ESPN is deepening its lacrosse and softball coverage and expanding its summer broadcast slate through a two-year deal with Athletes Unlimited—the league’s first multi-year media rights agreement and one that gives fans a single destination for two of its flagship sports. The network will exclusively air 160 games across its platforms through the new deal, which runs through the league’s 2023 lacrosse and softball seasons.
Ninety Athletes Unlimited games will find themselves on linear television, with 34 airing on ESPN or ESPN2 and another 56 on ESPNU. The remaining games will stream on ESPN+, and international rights were also included for TSN in Canada, ESPN Latin America and other platforms abroad.
ESPN was an early Athletes Unlimited partner, broadcasting its first-ever softball season in 2020 alongside CBS. But as the women’s league expanded to volleyball, lacrosse and basketball over the next two years, ESPN didn’t pick up any of its subsequent seasons or sports.
And though Athletes Unlimited started to do multi-season and sport deals with corporate partners while fielding repeat interest from network partners like CBS and Fox, it hadn’t signed any longer term pacts on the broadcast side until now. The ESPN deal includes Athletes Unlimited’s debut softball mini-season—an additional summer competition series good for another 18 games for the Bristol-based broadcaster.
Athletes Unlimited co-founder and CEO Jon Patricof said they’ve always pursued media rights deals for each league individually due to the different timelines and “priorities” of each sport, but “it was actually ESPN that expressed interest in consolidating them.”
Athletes Unlimited’s leagues seem to fit ESPN’s portfolio plans, which have included an increasing number of games in both sports at different levels. The worldwide leader, already home to a large slate of women’s college lacrosse and softball games, recently acquired the rights to both the National Lacrosse League (NLL), an indoor professional men’s lacrosse league, and the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).
ESPN will add the new leagues starting this June with the condensed two-week softball competition, called AUX. ESPN will carry all 18 AUX games in advance of the league’s third full-length (30-game) championship season, slated to start July 29 in Chicago. Its second lacrosse season will also be played this summer.
In addition to game coverage, ESPN and Athletes Unlimited will also collaborate on its softball draft broadcast and on the creation of a four-part lacrosse series on ESPN+.
“I think [ESPN] saw opportunity there, and it was similar for us,” Patricof said in an interview, adding that the linear television elements in the deal were essential to ensuring broad distribution and attracting corporate partners. “This all amounts to the continuation and creation of a much larger number of ways for fans to interact with Athletes Unlimited. You’re going to have multiple touch points. This is a big part of the realization of the scale we want to create.”