A new professional softball league that promises more than $1 million in compensation, long-term profit participation for players and a redesigned scoring system plans to launch in August.
Co-founded by Jon Patricof, former president of NYCFC in Major League Soccer, and Jonathan Soros, Athletes Unlimited hopes to succeed where other pro softball ventures have stalled in turning the sport's growing popularity at the youth and college levels into a profitable pro model.
"People look at starting new leagues, you really have to be disruptive," Patricof told ESPN. "You really have to think differently. So our goal was not to replicate the model that's used in other pro leagues and really think differently about how we can create something that engages younger and different fans and broadens the entry point for people into the sport."
Rather than a traditional multivenue league format, Athletes Unlimited will begin play in August with all four teams based in Rosemont, Illinois, part of the Chicago metropolitan area.
The softball-only Ballpark at Rosemont is already home to the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch, the summer league entering its 17th season in 2020. Many of the players already committed to Athletes Unlimited are also under contract with the Bandits, including former University of Florida All-American and USA Softball pitcher Kelly Barnhill and all-NPF catcher Gwen Svekis.
According to Patricof, Athletes Unlimited has a formal working arrangement with the league, with NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf acting as a senior adviser. Their seasons will not coincide.
Each of the four Athletes Unlimited teams will play three games per week. Teams will be redrafted each week by the four players who accumulated the most points in the previous week, with those points determined according to a new individual scoring system that rewards both team performance and individual achievements.
Patricof said he would reveal the exact details of the scoring system later this week during a presentation at the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He estimated about 70% of a player's score would come from her team winning games and innings, 10% would come from being selected one of three game MVPs by fellow players and the other 20% from individual performance.
"We really believe strongly that fans are increasingly following players over teams," Patricof said. "So there is this opportunity to really take advantage of that aspect and how you rethink a pro league where the athletes themselves are put front and center and where you give fans the opportunity to engage and track athlete performance in a new way."
Svekis is part of a four-player advisory board, along with Canadian Olympian Victoria Hayward, Jade Rhodes and Haylie Wagner, who have met with the co-founders each week since October. They helped the co-founders shape the scoring system, among other things.
"It's got to be one of the first time where us players have been involved since almost the inception of the idea," Svekis said.
Patricof said players would receive minimum base compensation of $10,000 for the six-week season, including five weeks of games. Bonuses for team and individual performance could take that to $35,000. The average NPF salary is below $10,000 for a roughly three-month season. For a pool of 56 players in Athletes Unlimited, the total available compensation is beyond $1 million.
Athletes Unlimited players will also receive profit participation for 20 years, which means a player who participates in 2020 will receive a share of any profits generated through 2040 (or 2041 for a player who enters the league in 2021, etc.). The intent is to reward players who help build the property, understanding profitability is unlikely initially.
"It's exciting to be involved in it and to see the growth of people like Jon and Jonathan wanting to invest in women's sports," Svekis said. "It gives us the opportunity to make a livable wage and reap the benefits for years to come. Obviously we don't know how it's going to be Year 1, but hopefully Year 20, we'll be still reaping the successes of all those athletes who are pushing the game even further."
There are 14 players currently committed to the league. No formal relationship exists with USA Softball, although Patricof said he had been in touch with the organization responsible for the team that will participate in this summer's Olympics.
Patricof declined to comment on distribution plans for league's games on television or streaming platforms but said the league hoped to make an announcement in the coming weeks. The league also declined to name any corporate sponsorship agreements at launch.
Athletes Unlimited intends to add additional pro sports ventures utilizing similar models. Those could include both men's and women's sports, although Patricof said there was an emphasis on what he and Soros identified as the growth potential of women's sports.