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Athletes Unlimited To Offer Pro Softball 'Real Opportunity To Grow'

(Photo courtesy of Athletes Unlimited)

It was announced on Tuesday that a new women's professional sports venture, called Athletes Unlimited, would kick off with softball this August and offer players an opportunity to earn roughly $35,000 in its inaugural season.

Co-founded by Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, Athletes Unlimited will operate within a unique model that eliminates team owners, general managers and the traditional fixed-team format. Its inaugural six-week softball season will be held at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Ill. and start on Aug. 17.

"We think there is a real opportunity to grow the game at the pro level," Patricof told Softball America in a phone interview. "We are taking place after the conclusion of the NPF season, so players who play in the NPF can play throughout the season there and then join Athletes Unlimited for six weeks. Our goal as an organization is to collaborate throughout the softball community."

Several professional softball players have already signed on to compete in the league this year, including A.J. Andrews, Kelly Barnhill, Kylan Becker, Caleigh Clifton, Emily Crane, Sara Groenewegen, Victoria Hayward, Abby Ramirez, Jade Rhodes, Randi Rupp, DJ Sanders, Samantha Show, Gwen Svekis and Haylie Wagner.

"We’re really excited for the opportunity for athletes to make more income, play and for fans to engage with the best, top-quality softball," added Patricof, who also indicated that the second sport within the Athletes Unlimited family will be announced later this spring. "This is huge for women in sports and huge for softball to be the inaugural sport to kick off Athletes Unlimited."

See below for the full interview that took place between Softball America and Athletes Unlimited representatives.

Softball America: When you were first approached with the idea for this new venture, what were your initial reactions?

Gwen Svekis: I was approached in October by (NPF Commissioner) Cheri (Kempf). I love innovation, I love the cutting edge, so I was bought in pretty much from the beginning. So I went out to New York and met the team we had assembled, and Jon and Jonathan and got to talking about their idea. They want the players to be so involved every step of the way and to have our future in our hands and have another opportunity to play in the U.S. and make more money playing the game we love.

SA: Why do you think this is an appealing option for women athletes?

GS: I don’t think it’s a secret that women’s sports aren’t at the level of men’s sports in terms of the way that we’re represented and the way that we get to make money for playing our game. I’m very aware of the realities of that and basic economics, so it’s exciting to be a part of a league that wants to invest in the future of women’s sports, and we’re lucky enough that softball is the inaugural sport. I’m just excited for the next generation to hopefully be able to dream of being a pro athlete from the time they are growing up.

SA: As someone with experience in professional softball, how do you foresee softball fans responding to this new league?

GS: I think it goes back to the research that’s been done behind these ideas, and what we’ve found is that fans, nowadays, are more interested in individual athletes, rather than teams as a whole. I think this is a really unique opportunity to have one location where we’re putting 56 of the best softball players in one spot. It’s just going to be good softball, so I can’t imagine softball fans being anything but excited for this venture.

SA: How long has Athletes Unlimited been in the works?

Jon Patricof: We started about 10 months ago on the planning directly for Athletes Unlimited. There was a period of time even before that when Jonathan Soros and I were looking at opportunities in women’s professional sports and we thought about potentially getting involved in some of the existing leagues that are out there. Ultimately, we really thought there was a need for a new and different model, and we decided the time was right.

SA: Why women’s sports and why now?

JP: We looked very broadly at the sports landscape and we just think there is a big market opportunity on the women’s professional sports side. And we think it’s a place where athletes still aren’t recognized for the value that they create and the amazing athletes that they are. We really see an untapped opportunity. We think that there is a big fanbase and no question that there is demand for the sport, so we think there’s an opportunity to do more at the pro level.

SA: Why did the team behind this project decide to create an entirely new league instead of attempting to reinvigorate the American professional softball league that already exists?

JP: We came up with the idea for Athletes Unlimited by ourselves, Jonathan and myself. We were working on it and thinking about what sports we might want to pursue. Softball was one that we identified and we reached out to Cheri (Kempf) and Cheri’s view was that it was a great opportunity to grow the pro sport and create an additional opportunity for athletes. We have a lot of conviction and focus around our particular model, and our particular model is just different from the model that exists in the NPF, or, quite frankly, any pro league in any sport, whether it be men’s or women’s.

SA: What will the salaries look like for the women athletes involved in this league?

JP: The minimum compensation will be $10,000 for the six-week season, with that moving all the way up to approximately $35,000 on the high-end. There will be over $1 million of compensation across the 56 athletes. Players will get a base compensation, and then they will have bonuses that they are able to earn, based on performance. There is also a profit-sharing plan, which allows players to share in the current-year profits and 19 years into the future. We recognize that the 2020 players are pioneers and that they are building value that will ultimately accrue to the league over the long-term, so they are going to share in that.

SA: What do you foresee the growth and expansion opportunities for a league like this to be?

JP: With Athletes Unlimited, we really believe in the shortened-season model. We believe in bringing together a group of the world’s best players. I think, over time, it’s certainly possible that the number of players could increase. It’s certainly possible that the length of the season could marginally increase. The model is something we believe in, but we’re always going to be open-minded to change and to adapting.

SA: Where does the league foresee its revenue coming from?

JP: It should follow the model of a traditional sports league, so through sponsorships, broadcast, digital revenues, merchandise and ticket sales.

SA: Are there any broadcast deals currently in the works?

JP: There are broadcast deals currently in the works, and we’ll be making an announcement in the coming weeks on that.

odicci alexander photo by jade hewitt.jpg

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