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Strategy

Innovation

Leadership

Athletes Unlimited: Innovating Professional Sports and Empowering Players

Abstract

On October 7, 2019, businessmen Jonathan Soros and Jon Patricof pitched a concept for a new professional sports startup to four professional softball players who had traveled to Soros’s office in New York City. During the meeting, the two men laid out their vision for an innovative professional softball league that would involve a new competition format, a new scoring system, and a new player-led organizational structure. There would be no team owners and no traveling from stadium to stadium. All games would take place in the same location. Players would make critical team and league decisions and get an equity-like interest in the league. Soon after Soros and Patricof concluded their pitch, the softball players enthusiastically said they were all in. And the concept didn’t stop at softball.

Over the next three years, Athletes Unlimited launched women’s professional leagues in four different sports—softball, volleyball, lacrosse, and basketball—with more than 200 athletes on team rosters. In March 2023, Fast Company named AU one of the world’s 10 most innovative companies in sports, making it the first women’s sports league to receive that accolade. 

After a whirlwind three years, AU was at a reflection point. What should be next for the fledgling startup? What would help AU break through on a bigger scale, gain more exposure, win over more fans, generate more revenue, and attract more investors and partners? How could AU build on its momentum without diluting its player-driven mission and its commitment to innovation and social impact on and off the field or court?

Learning Objectives

  • Analyze the growth potential of women’s sports.

  • Examine the strategic innovation process in the sports industry.

  • Explore how startup sports leagues are built, managed, and scaled.

  • Consider the role and importance of social impact in creating new ventures.

  • Examine the evolving role of professional athletes in team and league decision making.

Appropriate for the Following Course(s)

strategy, innovation, leadership, sports management, business of sports, sports analytics

Athletes Unlimited: Innovating Professional Sports and Empowering Players

Educator Copy 

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