June 23, 2021

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What if Pro Sports Leagues Were Controlled by Their Players?

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Late last September, on a cool night in Rosemont, Illinois, Haylie Wagner, a twenty-seven-year-old southpaw, faced Hannah Flippen, with two outs in the top of the seventh inning in the final game of the inaugural softball season of Athletes Unlimited. Wagner’s team was up 18–3, but the moment was tense: in the game’s unusual format, there were points on the line with every pitch. Minutes before, Victoria Hayward, an outfielder, had been thrown out at the plate, and—despite the blowout score—the play had major ramifications for the standings.

Wagner’s long braid bent with the force of her windmill motion. Flippen, a diminutive infielder who is also a member of the U.S. Olympic softball team, leaned over the plate and hit a grounder to the shortstop, who fielded it off the bounce and threw out Flippen to end the game. Wagner earned four points, and every member of her team got an extra fifty. Players ran toward the mound to congratulate one another, even though they had not won a title; the pitcher Cat Osterman, who had not played that day, was the season’s only champion. Shortly afterward, a podium was rolled onto the diamond for the season’s closing ceremonies, and players wearing different uniforms stood arm in arm. Most of them had been teammates one week, opponents the next, and all of them had competed against one another for the league’s fantasy-style scoring title.

All thirty games of the softball season had been broadcast or streamed globally on CBS Sports Network, ESPN, or the Olympic Channel. (Athletes Unlimited later reported that nearly four million people had watched the twenty-three games that aired in the U.S. on a variety of ESPN networks.) The fifty-seven players had included nineteen Olympians. Bill Murray had thrown out a virtual first pitch. A volleyball league featuring some of the top players in the world was set to launch in February, in Dallas. But, when I asked the league’s founders, Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, which metrics they used to evaluate the season’s success, they pointed to only one: the players wanted to return the following summer for a second season. Focussing on what the players wanted was very on-brand: more than any quirk in the scoring system, what distinguishes Athletes Unlimited from the major American sports leagues is that the players are supposed to be in charge.

If you were designing a sports league from scratch, what would it look like? That was the question that Patricof and Soros asked themselves a couple years ago, when, after exploring the idea of investing in existing teams, they began brainstorming an entire network of new ones. “We think fandom is changing,” Patricof told me. “I’d seen the importance of individual athletes, with fans following players more than teams. I’d seen the power of being on the right side of issues.” The traditional structure of leagues in the United States—in which both the capital and the major decisions are controlled by a small group of people, and the teams operate separately, spread out across the country—wasn’t particularly well suited, in Patricof’s view, to the shifting media (and social-media) landscape, or the rise of fantasy sports, or, for that matter, the emergence of more politically outspoken players. Patricof and Soros wanted to build a league around those trends, rather than having to adapt to them. And they were particularly alert to the opportunities offered by women’s sports.

Patricof and Soros had known each other for about fifteen years. Soros, the son of the billionaire George Soros, had been an investor in Tribeca Enterprises, which organizes the Tribeca Film Festival, when Patricof was its president and C.O.O. In 2016, Patricof left Tribeca to become the president of New York City F.C., a Major League Soccer club. Shortly after he arrived, he and other club executives discussed establishing a sister team in the National Women’s Soccer League, a fairly common arrangement among M.L.S. teams. They decided that the timing wasn’t right for a sister team, and Patricof agreed with the decision, but, in the process of considering it, he noted how differently the men’s and women’s teams were evaluated financially. Teams in both leagues were losing money, but, whereas the women’s teams were seen as struggling, M.L.S. valuations were soaring—expansion fees for M.L.S. clubs were set at two hundred million dollars. Values of N.W.S.L. expansion teams were rumored to be less than a hundredth of that, even though the most successful and famous American soccer players were women. Whatever its current challenges, Patricof thought that the long-term prospects for women’s professional soccer were being underestimated.

After a couple seasons with New York City F.C., Patricof announced that he was stepping down as president. (He remains on the club’s board of directors.) While thinking about what to do next, he had lunch with Rich Kleiman, the business partner of Kevin Durant, who suggested that he buy the New York Liberty, of the W.N.B.A. That league, like the N.W.S.L., was at a difficult juncture—its players were frustrated with everything from low salaries to poor travel conditions. Kleiman believed that both the league and its best players, mostly Black women, were underexposed and underappreciated. Girl’s youth basketball was growing, and W.N.B.A. games drew roughly as many viewers on ESPN’s networks as M.L.S. games did—yet its stars had to go overseas in the off-season to make better money. Patricof began envisioning an ownership group that could purchase not just the Liberty but also Sky Blue F.C., a New York-area N.W.S.L. team.

