(Photo by Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited)
Back in March, basketball star NaLyssa Smith stood triumphant in the middle of the court, arms outstretched with a winner’s medal wrapped around her neck as confetti rained down from above. Usually, the Indiana Fever forward would be flanked by celebrating teammates, but on this occasion she was photographed alone.
It is one of several points of difference to be found in Athletes Unlimited (AU), a network of professional women’s sports leagues first conceptualised on Christmas Eve 2018 by co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros. After initially launching as a startup softball tournament in 2020, the organisation now also operates leagues across basketball, lacrosse and volleyball.
Rooted in the belief that modern fans follow individuals as much as they do teams, these are no traditional sports leagues. In each competition, rosters are redrafted every week and athletes are ranked based on both their own performance and team wins. The winner of each season isn’t the squad that has performed best, but rather the player who has accumulated the most points.
The world doesn’t need, in my opinion, another sports league. You really want to be able to understand what need you’re serving, what opportunity you’re filling.Jon Patricof, Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Athletes Unlimited
Off the field, AU claims to be pioneering a new capital structure called ‘Mission Equity’, which encourages investors to cap their profits and reinvest funds back into supporting the organisation’s stated aim of helping athletes become civic leaders and role models. In other words, league profits are split with the competitors, who also have a say in the way their competition is governed. Each sport is led by a player executive committee, which meets weekly to discuss everything from uniform designs and the on-site experience to athlete recruitment and scoring systems and rules.
Ultimately, AU is out to prove that women’s sports – historically undervalued yet at the same time not hamstrung by ageing traditions or a cluttered calendar – can be successful by doing things a different way.
“It’s always important to think about what problem you’re solving,” says Patricof, the former president of New York City FC, speaking exclusively to SportsPro. “The world doesn’t need, in my opinion, another sports league – just generally. I think you really want to be able to understand what need you’re serving, what opportunity you’re filling. And that was that was our goal and our interest.”
Patricof adds that AU was built with efficiency and scale in mind. Instead of running months-long seasons across different markets – a model that has proved challenging to execute successfully for other startup leagues in women’s and men’s sport – AU leagues take place in a single location across roughly five weeks.
That tournament-style format has enabled the organisation to scale by investing in the addition of different sports and growing its audience through broadcast, social and storytelling – as opposed to ticket sales and local marketing.
“When you’re out talking to major partners, whether that be broadcasters, corporate sponsors or others, we thought it was important that we were able to come forward with a scale that was significant and would be attractive and interesting to them,” notes Patricof, whose previous experience includes 11 years in executive roles at Tribeca Enterprises, where he was involved in what he describes as “rethinking the concept of what a film festival was”.
“On the efficiency side, we felt there was such an opportunity to create a short season located in one place,” he adds. “One of the things I’ve seen be a real struggle for other startup leagues that we investigated was real estate, finding venues, spending a lot of time on expansion, and not always being sure that you have the infrastructure to support that expansion in the proper way. So we thought that we could create a very efficient model by having these five-week intense seasons in one city.
“We’re basically able to run four leagues and put on 132 games a year with about half of the full-time staff as one soccer team would require in the NWSL.”
That model, coupled with AU’s mission to blend profit with purpose, has already proved popular with athletes, corporate partners, and investors. Patricof says “the number one KPI” for AU in its first two years of existence was creating “an amazing athlete experience”, which has contributed to the “vast majority” of competitors wanting to return the following season and “increasing demand” for the league’s limited slots. To date, more than 200 athletes have participated in its competitions.
After launching as a softball league, Athletes Unlimited now also runs tournaments across basketball, volleyball and lacrosse (Photos by Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited)
Alongside aforementioned 2023 basketball champion Smith, other Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) competitors such as Natasha Cloud, Allisha Gray and Jordin Canada have played in AU, which has provided another option closer to home for WNBA players during their offseason. The organisation’s softball, volleyball and lacrosse rosters are made up of Olympic medalists, record-holders, and world and national champions.
AU’s sponsorship portfolio, meanwhile, reads like that of a league that has been around for decades, rather than an organisation that ran its first tournament at the turn of this one. Its partners include Nike, Gatorade and Topps, whose deal led to the creation of the first women’s professional softball trading cards in its 82-year history.
