Behind the unorthodox approach of a new women’s pro sports league
Imagine a pro sports league with no owners, no city-based teams and a scoring system that borrows a page from fantasy leagues. Those are some of the founding principles of Athletes Unlimited, an organization founded last year that runs leagues in softball, volleyball, and soon, lacrosse.
The organization is the brainchild of Jon Patricof, the former president of Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club; and Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire George Soros. Patricof joins the latest edition of the “Marketer’s Brief” podcast to explain the theory behind Athletes Unlimited, as well as its marketing approach.
The goal is to create a structure where players are making all the key decisions, rather than give that power to a commissioner or team owners. The philosophy extends into marketing, where the upstart leagues put an emphasis on empowering players to share their stories via social media, capitalizing on the large followings many of them developed during collegiate competition.
“What we have seen with a lot of new startup leagues is this idea that overnight you launch eight teams in various markets, and you assume fans are just going to attach to this team because it is from in the city you live in, when the reality is there are already 12 or 13 pro teams in the market,” Patricof says. “The power of individual athletes has grown and [that] is what is connecting [to] fans. And that is not just for what happens on the field, it is for what happens off the field. And what happens off the field is a very big part of fandom today, and it is something that we have leaned into heavily.”
In a nutshell, the leagues work this way:
Each 5-week season takes place in a single location. (Softball is played in a Chicago suburb, for instance.)
Athletes earn points that are partially based on individual play. The top point earners become team captains every week and select their teams for the following week. An individual champion is crowned at the end of the season based on total points earned.
League-wide decisions are made by a player executive committee that meets weekly.
Investors put a cap on their returns and agreed to share profits with players, plus donate a portion to charity.
The minimum player salary for six weeks is $10,000 and can go as high as approximately $40,000.
On the podcast, Patricof explains how he came up with the ideas behind the league, a process that began during a Christmas Eve lunch he had with Soros in 2018. Patricof—whose resume includes an 11-year stint as president of Tribeca Enterprises, the owner and operator of the Tribeca Film Festival—originally set out to get involved with established women’s leagues, but Soros steered him in a different direction.
“Jonathan was really the one on that Christmas Eve lunch said why don’t you not think about going into the existing leagues, why don’t you actually go and think about creating something different that is focused on where fans are going, not dealing with other team owners and commissioners and all the complexity, let’s just go build something together,” says Patricof, who serves as the organization’s CEO.
Athletes Unlimited has TV deals in place with major networks. The lacrosse league recently announced that CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports would carry a portion of its games, for instance. Patricof also relies on corporate sponsorships from companies including Geico and Guaranteed Rate. Nike recently signed on as uniform supplier for the lacrosse league, which will be played at Hendricks Field in the Washington, D.C., metro area from July 23-August 22.
The organization’s marketing strategy involves plenty of digital content that focuses on individual players. That includes an animated series called “Every Moment Counts” that is sponsored by Mariner Wealth Advisors. Below, a look at one of the episodes.