As a coach at DePaul and star in Athletes Unlimited’s softball league, Abby Ramirez knows it’s all about buy-in
“You succeed three out of 10 times, and you’re considered a great hitter. That’s a lot of the challenge, the mentality. The ones that succeed are the ones who can consistently have a good mentality,” Ramirez said.
A lot has changed for the softball players of Athletes Unlimited since their inaugural season in 2020.
The league succeeded the now-defunct National Pro Fastpitch league at a time when all sports were put on pause as the world navigated the pandemic.
“In that first year we were in our rooms or on the field,” Abby Ramirez said. “We had a lot of buy-in and since then that’s grown even more.”
Ramirez starred at Trinity High School, was named Illinois Gatorade Softball Player of the Year in 2013 and was a two-time All-Big Ten second-team pick at shortstop in 2015 and 2017 for Michigan.
In August, Ramirez concluded her third 15-game season with Athletes Unlimited, a league whose mission is to give professional athletes an unprecedented say over their game. They do this by giving athletes a stake in the success of the league through a profit-sharing program.
Their model caters to the individual athlete, with no owners and no preset rosters.
Before Ramirez joined Athletes Unlimited’s inaugural season in 2020, she played for National Pro Fastpitch’s Chicago Bandits for two seasons.
“There had been a lot of athletes before us that had spent time trying to build the NPF up,” Ramirez said. “To see it fold was devastating.”
Life as a professional softball player is still far from sustainable. Athletes in AU earn a base salary of $10,000 but receive win bonuses and end-of-season bonuses based on where they finish on the league’s leaderboard. To supplement her income, Ramirez works as an assistant coach at DePaul. She said most of her peers also work various jobs in the offseason to sustain their lives as professional athletes.
The buy-in is rooted in their confidence in themselves and their product every time they step on the field. College softball has seen an exponential increase in popularity in recent years.
The Women’s College World Series, broadcast on ESPN, averaged 901,000 viewers for the first day of the tournament and the Texas-Arkansas super regional drew 1.02 million viewers. The final between Oklahoma and Texas averaged 1.7 million viewers and peaked at 2.1 million, topping the Men’s College World Series final ratings.
“It can be frustrating,” Ramirez said. “Because all the best athletes at the collegiate level end up coming to our league. You’re left thinking, ‘What’s the disconnect?’ ”
Ramirez believes the biggest disconnect is awareness and visibility for Athletes Unlimited. In 2022 Athletes Unlimited was broadcast across the ESPN networks. Seven games appeared on ESPN2, six on ESPNU and the remaining 17 games were on ESPN+. The key, according to Ramirez, is getting as many games on network television as possible.
Ramirez used to play high school and travel softball games at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont. The experience of playing professionally in front of the same friends and family who cheered her on as a young athlete has been a full-circle moment for her.
Ramirez isn’t sold on coaching being her long-term career. But as long as she’s doing it, she’s bringing that same buy-in she brings to her role as an athlete in AU. As a coach Ramirez talks to her athletes about what the future will look like for them by being honest.
“It is a hard sport,” Ramirez said. “You succeed three out of 10 times and you’re considered a great hitter. That’s a lot of the challenge, the mentality. The ones that succeed are the ones who can consistently have a good mentality.”