We’re basically able to run four leagues and put on 132 games a year with about half of the full-time staff as one soccer team would require in the NWSL.Jon Patricof, Co-Founder and Chief Executive, Athletes Unlimited
The support of those partners is complemented by the expertise of a group of new investors who collectively committed US$30 million to AU in September last year. Among those to pledge funding were names at the nexus of sports and entertainment, including Kevin Durant’s 35 Ventures, David Blitzer, who owns the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, and Olympic gold medalist Angela Ruggiero, as well as film producer Sharon Harel-Cohen, Schusterman Family Investments and Jane Gottesman of Earlystone Management.
In a release announcing the funding, AU was keen to highlight the diversity of the investor group, emphasising that its vision is resonating further than sports business alone.
“Anyone that goes into pro sports or pro sports leagues recognises that it’s a long-term investment opportunity,” Patricof notes. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone go into any pro sports league that doesn’t have an understanding of the fact it takes years to build a profitable business. We’re in this for the long term, we’re building this as a long-term sustainable business.”
AU will use the funding to continue to invest in the four leagues it already runs and Patricof says an additional focus for him is to extend the cultural relevance of the sports in which the organisation is already present. The company’s national broadcast deals with the likes of ESPN and CBS will go some way towards helping achieve that target, but so too will a recently announced partnership with Boardwalk Pictures, which produced the hugely successful Welcome to Wrexham documentary.
Having unscripted, fly-on-the-wall programming is hardly a unique thing for a sports property in 2023, but AU’s condensed tournament format lends itself to the documentary genre, particularly because the athletes spend five weeks living together in market, sometimes bringing their families and even their pets. Film crews therefore don’t have to worry about athletes travelling during the season, which simplifies access to the players and creates more content and storytelling opportunities.
“12 yR oLDs caN Do THat” pic.twitter.com/f7n74cLkXT— Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports) June 29, 2023
Its partnership with Broadwalk was the latest example of AU’s willingness to be flexible with its media strategy to help broaden its reach. Another came ahead of its second basketball season this year, when the company agreed a deal for 25 of its 30 games to be broadcast on the WNBA League Pass streaming platform. That move also hinted at how AU sees itself existing alongside some of the more established leagues.
“A number of the [basketball] players play in both leagues,” Patricof says. “In some of our sports, like lacrosse, we’re the only pro league in the world, but in others, we’re going to be a complementary piece of the puzzle.
“What I always say is if you’re a fan of women’s basketball, you always want more women’s basketball, and there’s not enough of it right now. If you think about men’s soccer and you think about the sports that we’re operating in, we’re still so far away from that. But there’s so much demand for sports like volleyball, basketball, lacrosse and softball.
“It shouldn’t be seen as a zero-sum game. It should be seen as additive. If you’re a fan of those sports, you’re an athlete in those sports, what’s better than there being more opportunities and more ways for you to engage? We’re very excited to be very much a part of that ecosystem.”
The role AU plays in that ecosystem could evolve over time, especially if it continues to grow at its current rate. With four leagues under its umbrella already, Patricof (right) believes the organisation is “many years ahead” of where he expected it to be when launched. He also says that, unlike other sports properties, AU is able to innovate in a matter of weeks and months, rather than years.
Jon Patricof, co-founder and chief executive of Athletes Unlimited (Photo by Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited)
Part of that, Patricof adds, is because AU is running several seasons across different sports each year, which enables it to gather learnings that it can apply “very quickly”. Plus, the company’s organisational structure means that decision making is streamlined, because new proposals or ideas don’t have to go through a board of governors or subcommittees for approval.
As other startup leagues have found, however, innovation will only go so far. Eventually the numbers will need to add up. For Patricof, at least, it all comes back to scale and efficiency, which will continue to guide AU’s strategy as it looks to expand in the coming years.
If that expansion is successful, the organisation will have gone a long way to proving that there is a different way.
“There’s a lot of opportunities in the sports we’re operating in,” Patricof says. “But we’re always open to – and we’re always getting – people coming to us interested in bringing the AU model to new sports and to new territories.
“So I think people can expect to see the Athletes Unlimited network grow over the coming years. And that probably both involves more sports and expansion to other geographies.”
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