of sports—perhaps, eventually, a whole network of leagues. The bullet points: At the start of each season, a small number of players would be named as captains. Those captains would draft teams in a live-streamed event, promoted as much as any game, which would mix personality (Who’s picking whom?) with strategy (How are they approaching the intricacies of roster construction?). These teams would then play one another over the course of the next week. But while each game would look and feel familiar, with a winner and a loser, what really mattered would be the individual stats, kept with a unique scoring system, tailored to the sport, that accounted for offensive and defensive performance. These individual numbers would be tracked on a leaderboard, and at the end of each week team captains would draft anew, remaking their rosters to form completely new teams. Finally, at the end of the season, rather than a championship squad, there would be one woman atop the leaderboard. Your fill-in-the-blank-sport champion.

Week 3 of the softball season: start from scratch again on draft day. 

Week 3 of the softball season: start from scratch again on draft day. 

Every player would earn the same base salary but could activate performance-based bonuses that doubled or even tripled that takeaway. They’d all play in one city (Rosemont, Ill., for softball; Dallas for volleyball…) to cut out the costs of traveling and operating multiple stadiums, and to facilitate the creation of media content around the players, who’d be living and spending time together, getting drafted by their fellow athletes each week. They’d all have ownership stakes in the league. And they’d make decisions together, on the rulebook and on marketing strategy, all the way down the line.

It’s a model built to accommodate just about every strand of modern fan behavior: player-centered, digital-forward, with a broad view of what qualifies as sports content. Fans can follow individual athletes they already know from college or, say, from Instagram, rather than try to embrace brand-new teams with whom they have no history, no local connection.

So, what sport first? Patricof and Soros began exploring their options. Hockey was an early frontrunner, but they also looked into softball (hundreds of hours of which are broadcast on ESPN each year at the amateur level), reaching out to Cheri Kempf, commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch, which has stagnated since launching in 2004. And Kempf was immediately in, pushing hard for softball to lead the experiment because, she says, “I felt so strongly this was going to be such a positive step forward for our sport.” (Given a degree of success, the thinking goes, Athletes Unlimited could eventually have a year-round calendar of different sports, perhaps even experimenting with a men's league or one based outside the U.S.)

If it seems odd that the commissioner of the biggest existing league would flirt with a prospective competitor, well, that interest is exactly the point. “I don’t think women’s professional sports are strong enough to be divided and survive,” Kempf says. “So I’ve always hoped to be collaborative.”

From left: Patricof, Erika Piancastelli, Jessica Warren, Hayward, Osterman, Haylie McCleney and Soros.

From left: Patricof, Erika Piancastelli, Jessica Warren, Hayward, Osterman, Haylie McCleney and Soros.

Ultimately, what sold Kempf was something she’d been missing in all her years at NPF. Here was a group willing to seriously invest in female athletes and try to figure out a sustainable future. (Meanwhile, NPF's 2020 and ’21 seasons were canceled due to COVID-19. Its path forward is uncertain.) When Patricof and Soros chose softball as Athletes Unlimited’s first sport, Kempf was thrilled, and she set about helping them with the most crucial step: getting the athletes on board. Which is how Wagner, Svekis and Hayward—three talented players Kempf thought open-minded enough to embrace this unorthodox structure and well-liked enough to convince their peers to sign on—ended up at a pitch meeting in a midtown Manhattan conference room, in October 2019. “It sounded crazy,” says Svekis. “But they knew how to do the things that our sport had lacked, create something on the business side that was going to work.”

Hayward, too, warmed quickly to the idea. After years of seeing women’s sports treated as fundamentally small-time, or like charity projects, here was a group approaching softball like the serious business opportunity she always felt it could be, with the right investment. “Five minutes into the conversation [they had] all this market research and clear positions. … I knew that I was in.”

Wagner, Svekis and Hayward had never all been together as teammates. They didn’t know each other well. But they all agreed: The existing model for professional softball was untenable. The average annual salary in NPF was around $5,000. The number of viable teams fluctuated each season. As much as they loved the game, they’d never banked on softball as a serious career. Almost no one could. At one point after the presentation, Svekis and Hayward made eye contact and understood: We have to try this.

“I knew it was going to take a lot of work and a lot of buy-in,” says Svekis. “But I also knew that the future of our sport pretty much depended on it.”

The purple team's Aleshia Ocasio, in Season One.

The purple team's Aleshia Ocasio, in Season One.

Are we changing the game or not? That’s what pitcher Cat Osterman, a six-time NPF all-star, remembers thinking when she first heard about Athletes Unlimited. A self-described “sports purist,” she was intrigued by the new macro-structure, but she didn’t want to play any version of softball that fundamentally changed what happens between the lines. “Do we have the ability to change things about our game? Yes,” she says. “But we’re not changing the essential way we play.” Which is one of the deliberate features of Athletes Unlimited. For all the novelty of its greater structure, the softball league, which launched last August, still looks very much like the softball that the game’s staunchest supporters are used to.

