2020 was supposed to be a big year for softball — a year when the popular sport could actually hope to claim some of the spotlight, thanks to its return to the Olympics (where the U.S. has historically dominated) after more than a decade’s absence. Then, obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed not only those games, but both a very promising NCAA season and a professional season planned to capitalize on that Olympic momentum. The world’s best softball players were left without an outlet for their skills — save Athletes Unlimited, a brand-new, almost tournament-style league meant to fuel the popularity of women’s sports by marrying them to fantasy-style scoring.
It wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice. “I really hadn’t thought about it until March, when the Olympics got postponed,” says Cat Osterman, an Olympic gold medalist who had planned to retire after the 2020 games. She was pitched (no pun intended) on the league’s concept — six-week season, teams that were redrafted weekly based on cumulative individual scoring for things like steals, outs and (of course) runs — prior to the start of the pandemic, and was skeptical. But then almost every outlet for top-tier softball dissolved, and the AU administration put forth plans for a bubble-style set-up (called “The Shield”) in Rosemont, Illinois to keep players safe.
“Once I heard all the ins and outs, it seemed like such an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass it up,” Osterman says. She wound up winning the Athletes Unlimited season, and plans to play in the Olympics next year (if they continue as scheduled).
The Athletes Unlimited premise warrants some skepticism: founded by Jon Patricof, who previously ran the MLS’s NYCFC, and Jonathan Soros, an investment banker (and son of George Soros), its concept — to create a whole new model for professional sports — has some of the “disruptor” sentiment that has led to so many redundant and exploitative Silicon Valley-bred ventures.
Yet women’s professional sports — and frankly professional sports as a whole — could use some disruption, and at least after this first season, Athletes Unlimited seems to have lived up to its promise (and name), doing away with most trappings of professional leagues in favor of centering the athletes themselves.
The league has no owners, and no coaches; instead the players coach, and have the opportunity to get equity in the league. The AU base pay in 2020 was $9,000 for six weeks, and they earned bonuses based on performance for a guaranteed minimum of at least $10,000; in the NPF, in contrast, players are paid $5,000 for three months. Plus, the league matched half their bonuses in charitable donations to causes of their choice — something that meant a lot to Osterman, who sits on the board of RBI Austin, an organization devoted to making baseball and softball accessible to economically-disadvantaged youth.
“I’m a pro athlete, but not on that monetary level of getting multi-million contracts,” she says. “I think for the first time, a lot of us felt like we might be able to monetarily help an organization that’s important to us.”
That compensation helped attract some of the best players in the world, representing several different national teams — and created a glut of offense, with homers and grand slams happening regularly (the score of the last game of the season, which Osterman’s team won, was 18-3). In short, by all accounts it was fun (and more importantly, safe) for the players, and fun to watch — contracts with ESPN and CBS Sports made games, if not easy to watch, at least nationally accessible, and the league even partnered with DraftKings for a free-to-enter pool. In short, almost every detail, from the production quality of the games (which was excellent) to the availability of merchandise and opportunities for fan engagement, was addressed in exactly the ways women’s sports fans have asked for for decades.
“They definitely did not cut corners,” says Kelsey Stewart, a member of Team USA who’s played for a number of different pro teams since she was drafted by the USSSA Pride in 2016. “If anything, they went above and beyond. It was definitely the best experience I’ve had playing professionally — I felt like a true professional the entire time I was there.”
It’s hard to sell professional softball in America, and not just because people haven’t tried. National Pro Fastpitch, the most established domestic league, has just five teams after 16 seasons; some of the country’s most successful pro teams have gone independent, while other teams have folded altogether. Players can find slightly more stability internationally, but there’s not a large enough market that many seek overseas employment (the way women basketball players often do, for example).
The idea that softball is just “lesser baseball” or the stuff of beer leagues persists in the minds of many members of the sports-consuming public; add that to the general prejudice against women’s professional sports (and reluctance by investors to play the long game with their leagues), and the uphill battle facing softball’s best athletes becomes obvious.
“With the pro league, it’s often just up in the air,” Stewart adds. “There’s never any sense of stability. It was always kind of like, ‘I hope that we’ll be able to do this again next year.’”
Athletes Unlimited seems like a potentially great supplement to the pro softball calendar; the league is working in conjunction with NPF, not against it, and given that it has already confirmed a 2021 season (also to be held in Rosemont), it will likely also schedule around the Olympics. The league is also sponsoring a pro volleyball season in Nashville next February, trying to capitalize on another sport that is enormously popular at the college level but has never taken off professionally.
The question is if the league founders — and the national sponsors, like Geico and Carvana, that they were able to secure — will have the patience to wait for their new, athlete-centric model to bear fruit, or if, like so many leagues and teams before them, they’ll ultimately leave the players to start all over again. For now it’s genuinely inventive, promising, and almost entirely ethical and fair — a rare combination in professional sports.
“I don’t know that I would change a whole lot,” Osterman concludes of what the league might do differently going forward. “I really thought that this was some of the best softball, and the most consistent environment that I’ve ever been able to play in.”