Athletes Unlimited Introduces New Softball Scoring System
Softball, of course, is a team sport. But a new professional league launching later this month is revolutionizing how teams are constructed, prioritizing individual performance over team success.
Athletes Unlimited, an athlete-driven initiative, will begin its first softball season on August 30. A spectator-free Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Ill., home of the NPF's Chicago Bandits, will host 56 of the world’s best players. Those players, though, won’t be on set teams for the five-week season.
Each week, four captains will draft new teams, with the best players from the previous week becoming captains for the next week. Players will score "points" for individual performance—for example, batters earn 10 points for a single or walk, 20 for a double, 30 for a triple and 40 for a home run. Pitchers earn four points for each out they record, but are docked 10 for every earned run they allow.
Team success is still important, though—all players on the winning team earn 50 points, plus 10 additional points for each inning in which they outscore their opponent. Players will also select three MVPs for each game, with the first MVP earning 60 additional points, the second 40 points, and the third 20 points.
"The culture of softball is very team-oriented, so I had a lot of questions about that," said Bandits catcher Gwen Svekis, who was one of the first players to commit to playing with Athletes Unlimited. "But many points are on the line based on team wins. I love the data they had collected and all the information they had (behind) the idea that they were developing."
Athletes Unlimited announced its formation on March 3, with its plan to "disrupt professional team sports." The league will feature several stars from National Pro Fastpitch, including Svekis, infielder Shelby Pendley and pitchers Haylie Wagner and Kelly Barnhill, plus seven U.S. national team members including Cat Osterman, Aubree Munro and Kelsey Stewart.
While the COVID-19 pandemic led Athletes Unlimited to play without fans and push back the start of the season by two weeks, the virus may end up having a net positive impact on the league. With the NPF season canceled and the Olympic softball tournament postponed to 2021, more top players were eager to play some kind of softball this year.
"This whole group of people, I’ve played against the majority of them, so it’s going to be awesome to have them on my team at some point," Wagner said. "The team aspect of it, that we have only a couple days to really come together and communicate, I think that’s going to be really important, and awesome to see how it plays out."
In addition to no fans being permitted at the ballpark, all players will be tested for the coronavirus before they arrive in Rosemont, as well as twice per week while there. All equipment will be sanitized and there will be no handshakes or celebrations. Players will be expected to practice social distancing whenever possible and wear masks when they are within six feet of each other.
Each of the four teams will play three games per week. Teams will have facilitators to help run practices and coach the bases, but the team captains function as the managers and will be responsible for making lineups. There will be no team owners, so the profits from the league will go to the players.
"I think it’s a welcome opportunity for our players," said NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf, a senior adviser for the league. "Everybody sees that and feels that, and knows that this is a real chance. So (COVID-19) has complicated everything for everyone, but I don’t think it has depleted the enthusiasm the players have for the opportunity."
Athletes Unlimited reached an agreement with CBS Sports and ESPN on June 30 to broadcast every game in the inaugural season. CBS Sports will televise seven games, with the remaining 23 broadcast on ESPN platforms.
And the organization sees softball as only a starting point. Athletes Unlimited will launch its first volleyball season in Nashville in February 2021, and hopes to start leagues in women’s ice hockey, lacrosse, basketball and soccer as well.
"It’s new, it’s exciting, it’s intriguing, and people are going to watch softball in a whole different light," Wagner said. "So being able to get us out there during a pandemic and on live TV, it’s going to be really impactful, for not just softball but women’s sports in general."