Victoria Hayward should be in Japan as captain of Canada’s Olympic softball team. Instead, the coronavirus pandemic pushed the Summer Games off a year. But Hayward is taking the field anyway—in a game-changing professional women’s sports league.
Outfielder Hayward is one of the 56 elite players suiting up for the first season of Athletes Unlimited (AU). Softball with AU will look the same on the diamond. But some things will be very different.
First, AU has no team owners or general managers. The new league gives players input on decisions—everything from uniform colors to TV deals.
“If you’re going to launch a league of any sort, . . . you really have to innovate and think differently about where fandom is heading,” says Jon Patricof, AU’s co-founder and CEO.
There’ll be no team champion. Instead, the softball title will go to the individual with the most points based on a virtual, fantasy sports-type system. A single, for example, will be 10 points. A double will bring in 20 and a victory 50. Players can also lose points for poor play.
Team rosters will change week by week since the top four players by points become captains and draft their own teams.
Another change will include microphones worn by players and umpires during the game.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do is bring in onscreen graphics, miking up of players,” Patricof says. “[There are] great enhancements that are going to elevate the broadcast to a really strong level.”
Patricof is former president of Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club. He and fellow founder Jonathan Soros started developing Athletes Unlimited about a year ago. They envisioned a network of sports leagues that followed a sort of fantasy-based model focused on athletes rather than teams. They chose a short and intense 30-game season instead of the longer lineup. Athletes won’t need to travel since all games will take place in suburban Rosemont, Illinois.
Hayward looks forward to playing after having her Olympic hopes delayed. “This is just an amazing opportunity to help me prepare and be even better when the time comes next year,” she says.
AU plans to launch women’s volleyball in February. The league’s sights are set on other sports too.
Hayward says, “I think as a fan, it’s going to be super fun to see some former adversaries getting to team up together.”
There’s another way AU is different: Players share the profits. Hayward says, “The stakes are high. Every game matters.”