ESPN, which already airs hundreds of college softball and women’s lacrosse games each spring, is set to become a destination for the pro versions of those sports as well.
The Disney-owned sports brand set a two-year agreement with emerging pro circuit Athletes United that will see more than 160 games air and stream on various platforms. Of the full roster of games, 34 of them will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2 and 56 will be on ESPNU. Others will stream on ESPN+, as will a four-part unscripted series, Going Pro: Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse.
Athletes Unlimited, which started with a focus on softball in 2020, has since branched out to lacrosse, volleyball and basketball, deploying a unique, player-centric format. Instead of the conventional focus on city-based teams drafting players, traveling to games and determining a final winner through playoff rounds, Athletes Unlimited focuses on individual athletes and a more meaningful regular season. Weekly drafts constantly reshuffle teams. Players compete for individual points, with one being crowned individual champion at the end of the five-week season. The strategy aims to capitalize on the new nature of sports fandom, which is starting to see individual players become more of a draw than specific teams or cities, at least in some sports.
ESPN will also have international rights for games, across TSN in Canada, ESPN Latin America, and other platforms.
Athletes Unlimited Softball, which launched in 2020, will have its third edition in Chicago from July 29 to August 28, when 60 players will square off at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, IL. The second season of Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse will take place this summer, with the dates and location to be announced.
“We are proud to collaborate with ESPN to solidify Athletes Unlimited Softball and Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse as two of the major pro sports leagues in the U.S.,” said Jon Patricof, CEO and co-founder of Athletes Unlimited, in a press release. “This deal establishes our presence as a major force in the pro sports landscape in the U.S., while serving as yet another reminder of ESPN’s commitment to women’s sports.”
Before co-founding the new pro league, Patricof was president of New York City FC, the pro soccer team part-owned by the New York Yankees. He also was COO of Tribeca Enterprises, parent of the Tribeca Festival and other ventures.
Burke Magnus, president of programming and original content, for ESPN, praised Athletes Unlimited’s “innovative approach” to women’s pro sports. “We are looking forward to showcasing these world class softball and lacrosse athletes as part of our longstanding commitment to women’s sports.”
As of now, 31 players from 2021 have re-signed with the league for the 2022 Athletes Unlimited Softball season, including 12 Olympians from four countries.
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