When Jon Patricof, former president of MLS club New York City F.C. and his co-founder, investor Jonathan Soros, first ventured down the road that is now the new, multi-sport women’s league Athletes Unlimited, they planned as if they were launching a media company as much as a sports entity. Patricof calls it a “media-centric league,” because, well, that’s what it is – and that’s what it has to be. Content for these upstarts is as important as the games on the field.
In a crowded media landscape where entrenched leagues dominate airtime and command lucrative broadcast deals, young sports ventures have turned inward. Like its recent predecessors – the Premier Lacrosse League and the now-defunct XFL – Athletes Unlimited recognizes that to be successful, the on-field product is only the beginning.
“From the outset the whole concept around Athletes Unlimited was that what drives engagement and long-term value is the way in which you connect with fans,” Patricof said. “So much of that connection happens through digital, social and broadcast media. Especially as a younger, newer league where getting a lot of attention from big media companies can be a challenge, it’s important to take on that responsibility yourself and be committed to filling in the gaps.”
This media-driven strategy isn’t only about audience generation and fan engagement – there’s monetary value in it, too. Major professional sports leagues make millions, and in some cases, billions, each year on rights deals.
The NBA’s current agreement with ESPN and Turner is valued at $2.7 billion annually. The NFL’s deal with ESPN alone accounts for $1.9 billion per year for the league – alongside another $3.8 billion annually from Fox, NBC and CBS combined. Major League Baseball’s separate agreements with ESPN, Turner and Fox are worth more than $1.75 billion collectively. The NHL brings in $200 million annually from NBC.
On June 30, Athletes Unlimited announced that ESPN and CBS Sports will broadcast its first single-market softball season. All 30 games will air live, with seven appearing on lead broadcast partner CBS Sports Network in the United States and Canada. ESPN will show the remaining 23 games across its digital and television platforms in the U.S., with additional distribution throughout Canada, through the network’s partnership with TSN, and Latin America.
Young ventures lack the intrinsic media value that established leagues have because of their fan bases, which is why many, like Athletes Unlimited, turn to other types of content as a means of generating or growing an audience to sell to broadcast partners.
“As a new property it’s incredibly important to support our game broadcasts with robust off-field storytelling,” Patricof said. “CBS has already given us great feedback on what they are seeing on our social accounts and the content we are creating. They plan to use a lot of it to support their own promotional and production efforts.”
This is not to say game broadcasts and mainstream media airtime are no longer as important as they once were. Television is still key to taking a niche sport mainstream and reaching a wide audience, but it is almost never as lucrative as new leagues need it to be. New ventures often get far less compensation than major sports leagues for their broadcast rights; sometimes, they actually have to pay networks to carry their programming. Self-created content, therefore, has become key, not only to landing partners but also to contributing to a league’s bottom line, something even more critical to startup enterprises.
“For a long time content was sort of an afterthought, but now people are realizing you not only need to have good content to market your brand and gain an audience, but it’s also a really good revenue driver,” Rael Enteen, former XFL director of social media, said.
The now-bankrupt XFL leveraged owner Vince McMahon’s WWE media network to create and promote content before investing in an in-house team. “You can have a presenting sponsor, advertisements, revenue from views on different platforms so what was once the joke of the business side of the industry now has a center seat at the table,” Enteen said.
Athletes Unlimited, which will play its first season of softball outside Chicago in August over the span of five weeks, unveiled a digital programming lineup to air on its website and across social channels prior to announcing its broadcast partnership. In addition to supporting its pro leagues – the second of which, indoor volleyball, is set to debut in early 2021 – Athletes Unlimited will work to elevate individual player profiles through its content. By the end of 2021, the company expects to have three leagues totaling around 150 players up and running in its network.
The programming approach reflects one of Athletes Unlimited’s founding principles: that modern fans are more attached to individual athletes than to teams. Among the players’ contractual commitments is an obligation to participate in the league’s media undertakings.
The slate, all of which will be created and produced by an in-house team, includes four digital series, ranging from ‘Athletes Unplugged,’ which gives players a platform to showcase their personalities and discuss off-the-field subjects, to ‘About That Play,’ which will break down action on the field.
A softball podcast, hosted by star outfielder AJ Andrews, the first female Rawlings Golden Glove award winner, will be among the offerings. Andrews, who has nearly 40,000 followers on Instagram, has found success monetizing her brands and platform off the field. Leagues like Athletes Unlimited are now trying to do the same through their own media output.
By crafting their own content, the league also retains more control over the narrative it’s constructing: that these aren’t women’s sports; they’re just sports being played at the highest level. The hope is that this intentional branding draws a wider audience of fans.
“We knew we couldn’t rely just on existing sports media to give us the coverage and attention that we thought we deserved and that would create a successful sports property,” Patricof added. “The biggest strategic element of this is how you marry in-game, on-the-field content with robust off-the-field storytelling, profiles and other things.”
When the Premier Lacrosse League launched in 2018, it also arrived on the scene as much a media entity as a traveling sports league. The PLL’s broadcast partnership with NBC covered the live, on-field product, but the league’s internal media team created an expansive array of additional content for digital and social.
“Initially, we leveraged [league co-founder Paul Rabil’s hyper-engaged audience across social to build the PLL following,” said Tyler Steinhardt, PLL director of marketing. “Then we in-sourced our own production house to dictate content strategy, development and distribution for our league, teams and players to grow into what we have built today.”
Forming that production team was one of the first things the league did – hiring editors, photographers and multimedia producers early on. An in-house podcast studio, now sponsored by Ticketmaster, soon followed.
Athletes Unlimited is charting a similar course. In addition to live game broadcasts, their team will create on-site content at each season’s location, focused on connecting youth players with the league’s athletes through drill and workout videos alongside content discussing mental health. The league diverges from the PLL, however, in how they plan to monetize these assets.
Wary of the imperfect pay-to-play model in youth sports – in a typical year, the PLL relies on camps and clinics as a significant revenue stream – Athletes Unlimited instead hopes to discourage early specialization, minimize the barriers to entry and increase access to the sports in their network through these free training videos. The league’s structure, with a number of sports under one umbrella, inherently reflect that goal. So do the experiences of many of their athletes who participated in a variety of youth leagues.
“We are very focused on providing content and connection to our athletes,” Anya Alvarez, head of digital content, said. “[Getting] around the pay-to-play model, we want to create content that is attainable for young women to work on their games. The drills and workouts that we’ll be focusing on are things that they could work on at home or with limited access to equipment.”
With no intent to monetize its youth programming, Athletes Unlimited does plan to profit off the rights to the games themselves. Commercial partnerships and brand integrations on-site, in digital content and elsewhere will serve as additional revenue streams. To maximize the return on its in-house media infrastructure investment, the league will also offer a subscription model, the ‘Unlimited Pass,’ which will launch in August.
For an annual fee, fans will be able to subscribe to one of three membership tiers to gain access to exclusive content and greater access to athletes. Membership also comes with voting rights in certain league decisions, including game MVPs. Fan votes also impact player points, which determine rankings and impact fantasy play. Team and individual points are also tied to MVP titles, individual champions and cash bonuses for athletes – all of which will be explained through additional in-house content designed educate the fan on league structure and set up.
Without home cities, team owners or even set rosters – the top four athletes in the standings will serve as captains, drafting new teams each week – and with short seasons, how Athletes Unlimited keeps fans connected to their favorite stars will be key to shaping the league’s future.