Team Piancastelli’s Haylie McCleney # 28 celebrates with her teammates after beating Team Ocasio on the final weekend of the Athletes Unlimited softball league at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex on September 28, 2020 in Rosemont, Illinois.
Quinn Harris | Getty Images
Jon Patricof, co-founder of Athletes Unlimited (AU), told CNBC this week that Hyperice and Gatorade will be sponsoring their volleyball season, which begins February 27 in Dallas, Texas.
Athletes Unlimited is a sports company that establishes and operates women’s sports leagues. CNBC recently spoke to Patricof about the league’s new sponsors and the future of Athletes Unlimited.
Patricof said AU’s model, which focuses on women’s sports like volleyball, has gained momentum after its softball season that kicked off last August. Brand partners get more access to a unique fan base outside of traditional sport and access to global markets through AU’s media distribution agreements.
“We will be able to offer partners sports opportunities in different regions all year round,” Patricof said in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “And this is how we will scale. And for a partner like Gatorade, who is so leading in the world of sports marketing, it is another great signal for a certain dynamic to come on board as well.”
Patricof founded AU in 2019 with Jonathan Soros, CEO of the investment firm JS Capital Management and son of billionaire George Soros. The company has top athletes on its advisory board, including Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant and US women’s football icon Abby Wambach.
AU operates a professional softball, volleyball and soon a lacrosse league. Athletes earn a base salary and bonuses based on their team’s success and a points system. At the end of each season, the leading player will receive the highest money from a prize pool.
For the softball season, AU’s stated that 57 players who also shared a $ 300,000 pool had paid out a $ 1 million salary. The champion, Cat Osterman, a former University of Texas softball star, took home just over $ 35,000 (including base salary and bonuses).
The players are not committed to one team, but change teams every week in a season. Drafts are kept on Facebook. Patricof said the AU model allows players to profile for possible branding opportunities. AU’s model is designed so that fans can follow players rather than teams during a season.
“We want to model the success of leagues like the NBA with the ability to improve player profiles and personalities,” said Patricof, former president of NYCFC’s Major League Soccer organization. “I think that is becoming more and more important for the fans.”
Does the model work?
Patricof added that players will receive royal compensation if the league is successful. Women participating in a league receive a 20-year pact to share AU profits based on cost and expenditure. According to Patricof, AU offers players health benefits and covers the costs of accommodation, transport and food.
Although Patricof sees an “upside” opportunity in AU’s business model, start-up sports leagues often struggle to make sustained profits and typically have significant cash flow problems.
Smaller sports companies, including the Alliance of American Football, the Arena Football League, and the beach volleyball-powered AVP League, have had financial problems in the past, including multiple bankruptcies.
Patricof confirmed that AU will not make a profit during its 2020 softball season. He would not discuss Soros’ financial support and declined to provide other key metrics such as subscriptions to the “Unlimited Club” ($ 19.99) that give consumers additional access and virtual engagement for players and teams.
He defended AU’s business model by noting that the company is cost effective as it avoids expensive investments that often hurt start-up sports leagues. These expenses include stadium rentals, large rosters (payroll), and constant travel throughout a season.
AU leagues play in one place. Chicago will host softball again in 2021, and the lacrosse league will most likely be in a mid-Atlantic area.
“We have built a very rational and sustainable cost structure, which in my opinion was the biggest failure of AAF and XFL,” said Patricof.
Alyssa Naeher # 1 of Chicago Red Stars hits a loose ball during an NWSL soccer game between the Chicago Red Stars and the Orlando Pride at Orlando City Stadium on September 11, 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
Alex Menendez | Getty Images Sports | Getty Images
AU volleyball league has a media agreement with CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports. Eight games will be shown on social media platforms including YouTube, Twitter and Twitch. The softball season had Disney-owned properties ESPN2, ESPN3 and ESPNU as media partners. The media deals are usually structured as one-year contracts.
A sports banker who spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity said the network agreements are most likely to be shared-revenue agreements with AU. This means that networks offer free airtime in exchange for a breakdown of advertising profits. The bet here is that if the leagues should grow, AU can increase audience numbers to get more favorable terms with partners.
Patricof declined to discuss viewership, but said an independent auditor had set AU’s media value for its softball league at $ 25.9 million. The company did not provide the auditor’s name.
“It’s not the value of the commercial,” said Patricof. “It’s the value of integrated marketing, signage and everything else we’ve done on social media.”
He used the Olympics and the NCAA as models that AU can emulate with its own company, particularly in relation to storytelling. AU wants the content around women to help build audiences.
“Every four years when the Olympics are held, people are intrigued by the personal stories and NBC Sports tells the stories about the players in amazing ways,” said Patricof. “That’s an essential part of what we want to do at Athletes Unlimited.”
Despite the challenges ahead, AU remains optimistic about women’s sports leagues.
Patricof said that free play games around his softball league through DraftKings have piqued interest in AU. He also used the announcement of Chelsea Clinton and Jenna Bush Hager’s investment in the National Women’s Soccer League on Wednesday as a sign of positive growth in the women’s leagues.
Patricof said he was more optimistic about AU’s future than in 2019 when he built the model with Soros.
“You keep working on innovations,” said Patricof. “They continue to question the status quo and keep looking for opportunities where other people don’t see them.” The momentum is strong, “he continued.” I think this is a good time to get into professional sport for women to become. “”