He contacted several people about the idea, including Soros. Soros describes himself as a “lapsed sports fan” and an erstwhile supporter of the New York Mets. But he agreed with Patricof that women’s sports were undervalued. As the pair talked about buying existing teams, they began wondering about the constraints of the various leagues. Team owners in these leagues had disparate resources and incentives, and sometimes differing ideas about their missions. The real value of a league, Patricof and Soros believed, was determined by its players—and yet, for all the talk of “player empowerment,” the players were not part of the governing structures in the leagues to which they belonged.

Owners of men’s teams had been well served by this model. Soaring TV contracts had pushed the valuations of such teams into the billions. Women’s sports offered a more appealing laboratory for experimentation: there was a large pool of highly skilled athletes with few professional opportunities in the United States; a mismatch between audience demand and media coverage; and, compared with men’s sports, low barriers to entry. You could transform an entire women’s sports organization by spending roughly the amount that the Detroit Pistons pay for a single bench player.

Soros, who runs a private investment firm, had his own ambitions. He wanted to combine the two things that his father is famous for—finance and philanthropy—and to do it not merely by investing in socially responsible companies but by rethinking their basic structures. Over breakfast, in late December, 2018, he pitched Patricof on an approach to pro sports that would redirect financial returns toward a well-defined mission. During the next few months, they worked out a plan where all investors would cap their returns and direct a significant portion of the profits back to the athletes and to nonprofit causes. Every player would have a profit share in the league. Patricof and Soros decided to try something new.

In June, 2019, Patricof met with Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian in ice hockey, to talk about the opportunities in that sport. Ruggiero is now the C.E.O. of the Sports Innovation Lab, in Boston, which conducts market research for brands in the sports industry. Many fans, the firm has found, care more about individual players than teams—they feel more loyalty to LeBron James than to the Cavaliers or the Heat or the Lakers. This is even more true for women’s sports; fans of Alex Morgan, a star on the U.S. soccer team, may not even know that her club team, the Orlando Pride, exists. An increasing number of people play fantasy sports, and many fans watch highlights more often than they sit down for full games—moments matter, in other words, not just results. And sports fans have a deep interest in the stories of their favorite athletes, on and off the field. Fans also respond to the stated values of athletes and of the leagues to which they belong. Patricof brought Ruggiero to Soros’s office, on Fifty-seventh Street, so that she could tell all of this to him, too. (Patricof and Soros also commissioned Vanessa Bennett, who runs Dynamo Girl, to research the behavior and preferences of female sports fans in particular.) And, though the men ultimately decided that ice hockey wasn’t the right place to begin, Ruggiero joined the Athletes Unlimited advisory board.

The sports that seemed most promising to them as starting points were softball and volleyball. College softball is hugely popular: ESPN networks air hundreds of games a year, and stream more than a thousand; in 2019, the Women’s College World Series tournament averaged more than a million viewers on ESPN and ESPN2. And yet softball players have few professional opportunities. In July, Patricof and Soros asked for a meeting with Cheri Kempf, the commissioner of the National Pro Fastpitch league. She was prepared to pitch them on investing in her league, but found that they wanted to pitch her on a league that would exist alongside her own. They wanted to add to the existing infrastructure, not to undermine it, they said. She offered to help recruit players, and eventually took a job with Athletes Unlimited.

Patricof and Soros had begun to imagine a whole network of sports leagues, all built on a singular model: short seasons held in one location, with a leaderboard tracking individual achievements that would encourage fans to cheer for specific players and allow points to be earned with every play, capitalizing on the dynamics that had made fantasy sports so popular. Low travel standards are a sore point for most women’s pro sports leagues; Athletes Unlimited would avoid travel altogether, leaving more money to spend on high-production storytelling and social-media promotion. There would be no commissioners or team owners or coaches: committees of players would inform decisions about everything from food to fines.

A few months after meeting with Kempf, Patricof and Soros flew to California to meet with players on the U.S. national volleyball team. Volleyball is one of the most popular sports in the country among high-school girls. Players can earn good salaries abroad, but there was no domestic professional league for women. Jordan Larson, a two-time Olympic medallist, was skeptical of the strange scoring system that Patricof and Soros described, but she was eager to play closer to home after a career spent mostly in Russia, Turkey, and China. Her doubts gave way to curiosity. “Why does it have to be played a certain way?” she recalled thinking. “Who’s to say that it can’t be played another way?”

