Innovative women’s softball league puts the individual ahead of the team

Victoria Hayward has played at softball’s highest levels for more than a decade. But it wasn’t until March, when she joined Athletes Unlimited, that the 28-year-old Toronto native began to see what the future of her sport, and professional sports in general, could look like.

Hayward, who joined the Canadian national team as a 16-year-old, will be among 56 of the best women’s softball players in the world when Athletes Unlimited launches its inaugural season in suburban Chicago in August. The league is unique in structure and fan engagement, with a fantasy-style points system that is focused on the players rather than the teams and a six-week season in one city.

“When I was approached by Athletes Unlimited, I was excited about the prospect of doing something different,” Hayward said. “It’s a completely new concept … it’s based on strong market research, strong management and a business plan, and it allows the league to be what the athletes want it to be.”

It’s the brainchild of Jon Patricof — former president of MLS club New York City FC and Tribeca Enterprises, operators of the Tribeca Film Festival in New York — and Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire George Soros.

Patricof and Soros see an opportunity in pushing women’s sports, and could expand to some men’s sports. They are starting with softball in mid-August, followed by volleyball — two sports that are popular at the collegiate and high school levels in the U.S. The leagues will control costs by being in one city, and Athletes Unlimited plans to be aggressive on social media. Patricof says there are plans to have all 30 softball games televised.

But the guiding principle behind the softball league and Athletes Unlimited is the focus on the athletes. They will accumulate points based on their performance — hits, homers, stolen bases and more — and the performance of their team. And they will change teams every week, with four captains selecting new rosters.

All 56 players will stay in the same hotel, the league will provide health care, and there will be a medical team on hand to ensure COVID-19 guidelines are met. With the current restrictions, the inaugural softball season will be played without fans in the stands of the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Ill.

Hayward, who is part of the players’ committee, said that presented another opportunity for fan engagement. There are plans for on-field digital boards to display in-game messages from fans to players. The league also hopes to give fans access to the science of sports — the athletes’ innovation labs and their nutritional programs.

“One of the many reasons I was so intrigued by Athletes Unlimited is the way they showcase athletes,” said Hayward, who has a master’s degree in business administration. “Not only will it showcase our skills, but it will showcase our personalities and give more of a story about what is happening on the field, as we live it.

“As an athlete, you can show everyone more of yourself, more than the one-dimensional player you normally see on TV. You can show what it is really like to be a pro softball player, see how we react to plays, what we are doing when the game is going on, our funny sides …

“One aspect of the league that I think is powerful is the shortened length of the schedule. Every game holds a lot of value to the players and fans, every pitch matters, every moment in the game matters.

“I think we see a future in pro sports with (Athletes Unlimited). We’ll be getting feedback too, what is good and what may not be, and taking that forward to improve the game and the overall experience of it.”

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Mark Zwolinski

TORONTO STAR