As Jon Patricof looked across the sports industry for investment opportunities, he quickly saw a sector with growth potential: women’s professional sports.
“Women’s professional sports is an untapped opportunity – it’s a place where these amazing athletes aren’t truly recognized for the value they create,” Patricof said.
The former president of NYCFC, Patricof was also the former COO and president of Tribeca Enterprises, which operates the Tribeca Film Festival. Working with financier Jonathan Soros, the two started to look at investing in teams in the NWSL and WNBA.
But as they looked further into the existing women’s professional sports space, a different investment path seemed to emerge.
“We felt there was a need for a new and different model, one that would be well-suited for where fans are headed,” he said.
That led to starting Athletes Unlimited, which will look to launch three different women’s professional sports leagues, starting with softball in August.
To raise the stakes for competing athletes and to heighten fan interest and engagement, Athletes Unlimited leagues will employ a fantasy sports approach to scoring. Individual athletes will earn points each week not only for being on the team that wins but also for their individual performance. There will be a player leaderboard, and the top four players will serve as captains, drafting new teams each week.
“This format tests really well with fans – especially for those that go beyond the traditional fans of the sport,” said Patricof, co-founder and CEO of Athletes Unlimited. “It’s like fantasy sports come to life, and every play counts.”
Soros, the other co-founder, will lead the company’s investment group.
Athletes Unlimited will also look to shake up the traditional league model off the field as well by eliminating team ownership and capping the returns to investors. Instead, more of the profits will go back to the players themselves as the league finds success. Players will also be directly involved in the company’s governance and decision-making process.
“Female professional sports are generally just mirrored on what other men’s leagues are doing – the WNBA to the NBA,” said Victoria Hayward, a professional softball player and the captain of the Canadian Senior National team. “What sold me on this was that it was transitioning away from ‘pink it and shrink it’ and doing something completely different to cater to a new era of fans.”
Hayward, who is one of 21 of the sport’s top players signed on to participate and also serves on the player advisory board, said the fact that Athletes Unlimited aimed not only to bring the athletes to the table but also have them share in the league’s success was “extremely empowering.”
“Empowerment goes beyond profit-sharing – having a group of softball players in the room, making decisions, and helping craft the league and determine where we want this to go? With that kind of investment, you’re more inclined to help push it forward,” she said. “It adds a layer of responsibility, but it allows us to really receive the fruit of what we’re bearing.”
Hayward said that while it is important that the game on the field “maintains the traditional game,” incorporating more data, metrics, and storytelling into softball will offer something “captivating to all parts of our audience.”
Athletes Unlimited will be providing more than $1 million in compensation to the 56 athletes that participate in the softball league, which is scheduled to be a six-week season held in Rosemont, Illinois from August 17 to September 27. Players will be able to earn up to $35,000 with salary and bonuses, with a minimum of $10,000.
The league has a heavy bonus structure as well, with players earning based on the end of season statistics as well as for end of game and end of each individual inning.
There will also be a profit-sharing plan, which will not only give these inaugural players a piece of this current-year profits the league makes but also for future years as well – even if they’re no longer performing.
Athletes Unlimited will offer professional development resources to help players expand their career opportunities, and plans to engage a number of non-profit partners.
Patricof said that Athletes Unlimited would look to drive revenue primarily from its media rights and digital content, as well as other traditional revenue lines like sponsorships and merchandise. He noted that given the fantasy sports-style scoring, there would be opportunities around casual gaming and gamification, which the company will launch.
The company is currently in discussions with potential media partners, and announcements on that front should be expected in the coming weeks, he said, declining to comment further.
There will be a heightened investment in digital storytelling. Games will be played in a single venue, and the players will be housed in Rosemont for the duration of the league with training facilities also providing ample opportunities for content creation.
“We have a special opportunity to help develop brands for these women individually and help get their stories out there,” said Anya Alvarez, the head of content for Athletes Unlimited. “The athletes themselves will lead the charge on what content we should post and what will connect with their fans – there is such a white space to have fans connect with them on a deeper level.”
While there is an existing professional softball league – National Pro Fastpitch – Patricof said that Athletes Unlimited has no intention to replace it and has spoken in-depth with NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf, who is also serving as an active advisor to the company. There is no cross-over between the two league’s schedules.
“The growth of softball in the U.S. is what steered us to this sport when we looked at where the biggest opportunity was,” he said. “You see the power of the sport at the collegiate level, and there is an appetite at the pro level – we think this gives the athletes an additional opportunity to play more and make more.”
Beyond softball, Patricof said Athletes Unlimited has plans to launch two additional leagues. He declined to provide more detail on what sports that be, outside of saying that the company is “looking at sports where there are existing opportunities for athletes either in the U.S. or abroad – we’re not focused on going into sports where there isn’t a pro league.”
Athletes Unlimited is aiming to announce its next league in the coming weeks, with a plan to launch it in 2021. A third sport will also be lined up in 2020 with a later launch date, and both will follow the same short-season format.
Asked about the funding for the business, Patricof said Soros is leading the investor group, and the company is “committed to three sports and creating a successful platform.” He declined to comment on how much money has been committed to launching Athletes Unlimited.
“When I look at softball, the power of the women that play the sport, and the passion of the fans, we think the time is right,” he said.