Letter of Recommendation: Athletes Unlimited Softball

The unorthodox league has created a fun product while giving some of the world’s best softball players a platform.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Sometimes, especially for those of us who work in and around women’s sports, it feels impossible to really celebrate… anything. Every victory is tied to some kind of caveat, every sign of growth attached to the knowledge that that growth could be so much bigger if girl and women athletes simply had the resources and attention they deserve — if the general dismissiveness of the people who are powerful enough to make women’s sports equal but don’t weren’t so glaringly obvious.

That’s one reason why watching a game of Athletes Unlimited Softball, which is in the fourth week of its five-week season, feels so refreshing. I’ve written about the league in this space before, but at that point it was still new — watching the second season of competition has been a welcome vindication of my early optimism. 

First of all, there is a second season, as well as more sports (volleyball and lacrosse) using the same model. Yes, it’s early. But the investors haven’t started cutting corners, in spite of the fact that the league launched in the middle of the global pandemic we’re still clearly dealing with. It’s obvious when watching that if anything, the people managing the league have learned from their first season and made improvements to the broadcast experience with the understanding that since all Athletes Unlimited games are in one location (in the case of softball, Rosemont, Illinois), the broadcast is key. 

The overall investment, without ominous public warnings about profit margins or self-aggrandizing proclamations of how benevolent anyone must be who would deign to try to make money off women’s sports, comes through in the product. The players genuinely look like they’re having a blast — even with stiff competition, there’s no over-seriousness. 

athletes unlimited softball fan appreciation

Mostly, the games are just fun to watch. The commentary is dynamic, the replays are effective and frequent and plenty of different camera angles showcase just how spectacular these athletes are. It’s lightyears ahead of the production of, for example, the softball competition at the most recent Olympics, and on par with ESPN’s Women’s College World Series broadcasts — which makes it substantially better than most of the regular season games that they make available. Those WCWS broadcasts are watched by, on average, over a million people each. A lot of them would probably really enjoy seeing the college stars they love playing at the next level.

Playing within the Athletes Unlimited model, which reimagines team sports as individual ones, the athletes are able to try to compensate for the way most sports media ignore them altogether. Very few people know that there have been organizations working to make professional softball a thing for years, and softball players are written off accordingly.

athletes unlimited softball cards

Now, their names and backstories are being shared on FS2 and CBS Sports Network — real TV channels, not just YouTube streams or Facebook Lives. It’s a stepping stone to changing the nature of the sport altogether — making people take softball seriously as an athletic endeavor, not just some second-tier baseball. Watching the way these incredible athletes’ abilities are being presented by Athletes Unlimited inspires real optimism about the future of women’s sports. We can’t totally escape the asterisk, though: the investments they’ve made so far have to continue.

But I know, at least, that I’ll be watching in the meantime and feeling a little more hopeful as a result.

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