Athletes Unlimited—the multi-sport, player-owned league that uses fantasy-style individual scoring—concluded its inaugural season in Rosemont, Ill., this week, and the results from this first outing (a five-week softball season) are promising signs for its future. The company will return to Parkway Bank Sports Complex for its second softball season in late August 2021 and until then, sights are set on indoor volleyball in February and the impending announcement of a third sport, which is planned for 2022.
While the league has yet to receive official viewership data, positive feedback from all three of its broadcast partners—CBS Sports and ESPN in the U.S., Canada and parts of Latin America and the Olympic Channel for the remainder of its international distribution—has served as early encouragement. The league utilized its fantasy sports-like scoring system (also adopted by several college softball and youth programs for scrimmages this fall) to create fast-paced, engaging programming, complemented by supplementary storytelling. As a result, both CBS Sports and ESPN ultimately exceeded their contractual obligations to Athletes Unlimited, with the former adding the closing ceremony to its broadcast lineup and the latter delivering eight linear windows on ESPN3 to the league.
Combined, the partners broadcast or streamed all 30 games from Athletes Unlimited’s first season. Digital partnerships with streamers like Wave.tv and rebroadcasting deals rounded out the additional coverage. Thanks to softball’s broadcasting success, Athletes Unlimited co-founder and CEO Jon Patricof said “at least one” of the three traditional partners is staying on board to air the company’s indoor volleyball season, which will commence February in Nashville without fans.
“This network of media partners just gave us a tremendous amount of exposure, and that was a decision we made early on. We always knew we wanted a lot of eyeballs on our content and our games,” Patricof said in an interview. “Player satisfaction and desire to return was the first criteria for us to call this [a success]; the second was a huge positive fan response, but third—and definitely what’s ultimately going to drive long term success—is the broadcast and media partners and then our corporate partners.”
Patricof, formerly of the MLS club NYCFC, said the overall lineup of partners exceeded expectations Athletes Unlimited had set for year one.
“When you’re talking about a new league and structure, especially with a sport that hasn’t gotten as much attention at the professional level, we knew it was going to take a while,” he added. “I am a believer that you have to take a crawl, walk, run approach but the fact that we came out of the gate with these partners was spectacular.”
Platforms like TikTok also saw unexpectedly strong engagement. Out of the U.S. sports leagues, Athletes Unlimited and the NFL were the only two to earn over one million views on a single post on the viral social media platform. The league’s Unlimited Club, a paid membership option that offered additional access and incentives like voting rights for MVP awards and more, monetized that fan interest.
As with broadcasting, membership exceeded initial projections, Patricof said of the “hundreds of people” who signed up, and provided an additional revenue stream to help the league get off the ground.
The network of women’s sports leagues also rallied support from more than 20 corporate sponsors for its first five-week season, including more “traditional and experienced blue-chip brands” like GEICO and major sport partners like Nike, as well as less-endemic supporters like Carvana, Mariner Wealth Advisors and Sparta Science. Patricof noted that Athletes Unlimited was online auto retailer Carvana’s first national sports investment. Fan engagement partners in the likes of TOPPS and DraftKings rounded out the early supporters.
Athletes Unlimited ultimately redistributed some of its revenue back into different communities. Civic leadership initiatives brought Girl Scouts of the USA and Little League partnerships into the fold, as well as 38 national and local community organizations that the league financially supported. Some also went to investing in the league’s Athletes+ program, developed in partnership with Abby Wambach (who sits on the advisory board alongside softball Olympian Jessica Mendoza and NBA star Kevin Durant) and her organization Wolfpack Endeavor to provide career development and personal training resources to the players.
Designed as a network of short, single-site seasons even pre-pandemic, Athletes Unlimited had little shifting to do prior to the start of play in August but, like many other sports leagues throughout the world, still lost potential ticketing and site-related revenue streams. The pandemic also provided useful lessons that the league expects to retain even when sports return to normalcy. Fan engagement initiatives implemented this summer (like mailing out foul balls that landed in fans’ virtual seats) will continue, even if local viewers are allowed back in the stands.
“Some of these things we wouldn’t have come up with because we would’ve been focused on fans in the stadium. But this benefits us,” Patricof said. “For other leagues, this sort of season is one and done. For us, this is our model. When we go back to Rosemont next summer or start volleyball or our third sport, [we will] follow that same model. We’ll make some improvement—yes, we may have fans in the stands—otherwise, I think we proved out the model we wanted to have.”