Athletes Unlimited kicks off with an ‘innovative new model’ for softball

Athletes Unlimited kicks off with an ‘innovative new model’ for softball

August 26, 2020

    Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Athletes Unlimited looked like a bit of a novelty when it launched the first week of March with a self-professed desire to “disrupt professional team sports.” The new professional softball league’s season would span just six weeks at the end of the summer. All four of its teams would share not only a city but also a venue at the Chicago-area Ballpark at Rosemont.

As opening day approaches, all of that looks downright prescient. A bubble before its time.

Despite announcing its impending arrival only about a week before the coronavirus pandemic suddenly and startlingly shut down sports this spring, Athletes Unlimited begins play on schedule this weekend (Saturday, ESPN2, 1 p.m. ET). Given professional softball’s up-and-down history, that achievement alone suggests that a venture promising an “innovative new model” is already refreshingly different from much of what came before.

And after a summer that saw the cancellation or postponement of both the Women’s College World Series and softball’s return to the Olympics, Athletes Unlimited isn’t just a new model but the only model of softball that fans are likely to see before next spring at the earliest.

With total immediate compensation of more than $1 million for its 56 players and a profit-sharing mechanism that allows players a share of any profits up to 20 years beyond their playing career, as well as contributions to charities designated by players, Athletes Unlimited represents a new approach off the field. With a scoring system built around players and designed to crown an individual champion, it also promises a new approach on the field.

Now it just needs to prove there is an audience for what it is creating.

Here’s what to expect as softball returns this weekend.

Who is playing?

The league selected 56 players for its initial season, as opposed to any sort of tryout process. Many of the names will be very familiar to fans of college and international softball.

With Olympic aspirations on hold until 2021, Team USA is represented by Amanda Chidester, Haylie McCleney, Michelle Moultrie, Aubree Munro, Cat Osterman, Janie Reed and Kelsey Stewart. Additionally, Olympic alternates Taylor Edwards and Hannah Flippen are participating.

In all, 20 of 56 players were slated to be on Olympic rosters, including the likes of Victoria Hayward (Canada), Danielle O’Toole (Mexico) and Erika Piancastelli (Italy), among others.

Familiar names also include former National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) player of the year Megan Wiggins and former college stars AJ Andrews, Kelly Barnhill, Jessica Burroughs, Shelby Pendley and Jessie Warren. Among the bigger names who won’t be there are Monica Abbott, Keilani Ricketts and Sierra Romero.

How is Athletes Unlimited handling the pandemic?

While some sporting events are beginning to allow fans in at least limited capacity (fans, in fact, were allowed at USSSA Pride games earlier this summer, the only other pro softball played since the pandemic changed the landscape), the games in Rosemont will go on without fans.

Co-founder Jon Patricof balked at calling the Athletes Unlimited coronavirus plan a “bubble,” the now-familiar term for the self-contained models employed by other leagues. He preferred to call it a “shield,” without delineating the difference. But judging from the league’s coronavirus protocols and conversations with players, the overall experience sounds much the same as the bubbles utilized by the NWSL, WNBA and other leagues. Housing is provided, and players are asked to remain there when not at the field, with leeway for short walks or jogs. And while players are able to drive to practice and games, some describe being required to turn in their car keys each day.

Patricof said that Athletes Unlimited developed its protocols with the help of an advisory working group that included infectious disease experts. Players and staff were required to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before traveling to Rosemont and a rapid COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. Once games begin, players and staff will be tested twice each week — on Wednesday and the first day of games. Positive tests necessitate 10 days of isolation after the onset of symptoms. Those who test positive but are asymptomatic must remain in quarantine for 10 days without showing symptoms. Close contacts of those who test positive must remain in quarantine for 14 days.

There is a reserve pool of players, although that list has not been made public.

Athletes Unlimited also has exclusive use of the stadium and adjacent training facility in Rosemont for the duration of the season.

What will look different on Saturday?

For all the emphasis on change, Athletes Unlimited hopes that not much will look different once the first pitch is thrown.

Games still last seven innings. Runners still can’t lead off their bases before a pitch is thrown. Lineups still include a designated player, essentially equivalent to baseball’s designated hitter. And the team that scores the most runs still wins. There is a delicate balance between gimmick and innovation, but those associated with the endeavor insist it is about reimagining a business model more than reinventing what happens on the field. This is not, they insist, a gimmick.

“It’s true to the game,” said senior director of softball Cheri Kempf (who also works as a college softball television analyst for ESPN). “The game itself has not changed.”

But it is a new model of a familiar product, softball 2.0, and some changes will be inescapable.