Patricof and Soros announced the launch of Athletes Unlimited on March 3, 2020. It would begin with a six-week softball season that summer. The players would be paid a minimum of ten thousand dollars, with bonuses of up to thirty-five thousand dollars and the chance to earn money for social causes. Every player would receive a share of the league’s profits for twenty years—though there’s no expectation that the league will be immediately profitable.

Less than two weeks later, much of the world shut down. Athletes Unlimited forged ahead—and it was surprisingly well positioned to do so. As other leagues scrambled to create “bubbles” in which sports could be played safely, Athletes Unlimited was already planning to host all games in a single place. (On account of the pandemic, the games were held without fans, and the athletes were largely isolated from the outside world.) When the late spring brought a wave of protests for racial and social justice, following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the league was, again, comparably well prepared to respond: it was already giving athletes money to dedicate to causes of their choosing, and had made support for those causes a core part of its mission. At Athletes Unlimited, there was no friction between the billionaire owners and the activist athletes, as there was, to varying degrees, in the N.F.L., N.B.A., and W.N.B.A. “Being a professional softball player, we haven’t really had the opportunity to make money to give back,” Jazmyn Jackson, an infielder who played at the University of California and on Team U.S.A. before becoming a coach at Howard University, said. Jackson and others players joined with Athletes Unlimited staff to form a racial-equity working group.

Jackson had initially been wary of the whole endeavor, which she first learned about from an article on ESPN.com. “My reaction after reading the article was: absolutely not,” she told me. Jackson had always considered herself a team-first player, and the fantasy-style scoring system and leaderboard of individuals struck her as crazy—and an invitation for cattiness. She decided to give it a shot anyway. When she arrived in Rosemont, she was struck by the camaraderie. Some of it surely had to do with playing in conditions that felt appropriate to élite athletes. “A professional softball player has never been treated so much like a pro,” she said. Referring to the league’s future seasons, she added, “We’ll be out there supporting volleyball. We’ll be out there supporting lacrosse.”

For Jordan Larson, the Olympic volleyball player, the stakes were different. She made around a million dollars a year playing abroad. (The range of volleyball salaries overseas is huge; other players might make only a few thousand dollars per month.) She grew up in Nebraska, where women’s volleyball is extremely popular, and played at the University of Nebraska, where every match since 2001 has been sold out. But there was no professional path in the United States, only the national team. The pandemic disrupted pro leagues overseas, providing even greater incentive for American players to build something back home. A number of top international players ended up joining the effort, too. The hope was that Athletes Unlimited could offer volleyball a new platform, and the players could be the ones to build it.

I had never watched volleyball before the Athletes Unlimited season, and I was surprised by how quickly and easily I was drawn into it. The athleticism was startling: leaping bodies hung in the air before snapping forward like spring-powered traps to drive the ball into the opposing team’s court; players dived like outfielders laying out to snare fly balls, only the action kept going, the point not yet over. There were surprising changes of spin and speed, as desperate defense coalesced into counterattack. And, if the scoring system was confusing, I didn’t have any frame of reference—it was all new to me.

Volleyball already has a domestic audience: the latest N.C.A.A. title game, between Kentucky and Texas, drew nearly seven hundred thousand viewers, making it the most-watched program on ESPN2 in April. But there was no guarantee that the audience would transfer to a pro league. The Athletes Unlimited games were aired on Fox Sports, CBS Sports Net, and regional sports channels such as the MSG Network, and also on Facebook and Twitch. Patricof and Soros declined to provide the total viewership number, but they have insisted that it exceeded their expectations. Still, broader awareness of the league will require broader media attention, and so far that has been hard to come by: the volleyball season wasn’t covered by espnW, ESPN’s women’s sports vertical, let alone by “SportsCenter.” Patricof and Soros have focussed on making sure that all games are broadcast, but the distribution deals they have don’t pay rights fees; instead, they are based on selling advertising to the league’s corporate sponsors, such as Geico and Guaranteed Rate. It is difficult to achieve mainstream cultural relevance behind paywalls or to build cachet on Facebook streams, and the kinds of TV deals that have driven up the valuations of N.B.A. teams, for instance, are not on the immediate horizon. Then again, it took decades for the N.B.A. to establish itself on television.

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