Abby Wambach and Jessica Mendoza are getting back into the game.
Icons in their respective sports – Wambach is a World Cup and two-time Olympic champion in soccer while Mendoza has Olympic gold and silver medals in softball – the two are part of a star-studded advisory board for Athletes Unlimited, which is launching two new professional women’s leagues.
Might just turn sports on its head in the process, too.
“Re-imagining is really important right now. Re-imagining what could be possible,” Wambach told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “When you look at all the sports, especially women’s sports, there is so much more potential that has yet to be understood and figured out. This is, I think, a perfect solution.”
Having already announced that a softball league will begin play in August, Athletes Unlimited now says a women’s indoor volleyball league will start in February. A third women’s league – the sport is still being determined – is planned for 2022.
The sports landscape is littered with failed professional leagues – the XFL didn't even make it a full season before folding this month – and women's sports have long had to fight the perception that "no one cares" about them. Never mind that the U.S. women's soccer team was a ratings bonanza during last summer's World Cup.
But Athletes Unlimited is betting that its scoring system will be both a winner with fans and generate widespread interest in women's sports.
Abby Wambach (Photo: Michael Chow, USA TODAY Sports)
Players will get points for “winning” each inning or set. They’ll also get points for each of their individual statistics – 10 points for a single, for example, and 20 for a double. When games are over, three MVPs will be chosen and awarded points.
Lineups also change each week, with the top four players in the individual standings each drafting a team.
Sound familiar? It should if you’ve ever played fantasy sports. Or had to listen to your friends moan about how one player’s late fumble cost them precious points. It also will be intuitive to kids who have grown up playing NBA 2K and other video games that rank and value players based on individual stats.
“`Every moment counts’ is what we say, and it really is going to be true,” said Jon Patricof, co-founder and CEO of Athletes Unlimited. “There are points on the line for every play that occurs in any of the games in Athletes Unlimited, and I think that’s really going to engage fans and really going to excite them.”
And with stats being updated throughout the games, it’s a way to get fans invested without being in the ballpark or arena. That’s no small thing given there’s no telling when fans will be allowed to watch games in person again.
“We’re going to see everybody trying to (figure out), 'How can we now engage fans when there are no fans in the stands?’ When we’re not allowed to have the normal way of playing sports and watching sports, how do we still keep that interest going?” Mendoza said.
“Athletes Unlimited’s focus was always on fans who aren’t necessarily there. It’s to reach a broader view of people who are nowhere near where the venue is, and watch and participate from afar,” she added. “It’s already in place.”
While the uniqueness of the game format was intriguing, it’s the opportunities Athletes Unlimited is providing for female athletes that Mendoza and Wambach found most appealing. With a payroll of around $1 million for each league, each player is guaranteed a minimum of $10,000 for the six-week season with additional bonuses available. Players are also given shares of the league’s profits for the next 20 years.
The athletes are also given a very loud voice in all decisions the league makes. There will be player advisory boards for each league. In addition to Mendoza and Wambach, the advisory board for Athletes Unlimited includes Kevin Durant and Rich Kleiman, Durant’s manager and co-founder in Thirty Five Ventures.
“That’s what’s really important,” Wambach said, urgency in her voice. “This is not just training women to become professional athletes, though that’s what it looks like from a very close-up perspective. But when you get a bigger, macro perspective, you are able to see we’re actually trying to build leaders that can help our Fortune 500 companies succeed. That can help our governments being run. That can help at these tables where these big decisions are being made.
“We can see that women are fiercely needed, sorely needed, at those tables where big decisions are being made.”
Athletes Unlimited isn't just starting innovative new leagues for women's sports. It's starting a revolution, one that is long overdue.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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