You say fantasy sports like it is a bad thing. But Athletes Unlimited, an innovative women’s sports league platform, begs to differ. In fact, what sets the organization apart is its business model, which differs from many others: There are no hard-and-fast teams, just elite women in their sport, so that makes it a disruptor as well.
In fact, each week, the top athletes draft their teams from scratch for following week’s games. Fan engagement is key as those joining the league as members can also make their picks and enjoy other perks related to the management of the leagues.
So how did something like this come about? While the website has the full story regarding the history of the organization, here are the specifics of how it works:
Athletes Unlimited uses a player-centric model to create and sustain its leagues. The new platform relies heavily on fan engagement. The sports themselves have not changed, but the scoring system recognizes both team and individual play.
Each sport’s season is six weeks long, with intense game play in one designated city. The games are faster, and individual players score points to move up and down the leaderboard – in a manner akin to fantasy leagues.
Four players are initially selected via lottery to serve as team captains for the opening week. They then choose their players in a draft and earn points for their performances in three games over each weekend of play. After the weekend, the top four players based on those points will be promoted to captains and conduct a new draft to create four entirely new teams for the following week. At the end of the season, the player leading in the standings is crowned Athletes Unlimited Champion. (You can see season results by clicking here on the volleyball season page).
One of the league’s founders, Jon Patricof, told reporters at the Baltimore Sun that the program works because it harnesses what people want to see; he uses the sport of lacrosse as an example.
“One of the insights is that younger fans are following players more than they’re following teams,” he said. “What we know is that so many of these players that are coming to our league have built incredible followings from their college days and are very involved in the lacrosse community. We really believe the fans will tune in to watch them and how they compete as opposed to coming up and creating teams and brands out of thin air. Our belief is to lead into the players themselves. It also makes it really exciting for fans because the leader board is constantly moving up and down.”
And, he added, it also resonates with the players. Players share in 50 percent of the profits and are involved in decision-making regarding potential recruits, game formats and point scoring.
“There have been top-down endeavors where it’s usually the owners or commissioners who make the rules and then bring the players on afterward,” Patricof said. “For us, it’s exactly the opposite. We start with the players and work with them to design the league from the ground-up.”
So far, it seems to be working. The inaugural Softball (2020) and Volleyball (2021) seasons were successful and the new league program in Lacrosse debuted at the Maryland SoccerPlex and tickets are currently selling at this link.
On August 28, Softball returns to the Parkway Bank Complex in Rosemont, Illinois. A schedule can be found here. (The Athletes Unlimited Volleyball season took place at the Fair Park Coliseum in Dallas, Texas; a venue has not yet been decided upon for the next season).
Another part of the league is fan involvement. By joining the league (different levels of memberships are available at varying price points), fans are able to vote on MVPs, ask team captains questions during post-game interviews and buy members-only merch.
Games are live streamed (an example can be found at this link). Because of COVID, Athletes Unlimited did not host any in-stadium fans or sell any concessions for the 2021 Volleyball season. (A full list of the health and safety protocols followed is here).
Athletes Unlimited’ s newest league is lacrosse. That season, which will take place in front of live spectators at the Maryland SoccerPlex, began on July 23 and runs until August 22. A limited number of day passes is available, and each match day consists of two games with a short break in between. Games will also be live streamed.
Athletes Unlimited, which aims for a casual, festival-like atmosphere, will have a DJ on-site at the SoccerPlex, and will host concourse activities and in-stadium promotions and contests. Seating is not assigned, and spots are available on a first come/first served basis. There will be seating available in the stands, tables along the promenade, and space for picnic blankets on the grass section of the lacrosse pitch.
The Baltimore Sun article also notes that broadcast partners for lacrosse have yet to be announced, but Patricof pointed out that 23 games of softball’s 30-game season aired on ESPN and the other seven on CBS and volleyball was broadcast by Fox and CBS.
The fantasy sports element is a good bet, if statistics are to be believed. A market study by John Zogby Strategies discovered a large untapped market for women in fantasy sports.
"Based on the study, we can realistically project that women will make up nearly half of our members, similar to the fan base of the NFL, NBA and MLB," said Hank Werronen, Co-Founder and President of Wild Card Sports.
"Women now comprise 18% of the estimated 60 million fantasy players,” he added, and later noted that overall, fantasy gaming, like all sports, has treated women as second-class athletes.
It may be that the Athletes Unlimited model can help unlock the demographic.