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Sports Saturday

Athletes Unlimited putting the power in athletes’ hands

The organization, which was created about 18 months ago, gives professional athletes unprecedented control over their careers by eliminating team owners, coaches and a standard team format.

The offseason schedules of all professional female athletes are similar regardless of the sport because most don’t have an offseason.

For most WNBA and NWSL players, their income is supplemented by overseas contracts. National Pro Fastpitch players have careers entirely separate from their athletic endeavors, and female hockey players still are fighting for a sustainable professional league.

So, when Athletes Unlimited co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros first teamed up, their vision was not to start a new women’s professional sports league, or three for that matter. They simply knew an investment in professional women’s sports was vital.

“In most of the leagues, whether it be the WNBA, NWSL or NPF, the seasons are relatively short,” Patricof said. “We recognized that players in almost all cases were looking for other opportunities outside of their main season.”

They weighed their options discussing multiple opportunities to invest in established leagues like the WNBA and the NWSL before coming up with the idea to create a new sports venture entirely, Athletes Unlimited.

The organization, which was created about 18 months ago, gives professional athletes unprecedented control over their careers by eliminating team owners, coaches and a standard team format.

Athletes Unlimited’s first of three professional sports leagues kicks off Saturday with a six-week softball season at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont.

The indoor volleyball league is set for 2021 and the third league has yet to be announced, but according to the organization’s website, women’s hockey and soccer are on their radar.

“Sometimes athletes’ endorsement deals allow them to play their sport and only their sport full time,” said World Cup champion and two-time Olympic Gold medalist Abby Wambach, who is serving as an Athletes Unlimited adviser. “Some other players have to get another job because they just can’t afford it. That’s why this league is so valuable because it’s giving these women the chance to perform and do their sport and only their sport if they choose.”

Athletes Unlimited partnered with CBS and ESPN to broadcast seven games live on CBS Sports Network and 23 more on ESPN2 and ESPN3. For the majority of players, this is the most exposure they’ve had since college.

The 56 participating players, including 17 Olympians, will play using a point system that highlights individual players’ success. Points will be earned on every play, and the leaderboard will be in a constant state of flux. At the end of every week, the top four athletes in the standings will serve as captains, drafting their teams for the following week of play. The player with the most points after the six weeks will be named the individual champion of the season.

Players have a guaranteed base salary of $10,000 with the opportunity to make up to $35,000 with bonuses.

Players arrived here just over a week ahead of the start of the season and are living near the complex in apartments. They’ve coined the phrase “the shield” to describe their quarantined living situation. Most of the first week has been spent getting to know each other.

Chicago Bandits shortstop Abby Ramirez was one of the first 10 players to sign on, and the unique concept was one she wanted to be part of immediately.

“I take a lot of pride in being able to be a part of this,” Ramirez said. “Our goals are to make softball a sport and a career option for aspiring players to not only play because they love it but also to play and make a sustainable living.”