No set rosters from week to week. Each team plays three games in a given week. Rosters for those games do not change. In other words, your teammates in the first game of the week are your teammates for all games that week. But that’s it. When the week is over, regardless of the results, rosters reset and all 56 players go back into the draft pool. The four highest scorers in a given week become the captains for the following week. Those four captains, de facto general managers, then draft new teams. (The captains for the initial draft are determined by points from scrimmages this week.)

Points for individual performance. Individual statistics are familiar enough to softball fans, but they take on new meaning here. A home run increases your team’s chances of winning, but it also increases your own chances of accumulating the most individual points in a given week or over the course of the season. And like tennis players competing for the No. 1 ranking, it’s individual players rather than teams who are vying for the championship.

For offensive players, singles (10 points), doubles (20), triples (30), home runs (40), walks (10) and stolen bases (10) earn points. Getting caught trying to steal a base costs you 10 points.

For pitchers, four points are awarded for each out recorded and 10 points deducted for each earned run allowed.

There are no specific points awarded or deducted for defensive plays.

“We wanted it to be clear for fans, something fans could follow,” Patricof said. “But the most important thing was something that was accurate.”

Points for team performance. Players also earn points through team performance. If a team wins the game, each of its players earns 50 points. Additionally, if a team “wins” an inning by outscoring the opponent, each of its players earns 10 points. And crucially, if no team wins an inning, those 10 points roll over, making the next inning worth 20 points.

Points for MVP voting. The final way to earn points is through an MVP vote after each game. Players from both teams vote for the top three performers. The league also offers a premium club that allows fans to participate, with those results counted as one collective vote — meaning there will be 28 ballots from players and one ballot from fans. The player who comes in first in the balloting earns 60 points, second place earns 40 points and third place earns 20 points.

No coaches. This really is an enterprise built around players. Each team will be assigned one of four “facilitators,” who are non-players with some coaching experience: Christian Conrad, Whitney Jones, former Olympian Lauren Lappin and Mike Viramontez. But it’s entirely up to each captain how much input, if any, the facilitator has on lineups or strategy. Captains can also designate a teammate to make such decisions during part or all of a game.

“I think if I’m pitching in that game I might turn it over to a facilitator,” Osterman said of what she would do as a captain. “If I’m not pitching then I might be more involved. I don’t know that if I were pitching in the game I would want to be thinking about that.”

What is the philosophy behind the model?

Even more than women’s basketball and soccer, professional softball has long struggled for stability. Until this year, when it canceled its season due to the pandemic, National Pro Fastpitch fielded teams uninterrupted since 2004. Unfortunately, while that league’s on-field product was often excellent, a persistent combination of franchise instability, sponsorship and broadcast underexposure, and fractious relations with USA Softball left it on the sporting margins (and most of its players earning considerably less than the $10,000 base salary in Athletes Unlimited).

Yet watching the general growth of women’s sports from afar as an executive with Major League Soccer’s New York City FC, Patricof said he viewed women’s professional sports as a growth market. Based on the success of the college game, where the Women’s College World Series is both a ticket-buying and television ratings success story, softball was an obvious entry point (Athletes Unlimited will also launch a volleyball league in 2021). And in discussing options with co-founder Jonathan Soros, neither saw much future in replicating the traditional “city-based model” that failed in pre-NWSL women’s soccer leagues and struggles to survive in the NPF.

“It just became clear that if you want to capture new audiences [by] doing things differently and looking at what fans are demanding, what athletes are demanding,” Patricof said, “why not create something from the beginning that is well suited to where the world is and where we think it’s heading.”

So if, for instance, the draft system sounds a bit like fantasy sports, that’s not accidental.

“Across leagues, across sports,” Patricof continued, “fans care about the players themselves.”

Hence a model in which the standings show all 56 players ranked by points, and the champion at the end of the season isn’t a team but the player who accumulates the most overall points.

The working group responsible for the scoring system, which included both data analysts, softball-centric people like Kempf and a group of players, went through, by Patricof’s rough estimate, more than 20 iterations of the scoring system before settling on the final product.

“My first impression was that it would be impossible to put all the variation of players into one ranking system and have any equity in that process,” Kempf said. “I was thinking slappers and big hitters and pitchers and that kind of thing. I’m happy to say I was wrong.”

Whether she was wrong remains to be proven in practice, but one simulation that used last season’s NPF statistics produced a top three of Chidester, Abbey Cheek and Jolene Henderson. Chidester was the league’s player of the year, Cheek the rookie of the year and Henderson the pitcher of the year. Patricof said simulations pairing the scoring system with historical data from Major League Baseball also produced rankings similar to WAR.

