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New league attracts softball's best, gives power to players

Andrew Seligman
Associated Press

Chicago — Victoria Hayward would have been in Japan right about now, preparing for the Olympics as captain of Canada’s softball team.

The coronavirus pandemic pushed the Summer Games back a year. But she won’t have to wait too much longer to get back on the field.

Hayward is one of the 56 elite players signed to suit up when Athletes Unlimited launches the first of its professional women’s sports leagues in late August. The six-week season near Chicago is part of an innovative model made for the moment.

Canada's Victoria Hayward

“It’s really about the best players in the world, getting together being able to showcase their abilities, work with people they don’t necessarily always work with,” said the 28-year-old Hayward, an outfielder. “I think as a fan, it’s going to be super fun to see some former adversaries getting to team up together. It’s great camaraderie. It’s high energy. The stakes are high. Every game matters.”

All 30 games will be broadcast live, with 23 on ESPN and seven on the CBS Sports Network, and will be available in Canada and Latin America as well as the United States. Fans who tune in will see an impressive list of participants that includes top professionals and Olympic medalists such as Cat Osterman.

The game will look the same at least between the lines. But outside them? Things take a different turn.

Athletes Unlimited gives players a big say in decisions the league makes, whether it’s the uniform colors or TV deals. There are no team owners or general managers, and investors are limiting their returns. Players get to share in the profits, in addition to at least $10,000 guaranteed, plus bonus money.

“They’re amazing athletes,” said Jon Patricof, co-founder and CEO of Athletes Unlimited. “They have huge fan bases at the college level and that there’s really untapped opportunity. At the same time, we thought that if you’re going to launch a league of any sort, whether it’s a men’s or women’s sport, you really have to innovate and think differently about where fandom is heading. And out of that came our model.”

There will be no travel, with all games in suburban Rosemont. And forget about crowning a team champion. Instead, the title will go to the individual with the most points based on a fantasy-type system. A single, for example will be 10 points. A double will bring in 20 and a victory 50. Players can also lose points.

Team rosters will change each week, too: At the end of the week, the top four players by points become captains and draft teams.

Broadcasts will show standings in real time, and players and umpires will wear microphones during the game.

“A lot of what we’re trying to do is bring in onscreen graphics, miking up of players,” Patricof said. “(There are) great enhancements that are going to elevate the broadcast to a really strong level.”

A businessman and former president of Major League Soccer’s New York City FC, Patricof and fellow founder Jonathan Soros started developing Athletes Unlimited about a year ago. They envisioned a network of sports leagues that followed a sort of fantasy-based model focused on athletes rather than teams in a short and intense season. They plan to launch women’s volleyball in February and have their sights set on other sports.

A big point of emphasis for Athletes Unlimited is building the players’ brand. They’ve been getting help from a star-laden advisory board that includes Kevin Durant, Abby Wambach and Jessica Mendoza.

Don’t expect to see fans in the stands once the season opens Aug. 30. The pandemic shutdown began before tickets went on sale and the seats will remain empty.

Players will be tested frequently for the virus. Some will stay at a hotel in a Rosemont with others in corporate housing, though it’s not clear if they will be in an NBA-style bubble or be allowed to go out on their own.

Hayward is simply looking forward to playing again after having her Olympic hopes delayed.

“This is just an amazing opportunity to help me prepare and be even better when the time comes next year,” she said. “Although it’s not ideal, I’m really looking forward to playing against some of these people I’ve been competing with all my life.”