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When the company Athletes Unlimited kicked off its quest to build a new network of professional sports leagues, it started with softball, announcing a women’s fast-pitch league in March, which is set to begin play in August in Chicago.
As of today, in partnership with USA Volleyball, the company has expanded its reach to include indoor women’s volleyball. Athletes Unlimited Volleyball will launch in February 2021 and has already received commitments of participation from players Jordan Larson, Foluke Akinradewo, and Molly McCage.
A professional indoor volleyball league has never achieved sustained success in the U.S., but Athletes Unlimited’s co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros believe they’ve come up with a unique format that can succeed where others have failed.
The league will stretch over six weeks with all matches taking place in one city, the identity of which has not yet been revealed (but the simple facts about the volleyball landscape in this country leads one to think it’s likely to be a certain city in Nebraska). From a pool of 48 players, four captains will be chosen each week, and those captains select the teams. Then, the teams each play three games over the span of the week. Players collect points based on their team’s performance as well as their individual performance, and a player ranking is released at the end of the week. The top four players then become the following week’s captains.
Athletes Unlimited (@AUProSports), in parternship with USA Volleyball, will launch the only U.S.-based women's indoor volleyball pro league beginning February 2021. @JordanLarson10 and @fakinradewo have signed with the league.— USA Volleyball (@usavolleyball) April 29, 2020
Details | https://t.co/WESMrQ7MnS pic.twitter.com/7a4pkaIICU
“We think it’s a fun, fast-paced way,” Patricof said. “It changes things up and keeps competitive parity in place and will be really great for fans and for the athletes alike.”
At the end of the season, overall player rankings determine financial compensation and bonus awards for the players. Co-founder Patricof, formerly the president of the MLS’s New York City FC and president and COO of the Tribeca Film Festival, says the minimum compensation for a participating player will be $10,000, with top performers having the ability to earn over $50,000. The league will also house the players in corporate apartments and/or hotels in the host city for the duration of the season and provide most meals.
Athletes Unlimited emphasises its identity as an “athlete-led” organization. The company’s advisory board features stars and influencers from around the world of sports, including Abby Wambach, Kevin Durant, Caroline Wozniacki, Jessica Mendoza, Larson, Karch Kiraly, Angela Ruggiero, Rich Kleinman, and Katrina Adams.
“This is really an athlete-led league,” Patricof said. “We think that’s an important hallmark in the way that pro sports leagues should be designed is to benefit and have a voice for the athletes at the center.”
A volleyball player advisory board will also be created and have a say in league decisions, and in addition to yearly compensation, players share in 50% of the profits and retain a stake in the league’s profits for 19 years following their last season as a competitor.
“We really believe that players deserve to share not just in the current year but also in what they’re building in the future,” Patricof said.
So, you might be wondering, where’s all this the money coming from? AU co-founder Soros, the son of billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, is the founder of the private investment firm JS Capital Management and he’s the lead of an investor group backing this project.
“The investor group has agreed to cap their financial returns. So Jonathon’s focus is really putting up the capital,” Patricof said. “Investors will get a small return of that capital, but then the rest of the profits are really going to go to benefit the athletes and the people that are working on Athletes Unlimited day to day.”
A broadcast contract will no doubt serve as another important piece of the financial puzzle, and although Patricof says there’s something in the works, he wasn’t able to share any specifics at this time.