All involved still insist that while the scoring system is designed to highlight individual performance, it still prioritizes team results. Points are most easily accrued by winning innings and games. In other words, as catcher Gwen Svekis put it, she isn’t going to try to steal bases every time she gets on base just to boost her point total. Svekis, who stole a modest eight bases in her college career at Oregon, is instead incentivized to do what’s best for the team.

“I can’t let myself think about the individual point system because that will just send you into an abyss of failure,” Svekis said. “It’s like when you’re trying to hit a home run and all you seem to do is pop up and strike out. But as soon as you stop trying to hit a home run, you explode and start hitting home runs left and right. I have that mentality going into this, that I need to play the game the way I’ve played my entire life. It’s about the team win, period. And hopefully my individual performance is reflected in the individual point rankings.”

But in this brave new world, even that outlook may have its limits.

“I can sit here and say I’m not going to focus on my individual points,” Svekis said somewhat in jest. “But when push comes to shove and we’re in the last week and I am 10 points behind a 10 grand bonus, we’ll see if I’m not thinking about the individual points on that day.”

So why is the human element still so important?

For a league so invested in an analytical approach, Athletes Unlimited also sets up a lot of experiments on human nature and the interactions commonly grouped under “chemistry.”

Consider the league’s approach to incorporating defense, which proved too unwieldy to easily measure or incorporate statistically.

The roster of players includes AJ Andrews, who became the first woman to win a Rawlings Gold Glove when the company added an award for softball players in 2016. And she is far from the only player who excels on the defensive side. But while a player whose home run contributes to a win earns points both for the win and the home run, a player whose game-saving catch earns points only for the win (her team’s pitcher, on the other hand, does get points for that out).

“There are players that play our game that are defensive players, period, and they aren’t going to get point recognition in terms of the actual individual statistics,” Svekis said. “But our thought process on that was that’s why the MVP vote is [so highly valued] because we were hoping that that would be reflected in the players playing the game, in their perceptions of who did well.

“If Hannah Flippen, who is like one of the best infielders I’ve ever seen play in my life, goes out there and makes four all-star ESPN plays, then I’m going to vote her MVP of the game even though she didn’t get the point recognition from the individual point system.”

Except that, in turn, leaves the question of how players will use the MVP vote — as an honest mechanism to evaluate the game or a strategic tool? Kempf said players had already asked her questions like whether they could vote for themselves as MVP (they can) or whether they could draft a player close to them in the standings and then bench that person (they can).

So it seems a bit naive to expect 56 people who are competitive enough to reach the highest level of a sport not to look for ways to use the system to their advantage.

“There’s some people that are going to vote for who they like — who had a good game and they like,” Svekis allowed. “Rather than someone who had a great game but they don’t like or is a sliver above them in the points rankings.”

To that end, she said players were already discussing, without ironing out details yet, ways to self-police the process and apply “social pressure” to vote strictly on the merits of performance.

What will the drafts be like?

Again relying heavily on analytics, perhaps this time at the expense of the same easily-digestible format used for the scoring system, the league settled on a draft format that is designed to promote parity. The captain who earned the most points the previous week will get the first pick in the first round. But instead of that captain continuing to pick first in every round, the picks will rotate so that each captain picks from each draft slot.

In practice, that means the overall champion from the previous week will pick first in the first round, fourth in the second round, third in the third round and second in the fourth round — before the whole sequence starts over and she again picks first in the fifth round.

All players are assigned positions, and captains initially pick two catchers, three pitchers, two middle infielders, two corner infielders and three outfielders. Once each team has filled those quotas, any position can be selected in the final two rounds. Players are drafted only at their assigned position but they are not limited to playing that position in the actual games.

Those are the admittedly dry mechanical details for the drafts. But the reason each week’s selections, which the league said it intends to feature with live coverage, could prove almost as compelling as the games is again the element of human nature.

“You’re going to have to have a little bit of a backbone,” Svekis said of the captains, “and the ability to explain why you make the moves you make.”

Might some captains, Svekis mused, select mostly their friends? And given that the small size of the talent pool means that just about everyone is a world-class talent, might that even be a wise strategy — sacrificing some fractional measure of ability for assured cohesion?

Operating from a pitcher’s mindset, Osterman lamented that she might have to throw to a different catcher each week. With that in mind, she noted the importance of working with as many catchers as possible in the preseason practices and scrimmages. But that, too, might end up being collected as intelligence by a truly Machiavellian aspiring captain.

“If you’re a position player, are they taking note of that?” Osterman mused. “Are they taking note of which pitchers and catchers work well together, either to draft them on their team or, if you’re going to be the devil’s advocate, to break them up or that kind of thing? I do think there are a lot of games that can be played with the draft.”

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