The athlete’s voice is the most powerful one in sports. They are role models, they are leaders, they are the faces of the leagues they represent and are the reason fans follow sports. That’s why the foundation of Athletes Unlimited is built on player involvement in decision-making in all aspects of how the league is shaped and run. As one of the only pro sports leagues to have launched in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, this has been a major factor in our success.
Athletes Unlimited is a network of pro sports leagues that has reimagined most elements of traditional leagues as we know them. For example, players change teams weekly and accumulate points based not only on their teams’ performance but individual performance as well. Fans don’t track team standings but rather an individual leaderboard (think golf or auto racing) that is updated on every play (think fantasy sports).
We started working on our business plan in June 2019 with plans for five-week seasons and all games played in one venue. We were the “bubble” before the “bubble,” and after a successful first pro softball season we have already announced plans for three more “bubbles” in 2021, including a second season of softball as well as the launch of pro indoor volleyball and pro lacrosse (we hope to have fans in attendance starting with our lacrosse league in summer 2021).
While the one-city, short season, player-focused scoring system model is unique, the most significant difference between Athletes Unlimited and other pro leagues is that our players are the driving force in the decision-making process at every level.
In October 2019, we invited the first group of potential softball players to New York to hear the vision of Athletes Unlimited and hopefully convince them to join us. They had been identified due to their on-field abilities but equally because of their reputations as thoughtful and respected members of the player community. We described the idea that players would receive a share of profits for the current season as well as 19 seasons into the future along with base and bonus compensation. After a day of meetings, we realized that we would be signing them on not only as players but also as partners to help us formulate the business and operating plan, and that they would ultimately help determine our success on and off the field.
The initial group of athletes who signed became the softball Player Executive Committee (PEC), which has been the backbone of our success. Since October 2019, the PEC has met with AU staff weekly working on all aspects of the league including identifying players to add to the roster, establishing rules and scoring system, deciding broadcast talent and umpires and determining a TV distribution strategy.
Fast-forward 12 months and Athletes Unlimited has now completed an incredibly successful inaugural softball season. All 30 games were broadcast on CBS and ESPN. We signed partners like Nike, Geico and Carvana among others, and struck innovative marketing relationships with DraftKings and Topps. Most importantly, 100% of the athletes have expressed a desire to return and 95% of fans surveyed indicated they plan to watch and engage with Athletes Unlimited Softball in 2021.
Players’ involvement in Athletes Unlimited has extended well beyond the PEC. The full player group met monthly to discuss matters of importance and solicit input, as well as consulted with the PEC regarding ideas for additional players to add to the league. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, a group of players joined staff to form a Racial Equity Working Group. Players have made partner introductions and helped shape our COVID response policies.
In 2021, Athletes Unlimited will host its inaugural pro indoor volleyball and pro lacrosse leagues as well as the second season of softball. Volleyball and lacrosse each have a PEC that is modeled after the softball PEC and meet weekly with AU staff. Players participate on Zoom from as far away as China, Italy and France, and most are managing other work obligations outside their careers as pro athletes (a reality for many female and male pro athletes outside the major sports). The Racial Equity Working Group has been expanded and now includes players from all three sports.
The increasing involvement of other stakeholders in organizational decision making is happening across all industries but isn’t always successful. It certainly takes more time in the short-term, and decisions that used to be made quickly by one or two executives are being discussed—and sometimes debated—by a much larger group. But it brings diverse perspectives to the table, creates a level of trust and fosters collaboration that allows us to work quickly when needed.
And when all is said and done, our research shows this is what fans want. More than 90% of fans surveyed said they cared strongly that the league is athlete-led. This was even more important to them than some of our on-field innovations that are also hallmarks of Athletes Unlimited.
When we get close to a decision point, our mantra has been to lean in the direction of more player involvement, not less—that involvement has helped us grow as an organization, as leagues and as a property. We are not immune to times of tension and difficulty, but we hope the work we do each week collaborating, communicating and building trust is laying a strong foundation and makes us better equipped to navigate challenging times.
Jon Patricof is CEO and Co-Founder of Athletes Unlimited, a new pro sports venture that launched in 2020. He was most recently President of Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club, co-owned by City Football Group and the New York Yankees, where he currently serves on the Board of Directors. Prior to NYCFC, Patricof spent 11 years as President and COO of Tribeca Enterprises, where he was the first employee and helped build the company into a multi-dimensional business with a globally recognized brand. Patricof started his career at Disney, where he worked as a member of the strategic planning department helping grow the Disney, ESPN and ABC brands across video, audio and digital platforms. He also has executed investments and strategic partnerships and launched multiple new businesses. Jon received an M.B.A. with distinction from Harvard Business School and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he was a member of the baseball team.