A League of Their Own: Athletes Unlimited Becomes First Athletic Public Benefit Corporation
Athletes Unlimited (“AU”) Softball wrapped up its third season in late August 2022, naming big hitter Dejah Mulipola as its league champion. The crowning of an individual athlete is just one example of how AU sets itself apart from past professional leagues, male or female.
Established in 2020, AU sponsors four sports: women’s lacrosse, women’s volleyball, softball, and women’s basketball. Each sport has four teams whose rosters change based on a weekly draft. The players are given individual points for their game performances with additional points awarded to the players of the winning team. The player with the highest number of points at the end of the five-week season is the champion of the league and is awarded a bonus on top of their base salary. Bonuses are also awarded for wins and end-of-the-season standing on the leaderboard.
In AU, teams do not have a coach or manager and are instead led by player captains. The equivalent of a team owner is the advisory board (where Kevin Durant and Abby Wambach are notable members). A player executive committee was also elected for each league. The committees act as spokespersons for the players. This player-led governance promotes “inclusive ownership that focuses on the long-term profit sharing and personal well-being of athletes…”
But perhaps the most striking thing about AU is the structure of the organization. AU is the first and only sports league to qualify as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC). To qualify as a PBC, an organization must commit itself to higher standards of purpose, accountability, and transparency while opting into stakeholder governance.
AU has embraced its standing as a PBC with a strong mission to contribute to the public good. Over its first three seasons, AU has donated $1 million dollars across 130 non-profit organizations of the players’ choosing as part of its “Athlete Causes” program. AU provides professional development training and funding for athletes to empower them as leaders of civic engagement in their communities, specifically supporting the representation of its BIPOC members. AU has also partnered with Aspiration to become the U.S.’s first-ever carbon-neutral sports league.
AU Changing the Game for Softball
For softball specifically, women’s professional leagues have struggled in the United States. The first Women’s Professional Softball League (“WPSL”) operated from 1997 to 2001. Then, the National Pro Fastpitch (“NPF”) league was founded in 2004 but suspended operations in 2021. In their histories, the two leagues bounced from four to seven teams at the start of each season with a total of 14 teams folding altogether. The model was not exactly sustainable, considering the players were making an average of $5,000 a year. Former NPF pitcher Delanie Gourley shared her frustration over the lack of player compensation when she tweeted in 2019: “The Yankee’s bat boy salary is more than my professional softball contract…”
Previously, it was argued that there was not enough revenue or viewership in softball to maintain a successful professional league. That is no longer true. NCAA Softball brought in $450 million dollars in the 2016-2017 season alone. In 2021, the Women’s College World Series attracted an average 1.2 million viewers per game over the course of the tournament, surpassing baseball’s College World Series by almost half a million viewers. In 2022, during the peak viewership of both championship games, softball topped baseball by 200,000 viewers.
So, from college to pro, what’s been missing?
The founders of AU, Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros tried to answer this question by targeting the issues that players had vocalized. By giving the players a voice at the executive level of the organization and making the league an equitable opportunity for its players, AU made the transition from college softball to professional a more desirable option.
Last season, AU players in all sports made an average of $20,000 for five weeks, a comparable rate to player’s overseas opportunities. Since its first season, AU secured a broadcast deal with ESPN and saw its viewership increase by 74%, social media engagement by 268%, and web traffic by 783%. And, most importantly, they achieved a 75% player retention rate. The same player-forward mindset that gave AU its PBC status allowed for the best U.S. players to compete at home, and the fans responded positively. AU’s growth is a persuasive argument that investing in the players is the key to a successful sports league.
