For six weeks in August and September, the company Athletes Unlimited presented a new format of sports entertainment: real-life fantasy softball. The goal of the players in the league is not to win games but rather to produce the most individual points possible for themselves over the course of the season. There are cash incentives for the players; the more points each player gets, the higher their overall ranking will be, leading to a larger portion of the $300,000 bonus pool at the conclusion of the season.
Each week, teams are drafted by the top four highest-scoring players, and then each team plays three games. Players then earn points based on both their individual and team performances. For each team inning won, players receive 10 points, while winning a game will earn them 50 points. Then, each player gets specific points based on their offensive and pitching stats. Hitters will receive ten points for either hitting a single, stealing a base or drawing a walk, as well as 20 points for getting a double, 30 points for smacking a triple and 40 points for crushing a home run. They lose 10 points for base-running errors like getting caught stealing. Pitchers earn four points for each recorded out but lose 10 points for each earned run allowed. The final way a player can earn points is to be elected as either the first, second or third most valuable player of each game as voted on by the other players and members of the “Unlimited Club” which fans can join by buying a premium subscription to Athletes Unlimited. After one week of preseason scrimmages and five weeks of games, left-handed pitcher Cat Osterman won the league with 2408 points, followed by infielder Jessica Warren with 2020 points and outfielder Victoria Hayward with 1860 points. The success of this first season has allowed Athletes Unlimited to expand, adding a volleyball league and renew their softball league for 2021.
While appearing to be a great success in its inaugural season, the Athletes Unlimited format does have its drawbacks. To start, there may simply be too much power being given to players particularly those in the top 4. They get to draft their own team and can ensure that they are in the best position to succeed in the league and can push their competition. For example, League Champion Cat Osterman got to choose which teams she wanted to pitch against throughout the course of the season. She could line herself up against weaker opponents in order to boost her own stats while setting up her teammates to fail against the stronger teams. The same goes for Jessica Warren as a hitter. She could put herself up at the top of the lineup to get as many plate appearances as possible and thus give herself the most opportunities to earn points. There was no punishment for a hitter in getting out, so batting yourself first or second couldn’t hurt. The top four could also strategically draft to lower the level of competition for themselves. Pitchers could draft all the best available hitters to their team so they wouldn’t have to face them. Likewise, hitters could draft all the best pitchers on to their team so they could tee-off on the worst pitchers. This would also force all the other top hitters to face your stacked rotation, making it harder for them to catch up to you. If a player like Osterman or Warren were to get in the top four early in the season, they could set themselves up to lead the pack for the whole year by strategically drafting to help themselves.
In the age of athlete empowerment, analytics and pay-for-premium content, Athletes Unlimited could demonstrate the future of sports entertainment. The rise of social media has elevated the individual athlete’s platform, directly connecting them with millions of fans worldwide. This sense of entitlement has pushed athletes to improve their own situation by demanding trades, working with team owners to fire coaches and leaving their long-time teams in free agency for larger market teams leading to more money and more fame.
In the future, if the Athletes Unlimited model came to replace major sporting leagues, players would have more power than ever before. These leagues would reset every year and the best players would be able to choose where they wanted to play and who they wanted to play with. They could travel across the country or even the world to a new city every year and reach even more fans, growing their own personal brand. This could also lead to more parity in these leagues, as no team would ever get stuck with bad long term contracts, which eat up the salary cap and give them little opportunity to be competitive. No teams would try and tank for better draft picks because you would only be hurting your chances of winning next season. Fans who paid for premium subscriptions would have a new vested interest in the games and their favorite players. One of the main trends in leagues like the NBA and NFL over the past decade is the creation of super teams through player movement. Rather than having only a few major moves in the offseason followed by a significant down period, restructuring the entire league every year through the draft would create an incredible buzz that could transform these leagues from seasonal sports to year-round, must-watch entertainment. While Athletes Unlimited is very small right now, it’s a new and intriguing format that is worth keeping an eye on in the future.