Is Athletes Unlimited The Future of Women’s Pro Sports?

Photo by Rachel Barkdoll on Unsplash

The sports world is notoriously resistant to change, to the point where we often struggle to envision alternative business models, especially in the domain of pro sports. The impulse to stick to traditional models has arguably hampered women’s professional sports: shoehorned into the established men’s formats, women’s leagues become ripe targets for critique when they inevitably can’t match the spectatorship and revenue numbers that men’s sport has cultivated over decades. In time, I expect that things will continue to progress and that women’s leagues that mirror men’s will be viable in the long-term, despite the challenges they currently face.

But for now, maybe it’s time for a little disruption? Enter Athletes Unlimited, a women’s pro sport organization that seeks to completely upend the traditional model. AU launches a unique softball offering this August, with volleyball to follow next year, and more sports in the pipeline. What’s so different about AU? Here’s a summary via Axios:

Single market: Unlike most leagues, where teams are city-based, Athletes Unlimited teams will have no city affiliation and each season will take place in a single location.

Short seasons: Seasons will last just six weeks.

Dynamic rosters: Rosters will be selected weekly by captains, so players will constantly change teams.

Fantasy-style scoring: Athletes will accumulate points for team victories and individual performances and be compensated based on where they sit in the points-based rankings.

Player governance and profit-sharing: Athletes will be heavily involved in decision-making, and investors have agreed to cap their financial returns, meaning the vast majority of profits will go towards players.

I like all of this. Is there potential for it to come across as gimmicky? Absolutely, and striking the correct balance of novelty and competitive entertainment will likely be the key determinant in the organization’s success. I especially like the focus on developing athlete’s individual identities, something that traditional women’s sports have struggled with, given their minuscule media coverage. I expect that traditional players, like the WNBA and NWSL, will likely learn a few things from the AU experiment.

Of course, the ultimate challenge for AU remains the same as for all big-time women’s competition: how to overcome a marketplace that overwhelmingly frames women’s sport as a second-rate product? I hope that by shaking things up, AU stands a chance to challenge this entrenched bias and highlight the fact that most of us just want to watch good competition with players that we love and/or love to hate. I’ll be watching and rooting for their success.

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