How Would an Athlete-Focused Pro Sports League Work?

A new league offers a lot to admire

Athletes Unlimited Softball Final Weekend
Nerissa Myers of Team Piancastelli hits a home run in the fifth inning against Team Ocasio during the final weekend of the Athletes Unlimited softball league at Parkway Bank Sports Complex.
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

What would the process of creating a new sports league from scratch look like? In recent years, a number of sports have given it a try — including the failed attempt to create a European Super League earlier this year and the rise of a new professional lacrosse league, the PLL, in 2019. A new article by Louisa Thomas at The New Yorker explores the formation of Athletes Unlimited — a league focused on women’s softball and volleyball, and which might well offer an entirely new model of how to run a pro sports league.

Thomas writes that “what distinguishes Athletes Unlimited from the major American sports leagues is that the players are supposed to be in charge.” The players in question include a number of athletes who have represented their country in the Olympics; the league’s founders,  Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, also have significant experience in their field, with Patricof spending several years as President of Major League Soccer’s New York City Football Club.

For Athletes Unlimited, Patricof and Soros focused on an athletes-first approach, allowing fans to track the performance of how individual players were doing. Games also shared a single location — and while the league’s inaugural season was in 2020, this effectively allowed them to have a pre-existing bubble in which to play.

The organization also had some high-profile supporters, including Bill Murray, who threw out the 2020 season’s first pitch.

The league that resulted was based around investment in players and in players having a voice in how things were run. Thomas notes that “committees of players would inform decisions about everything from food to fines.” And it seems to have worked out well in its first year; tickets are now on sale for this year’s softball and lacrosse leagues.

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