Courtesy Athletes Unlimited
Athletes Unlimited marked its third softball season on Friday, July 29, in Rosemont, Ill. AU has given players an opportunity that most female athletes don’t: to show their voice on the issues they care about, both in and out of sports.
Athletes Unlimited started in 2019 and has four sports — basketball, softball, lacrosse, and volleyball — challenging the traditional ways of professional playing. The athletes are not binded to cities or coaches since every week new teams are created with different names, players, and captains.
Cassidy Lichtman, a legendary volleyball player, retired from her sport in 2016, planning to move on. She said that there were no opportunities for her in the United States, until she heard about AU.
“I used to play the national team and professionally overseas, but there were no opportunities to play in the US,” Lichtman said. “A couple of my friends from the national team, were the first to sign on with AU, one of them being Jordan Larson, who’s our champion the first season. I was talking to her and she said, ‘You know, there’s this new league starting the US,’ and that’s something we’ve heard more than a couple of times in the span of my career. It hasn’t really been real in the past, or been kind of a really, really sustainable effort,”
Haylie Wagner, a softball pitcher, had a similar experience. After graduating from the University of Michigan she signed with the Pennsylvania Rebellion. However, that team folded and she moved to the Chicago Bandits. She planned on playing on the team until she heard about AU.
“It was actually October of 2019 when I got a phone call from our [National Pro Fastpitch] commissioner and our senior director with Athletes Unlimited, Sherry Camp, and she called him up and kind of told me about this opportunity, didn’t go into much detail but there was these two guys from New York that wanted to take me and a couple other athletes on a day trip to New York to pitch us this wonderful idea,” Wagner said. “And we took that day trip to New York and the second we got there we were treated like professionals and treated like businesswomen, instead of just these pro softball players that nobody really knows about.”
Lichtman felt the same way after meeting with Jon Patricof, the CEO and co-founder of AU.
“For the first time I felt like this is going to be a real effort to establish professional volleyball and other women’s sports in the US,” she said. “And so I decided that I was gonna come out of retirement and play in Season 1.”
According to Lichtman and Wagner, the most important part of playing for AU is creating a bigger chance for young girls wishing to play their sport after college.
“We knew that it was real and we knew that this was something we wanted to move forward to because it right away and gave us the opportunity to grow softball to use our voice in many different aspects of the world and the game, and also really focused on making this a bigger thing in 10 or 20 years and inspire and empower the younger generation,” said Wagner. “And for me personally, my hope is that these little girls that are coming to all of the games and see us play here and on ESPN that they’re looking at that TV like. ‘I want to play professional softball one day.’
“I hope that in 20 years that they are able to do that, and that we’re just the pioneers in the beginning steps to play professionally and make five times more than what we are doing, if not more.”
They are not just playing for themselves, Wagner said, but for any softball hopeful.
“We’re playing for the younger generation, we’re playing for the past and present and future players,” the pitcher said. “We’re playing for charities, we’re playing for our families, and we’re just playing to have fun with the game and just show our competitiveness.
“I’m just really thankful that Athletes Unlimited came into the softball world and we’re hoping just to continue this wonderful platform for years to come.”
The league also showcases athletes’ voices through committees of players for each sport. Unlike any other professional leagues, the players make the important decisions, such as what hotels they stay in, who their officials are, and even deciding who their teammates are. Lichtman is on the volleyball committee, and she said that they are in on every decision regarding the league.
“Our athletes are treated exponentially larger than I think of any other professional or, or collegiate even sport, which is a really great experience for us, not only to get a league that we love, or design for us. But also for those of us on one to be able to kind of have insight into the entire organization and learn how that works and how professionally it operates. It’s just a great experience for us in our lives going forward.” Lichtman said.
“It’s just an experience, we wouldn’t get otherwise if we were, you know, professional athletes. Most basketball players are not involved in decisions on a daily or weekly basis.”
Wagner said the best part of playing for AU is its recognition of what players truly care about.
“Athletes Unlimited has given us a voice on social media on the field on and off the field and really just in any aspects that if we have something that we want to share or talk about or create a story about they’re very welcoming with it,” she said.
At the end of the season, the league works with charities that players are connected to, and matches half of their bonuses. The charity work has given Wagner a deeper connection with her teammates beyond the field.
“People saw a different side of me and kind of who I was and more of a deeper level. Just having that voice for all of these different causes.” she said. “And learning more about them within our 60 girls has been really awesome. It’s been great about sharing it and really supporting our love.”
Lichtman said that it feels like the environment she plays in is finally matching the dedication and quality she has put into her sport.
“I think it’s just, you know, the product that we’re putting out there in terms of the quality of play and the quality of these athletes has always been good enough,” she said. “I think, you know, for us with Athletes Unlimited, the first time that the quality of the production and everything around it is also at that high level. So we’re excited to take that out now to kind of more sponsors and more fans and for them to be able to see how great this is. And I think once we can capture their attention, they’re going to love it.”
(For more information about Athletes Unlimited, its sports and athletes, go its home page: www.auprosports.com.)
–Aug. 2, 2022–