As Athletes Unlimited approaches its one-year anniversary, short, single-season deals are being replaced by multi-season sponsorships over several sports—creating a more sustainable model for the company.
A network of women’s professional sports leagues, Athletes Unlimited has completed its inaugural softball and volleyball seasons already and is in the middle of launching lacrosse with a five-week season in the Washington D.C. metro area. (Lacrosse is not yet an Olympic sport and therefore does not present a scheduling conflict with the Tokyo Games.) A second season of softball will start shortly after lacrosse wraps up.
Now one year in, partners appear increasingly comfortable with the new sports league’s concept. Nine have extended their deals with Athletes Unlimited across multiple sports, and two new supporting partners joined for the remaining 2021 seasons. Insurance company Geico and Guaranteed Rate, a retail mortgage provider, have both continued their sponsorships through April 2022—the longest deal either partner has done with Athletes Unlimited to date.
“We’re really excited to be doing big deals that cut across all three leagues,” Athletes Unlimited CEO and co-founder Jon Patricof said in an interview. “When we launched, we came out with a very new model and approach. Now, partners have been able to see what we can do, see that we can deliver and see that the properties are resonating. [As a result,] they are on board to sign deals earlier and do deals that extend out across multiple sports.”
Gatorade, Hyperice, Nike, Topps and West + Wilder, Athletes Unlimited’s official wine partner, have also renewed through 2021. Returning supporters Lasso Gear, a performance sock manufacturer, and VKTRY, an insole maker, also extended. New additions include Blue Sky CBD and popular coffee drink company Super Coffee, who also signed on for this year’s remaining slate. Endemic sponsors continue to support specific sports as well.
Given the unique setup, Athletes Unlimited is able to sell sponsors several audiences: fans unique to a season’s particular sport, and those who are now developing an affinity for the league as a whole for its nontraditional scoring and draft system, organizational model and fan experience.
“Scale is important to a lot of partners,” Patricof said. “There’s a desire to go deep and really resonate with fans, but a lot of the brands we’re talking about, they need and are looking for properties of scale. Our way of delivering scale is by operating multiple sports and having a presence, effectively, year-round with three seasons, 90 games and our content.”
Athletes Unlimited has also started to find continuity with its media partners. CBS Sports, for example, signed on alongside ESPN and the Olympic Channel to broadcast Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural softball season last August, and the network has since picked up each of the league’s subsequent seasons. Fox Sports subbed in for ESPN starting with volleyball, which was played in the winter of 2021, and has continued the relationship in different iterations since, even signing on for softball’s 2022 slate.
Still, Patricof is hesitant to say he’s eager for a long-term distribution deal given “how rapidly the media landscape is changing.”
As Athletes Unlimited continues to build its brand and bring women’s sports to more sponsors and television screens, it is hopeful more progress will be made, within its own league and within women’s sports more broadly.