Imagine a sports league where players call the shots. No out-of-touch three- or four-letter organization telling athletes what they can and can’t do, where to go or how to play. No bureaucracy; just sports.
No flashing lights or Lonely Island-inspired draft spectacles.
Athletes Unlimited is a promising new sports league set to launch in August — should COVID-19 allow. It looks to change the landscape of professional sports.
First on the agenda is softball in Chicago. Fifty-six players will form four teams for a six-week season in which each team plays three games a week. Here’s where things get interesting: Each week the rosters change. The top players become captains and draft 14 athletes — playing for teams christened by their captain’s last name. No coaches, GMs or commissioners; just players playing the game.
Former Gators softball pitcher Kelly Barnhill, one of 14 players already committed to participate in the league’s inaugural season, thinks “Team Barnhill” has a nice ring to it.
“When I first heard about the league I was walking the streets in Australia,” the former All-American said. “I got a call about it...and it sounded like something I really wanted to be a part of. Athletes Unlimited seems like it’s such a great opportunity to grow our game.”
Barnhill was drawn to Athletes Unlimited because it meant an additional opportunity for softball players to showcase their talents in the professional realm and inspire young women to pursue sports as they extend beyond college.
“A lot of people don’t even know that we play pro softball,” Barnhill said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, what do you do?’ ‘I’m a pro softball player,’ they’re like, ‘What?’”
When Athletes Unlimited kicks off in August, there will be two professional softball leagues in the U.S.: Athletes Unlimited and National Pro Fastpitch. Barnhill also participates in the NPF as a member of the Chicago Bandits. Because Athletes Unlimited’s season lasts only six weeks and is strategically set during NPF’s offseason, professional softball players can do both. This way, they can continue to make money playing the sport they love, rather than taking on a slew of side jobs to make ends meet.
Athletes Unlimited’s score-keeping tactics are uniquely tailored to tracking statistics and providing cash incentives for individual stat leaders as well. While a W in the win-loss column is the heaviest weighted ranking factor, it’s not the only element.
The four individual stat leaders each week, which then become team captains and have control over rosters, are determined by the following: team wins, MVP voting (which is voted on by the players weekly) and then individual statistics, co-founder Jon Patricof said.
For Barnhill and other pitchers in the league, outs recorded and runs allowed will be added up, with plus four and minus 10 points, respectively. For offensive players, each additional base is worth 10 points, with home runs counting for 40. Stolen bases mean plus 10, but if you’re caught, it’s minus 10 points.
So while base salaries range from $10,000 to $35,000, stat leaders can earn cash bonuses at the conclusion of the season. With no championship or playoff games, Patricof explained that whoever has the highest stats at the end of the year “wins.”
Pretty cool, right? More emphasis on the individual in the eyes of the game and modern day fan bases.
The introductory class of Athletes Unlimited’s softball league will own stake in the league’s future profits. Patricof told Softball America the profit sharing plan “recognize(s) 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.”
After a little over half of a semester covering sports at the NCAA level, the amount of athlete control in Athletes Unlimited is refreshing to say the least.
The two main sources of revenue for the league will be memorabilia and broadcast deals. The games will be played at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois, according to a release. Its capacity is only 2,000, so broadcast deals, which Patricof said will be announced in the coming days, will be important in building a loyal following during the first season.
The success of Athletes Unlimited’s softball league would prompt expansion to other often overlooked women’s sports like lacrosse, hockey and volleyball, based on its promotional video. However, Patricof only confirmed that those were sports on Athletes Unlimited’s radar, not necessarily next in line for 2021.
Depending on its luck with women’s sports, Patricof said he could see the league taking the same shortened, faster-paced structure to men’s sports as well.
Once this impromptu sports hiatus is over, you can bet I’ll be all in on Athletes Unlimited, scanning for whatever TV channel ends up broadcasting the games while decked out in whatever merchandise they’ve put on the market.
A sports league for athletes, by athletes without all the postseason hullabaloo that usually comes with it? Where do I sign?