New league draws top softball players, empowers players

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Victoria Hayward would have been in Japan at this time, preparing for the Olympics as captain of the Canadian softball team.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the Summer Games by one year. But she won't have to wait much longer to return to the field.

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Hayward is one of 56 elite players signed to dress 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 now.

"It's really about the best players in the world, getting together to show off their skills, working with people they don't always work with," said Hayward, a 28-year-old outfielder. Fanatic, it will be great fun to see some former adversaries team up. It is a great camaraderie. It is great energy. The stakes are high. Every game is important. "

The 30 games will air live, 23 on ESPN and seven on the CBS Sports Network, and will be available in Canada and Latin America, as well as in the United States. Fans who tune in will see an impressive roster of entrants including top Olympic professionals and medalists like Cat Osterman.

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

Athletes Unlimited gives players a big voice in the decisions the league makes, whether it's the uniform colors or the TV offerings. There are no team owners or general managers, and investors are limiting their returns. Players can share winnings, plus at least $ 10,000 guaranteed, plus extra money.

"They are incredible athletes," said Jon Patricof, co-founder and CEO of Athletes Unlimited. "They have a huge following at the college level and that there is a really untapped opportunity. At the same time, we think that if you want to launch a league of any kind, whether it's a men's or women's sport, you really have to innovate and think about differently where the fandom is heading. And out of that our model emerged. "

There will be no trips, with all the games in the Rosemont suburbs. 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 20 and a win 50. Players can also lose points.

The team rosters will also change every week: at the end of the week, the top four point players become captains and recruiting teams.

The broadcasts will show the classification in real time, and the players and referees will use microphones during the game.

"A lot of what we're trying to do is bring graphics on the screen, fool gamers," said Patricof. "(There are) big improvements that will raise the transmission to a really strong level."

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

A great point of emphasis for Athletes Unlimited is building the brand of the players. They have been receiving help from a star-studded advisory board that includes Kevin Durant, Abby Wambach, and Jessica Mendoza.

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

Players will be screened frequently for the virus. Some will stay in a Rosemont hotel with others in corporate housing, though it's unclear whether they'll be in an NBA-style bubble or be allowed to go out on their own. .

Hayward simply hopes to return to play after his Olympic hopes are delayed.

"This is just an incredible opportunity to help me prepare and be even better when the time comes next year," he said. "Although not ideal, I really want to play against some of these people that I've been competing with all my life."

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