As the players used their ownership and committee votes to shape the league, they wanted to avoid anything that looked like a gimmick or made them feel like part of a sports experiment. The obvious differences are not in the game but in the presentation. On television (all 30 softball games ran on TV or were streamed by ESPN and CBS; 22 of the 30 upcoming volleyball matches will be on CBS or Fox subsidiaries), even the most casual viewer will notice the nontraditional team names, each squad identified by its captain. Then there’s the prominent individual player leaderboard that’s displayed along with lineups and updated a few times in-game, pulling in fans with its every-play-counts-in-the-bigger-picture dynamic. Each at bat is an opportunity to earn individual points and create excitement, regardless of the game’s score. An 18–3 blowout game in the final week of the season, for instance, would have otherwise been a snooze. But with the leaderboard up for grabs, a late potential run—whether or not the player was thrown out at the plate—became a huge highlight that materially changed the standings.

“Whether they totally understood the point system or not,” says Osterman, “[fans] were really embracing the fact that they got to watch something different.”

One can imagine the potential awkwardness of this new environment where athletes compete and promote themselves as individuals—but that has actually proved more natural than one might expect, for both players and their fans. “As a softball player, as a female professional athlete in general, a lot of us have created our brand by building it ourselves,” says outfielder Jazmyn Jackson. “It’s never like, Oh, I’m a Yankee now, so that fan base is there for me.”

Even then, players still have to fit in on their ever-changing teams, and that means trying to create a sense of camaraderie, and doing it in a way that translates to fans watching at home. One week, a blue-uniformed team captained by Hayward dubbed itself the Blue Angels and choreographed a home-run celebration that evoked an airplane landing at home plate. An orange-uniformed squad became the Orange Crush, pretending to crack open sodas when they crossed the plate. The next week, rosters were scrambled and new traditions were formed.

How, though, do you get those players to compete for one another when there’s a big board that awards points, yes, for team wins but also for individual accomplishments? “It’s that urgency of, Hey, you’ve got to play with these people. You’ve got to build a relationship. You have to trust them,” says Hayward, who found that in the absence of designated managers, players came together, hashing out lineups and rosters as a group. “The captains were very methodical in creating that culture. … It got more elaborate as the season went on, which makes me excited for how volleyball can tack onto that.”

Those volleyball players were watching this all unfold mostly from abroad, where they are used to competing, with no major indoor volleyball league in the U.S. until Athletes Unlimited came along. Now they have a structure for their sport that pulls from the lessons learned over the first season of softball.

“It was all about What do we want?” says Deja McClendon, who has played pro volleyball in Poland, Italy and Brazil since winning two NCAA titles at Penn State. “How do we want to build this? How do we want to build the sport and grow the sport and make volleyball more accessible to people like us? That was digging less into the sport aspect of it and more into the soul of it. And that’s what I was really interested in.”

Jessica Warren does a "Blue Angels" celebration heading home.

Jessica Warren does a "Blue Angels" celebration heading home.

In the end, they all hope the league they created will reach diehards who want something they’re used to as well as curious fans—fantasy and gambling and reality-television junkies—who want something completely new. In short: everyone.

“There’s going to be your volleyball fans, your lacrosse fans—those are the people who are always watching, it doesn’t matter the format, right?” says Jessica Mendoza, a softball player turned ESPN analyst and now an Athletes Unlimited board member. “But now there’s going to be a guy who likes to gamble! Now he’s going to watch a women’s lacrosse game and notice stuff he never would have noticed. ... And it’s not just one guy like that. There are hundreds and thousands, and they absorb sports for different reasons. I think, ultimately, a lot of them are going to walk away and be like, I like watching women’s volleyball. I like watching women’s softball. Not all of them, but I think a lot of them—and that makes me happy.”

For the players, the most radical feature of Athletes Unlimited has not been the structure. It’s been the fact that they’re treated like professional athletes. “We actually, finally, had the tangible means, the financial support and the people in place to put what we had imagined ... in our dream league,” says Hayward. “So, what does it look like to be a real professional? What does it feel like to be treated like a pro?”

This enthusiasm, this wide embrace, is the chief metric Patricof used to determine that Athletes Unlimited’s first softball season was a success. (A figure like profitability is not on the radar for the immediate future—this is “growth mode,” he says.) Patricof has seen strife in other leagues, particularly start-ups, over playing and working conditions, and he wanted to avoid that here. He knows that a player-centered league only works if the players are happy enough to return the next year.

And here Hayward itemizes her happiness. Games started on time. Everything was clean and sanitary. Players didn’t have to worry about food or housing. COVID-19 was surprisingly easy to navigate; there was no prolonged back-and-forth between athletes and executives over the safety protocol or how to enforce it. The $10,000 minimum salary was roughly double the NPF average. (Much of the payout came from a leaderboard bonus on top of that. Osterman, who won the gold medal, earned $35,000.) Everyone had high-quality gear and a sports science lab in which to test it out.

Up next for Athletes Unlimited, starting Saturday: women's volleyball.

Up next for Athletes Unlimited, starting Saturday: women's volleyball.

Hayward tries for a moment to figure out the right way to describe the season. “It was comparable,” she finally says, “to how a man would experience a professional league.”

Already, every softball player who has been invited back for a second season has accepted. Those players now get to build off what they started. And as they do, Jackson, the outfielder, has been thinking about a message delivered last year to players by retired soccer star Abby Wambach, who’s on the league’s advisory board: Be grateful, but do not settle. Realize that your opportunities as a female athlete are your own.

"Usually, it's just the people at the top that are running [a league] and making the decisions, and the players get whatever's left," says Jackson. "It's been really cool not just to join a league but to be part of the creation."

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