 Graham Hays. For the Joy of It- Dejah Mulipola Wins 2022 Athletes Unlimited Title. (https://d1softball.com/for-the-joy-of-it-dejah-mulipola-wins-2022-athletes-unlimited-title/)  Athletes Unlimited. Who We Are. (https://auprosports.com/who-we-are/)  Athletes Unlimited. How We Play: Softball.” (https://auprosports.com/softball/how-we-play-softball/)  Athletes Unlimited. Player Executive Committees. (https://auprosports.com/player-executive-committees/)  Athletes Unlimited. Athletes Unlimited Establishes Itself as First Professional Sports League to Organize as a Public Benefit Corporation. (https://auprosports.com/read/athletes-unlimited-establishes-itself-as-first-professional-sports-league-to-organize-as-a-public-benefit corporation/#:~:text=Today%2C%20Athletes%20Unlimited%20celebrates%20becoming,up%20and%20support%20its%20athletes.)  Amanda Christovich. Athletes Unlimited us 1st Pro League Designed as Public Benefit Corporation. (https://frontofficesports.com/athletes-unlimited-is-1st-pro-league-designated-as-public-benefit-corporation/)  B Lab United States and Canada. Benefit Corporations. (https://usca.bcorporation.net/benefit-corporation?gclid=Cj0KCQjwj7CZBhDHARIsAPPWv3dPoq7JtJ-H97NmjcCW7CF4AycYjsrZj5T0Fkn6DxAuMW2V_CVjqm8aAugnEALw_wcB)  Athletes Unlimited. Athletes Unlimited Reaches 1 Million Given Through Athlete Causes Program. (https://auprosports.com/read/athletes-unlimited-reaches-1-million-given-through-athlete-causes-program/)  Athletes Unlimited. PBC Report. (https://auprosports.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/AthletesUnlimited_PBC_Report.pdf)  Athletes Unlimited. Athletes Unlimited Establishs Itself as First Professional Sports League to Organize as a Public Benefit Corporation. (https://auprosports.com/read/athletes-unlimited-establishes-itself-as-first-professional-sports-league-to-organize-as-a-public-benefit- corporation/#:~:text=Today%2C%20Athletes%20Unlimited%20celebrates%20becoming,up%20and%20support%20its%20athletes.)  Kayla Lombardo. National Pro Fastpitch League Suspends Operations. (https://www.softballamerica.com/stories/national-pro-fastpitch-suspends-league-operations/#:~:text=National%20Pro%20Fastpitch%20(NPF)%20announced,inclusion%20in%20the%20Tokyo%20Olympics.)  Patrick Pinak. Pro Softball Player: “Yankees Bat Boy Salary is More Than My Professional Contract.” (https://fanbuzz.com/college-softball/delanie-gourley-softball-contract/)  David Berri. NCAA Softball is Now A Revenue Sport… Really!” (https://www.softballamerica.com/stories/ncaa-softball-is-now-a-revenue-sport/ The Athetic Staff. Women’s College World Series Final Outgains Men’s Final, Averages 1.7 Million Viewers. (https://theathletic.com/news/wcws-viewership-outgains-mcws/rbtQfdTcCbuE/)  Shot:Clock Tweet. (https://twitter.com/shotclock_media/status/1412156865232920578?s=20&t=PG-7zliC27zloWfWpHwUIA)  Jolene Latimer. The Creation of Athletes Unlimited. (https://auprosports.com/read/the-creation-of-athletes-unlimited/)  Talib Visram. Athletes Unlimited is the First Public Benefit Pro Sports League. What Does This Mean For The Players? (https://www.fastcompany.com/90740475/athletes-unlimited-is-the-first-public-benefit-pro-sports-league-what-does-that-mean-for-the-players#:~:text=On%20top%20of%20base%20wages,the%20five%20weeks%2C%20minus%20expenses.)  Jade Hewitt. Athletes Unlimited Softball Viewership up 74% Heading Into New Season. (https://justwomenssports.com/athletes-unlimited-softball-lacrosse-espn-viewership/#:~:text=Viewership%20increased%2074%20percent%20over,783%20percent%20from%20last%20year.)  Athletes Unlimited. Athletes Unlimited, ESPN InkMulti-Year Rights Agreement for Softball And Lacrosse. (https://auprosports.com/read/athletes-unlimited-espn-announce-multi-year-rights-agreement-for-softball-lacrosse/#:~:text=To%20date%2C%20a%20total%20of,2022%20Athletes%20Unlimited%20Softball%20season.)