After signing a contract to compete in one of the sport’s foreign leagues in Italy last year, professional volleyball player Carli Lloyd unexpectedly became pregnant. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist didn’t want to uproot her new family. “After giving birth, I didn’t know what volleyball was like,” says Lloyd, 32. She declined the offer.
But last month she returned to the game, joining an intense five-week league that saw volleyball players descend on Dallas for a rigorous tournament with rules all its own. It is the only professional women’s volleyball league in the United States.
It’s one of five leagues run by Athletes Unlimited (AU), a company whose model aims to give its ‘undervalued’ athletes – all women – more power over league decisions and their own career. Launched in 2020, AU is a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) and has released its first Annual Report, a requirement of PBCs, noting its achievements including providing childcare allowances, creating a racial equity group and making regular donations to player-chosen nonprofits. Now it will be about establishing a larger audience and involving fans more.
A public benefit corporation is one whose stakeholders prioritize social good over financial returns, and whose board of directors governs the company according to this philosophy; these companies include Patagonia, Kickstarter, and Warby Parker. (This refers to how a company is incorporated, which is different from being a B Corp, which is a certification.) “The requirements for a public benefit corporation are actually quite light,” says Jonathan. Soros, co-founder of AU, and CEO of investment firm JS Capital Management LLC. “What it is is what you make of it.” Soros calls his interpretation “mission equity,” the idea that investors will achieve “a satisfying financial return while directly supporting the company’s non-financial mission.” (AU has yet to publicly name its other investors.)
That’s not the norm in sports, where traditional leagues maximize profits and management gives little voice to the people who make their money – the athletes – creating tension between the two factions. “It’s ultimately about owners striving for as much value as they can in competition with their athletes,” Soros says. Instead, with the AU model, the goal has been to “think of athletes not just as their teams, but as a larger community.”
For female athletes in particular, the financial disparities are stark. Most notably, a recent lawsuit revealed the incredible pay gap between female and male soccer players: the US women’s team was paid 40% less than the men’s team. In basketball, a well-paid WNBA player earns about one-fifth of a low-paid NBA player. In 2021, Golden State star Steph Curry would have earned the equivalent of more than 350 WNBA salaries, nearly double the actual number of WNBA players.
The UA organizes five leagues a year: two for softball and one for volleyball, basketball and lacrosse. While the leagues invite the best athletes from each sport, hand-picked based on ability and positional needs, athletes can also attend open tryouts, provided they have completed their NCAA eligibility. . Each league’s roster totals 44 to 60 players per season.
The format of the leagues is very unusual – a Lloyd has never seen one, “and I’ve been playing the sport since I was 11,” she says. In the five leagues, there are no fixed teams. League captains select teams and lead them through an initial series of games (there are three games per week, for five weeks). Based on the team’s achievements, each player accumulates points and moves up and down in a leaderboard. The best players in the ranking become the captains of the next matches.
Games in each league are all taking place in the same location, like the NBA’s COVID bubble format. There are no coaches, but rather “facilitators” who work at the request of the captains. “They empower the athletes more than the coach,” says Lloyd. In addition to a base salary of $10,000, they receive victory bonuses, as well as end-of-season bonuses calculated according to ranking positions, all equivalent to an average salary of $20,000 for the five weeks, less expenses. Lloyd says it’s a comparable pay rate to foreign leagues; the WNBA would pay around $120,000 for a three-month season.
But this is where the impact is felt: before starting their tournaments, all players select a non-profit charity they wish to support. A donation equivalent to 50% of an athlete’s bonus is donated to the association of his choice. Lloyd’s is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Softball player Jazmyn Jackson, 25, initially declined to join due to discomfort with the idea of individuals competing in the leaderboards. But she discovered that the AU system still rewards teamwork rather than individual achievement. “You can hit two home runs in a game, but you’ll always get more runs by going every inning and winning the game,” says Jackson, who played for Team USA for five years. What prompted her to enroll was the non-profit giving element – her charity is the Ella Baker Center For Human Rights – and now she also works for the AU as a responsible for civic leadership, connecting players to the nonprofit organizations of their choice.
Advantages, for the advantage of the house
Some who join UA are recruited from outside of college, while others are even older and may otherwise age out of their sport; it also serves people like Lloyd, in special circumstances. “We’re not competitive with the WNBA, but we think we’re complementary,” Soros said. UA “seasons” are short-term and complementary to standard sports, as they run the tournament out of season. Above all, for women’s volleyball and lacrosse, it is the only option to play professionally in the United States.
In order for her to practice her sport professionally, Lloyd went abroad to compete for ten years. This year, with a new 11-month-old daughter, she favored the proximity of Dallas over Italy, and the five-week commitment over an eight-month contract. The company also offered him several childcare options, including finding him daycare or finding a nanny to accompany him, both of which they would pay for.
Elsewhere, the UA also treats pregnancy as “a normal part of a professional athlete’s journey”, the report reads; women do not have to declare their pregnancy and the company will pay for part-time or even full-time sick leave. Although the leagues only last five weeks, Soros says, the company essentially offers paid pregnancy leave and childcare for 25 weeks across all seasons. “If you were part of a company that was just trying to maximize profits,” he says, “you might say, ‘Well, that’s not money we can spend today. ‘”
Lloyd still wants to return to competition overseas next year. “I love playing overseas, so my dream of playing is not over,” she said. But she acknowledges that the AU openly defends the athletes, while her foreign colleagues have often complained of feeling like robots. “Overseas, you’re not given a lot of space to be a person,” she says. “You are here for your job.” She adds, “A thousand percent, I think women would feel safer and more adamant about signing contracts overseas if they felt protected.”
Create and nurture a community
By contrast, AU includes athletes in league decision-making, essentially engaging them as consultants. Each league has a Players’ Executive Committee (PEC), which includes five players who meet weekly throughout the year to discuss topics such as recruiting, venues, uniforms and equipment, with the mindset that athletes know their sport better than anyone, including management. Jackson, who sits on his PEC committee, says, “We’re involved in just about every decision,” from choosing cleats to turf. She mentions that a staff member from the broadcast team even asked the committee which night they would prefer to play.
Jackson is also part of the AU’s Racial Equity Task Force, established in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. They work with historically black colleges and universities to ensure aspiring athletes of color can be recruited fairly and make it to tryouts. During leagues, they also host programs like Friday Night Lights and Storytelling For Inclusion, both of which bring players together for open discussions about race and intersecting issues, like religion and democracy. By playing a role in recruiting and programming, the idea is for athletes to create and support their own communities.
In the years to come, the company wants to develop its sports offer, perhaps create men’s leagues, and become the first carbon-neutral pro league. Its first priority is to grow an audience, hoping to convert those already tuning in to similar events like the College World Series. “The main problem with being a two-year-old company is that most people haven’t heard of us yet,” admits Soros. The leagues are already shown on ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS Sports, but Soros wants to highlight the unique nature of the competition to potential fans. Due to team rotation, each game is completely different, avoiding dead plays and blowouts. Fans can attend matches, but the main sources of income for the UA are sponsorships and media rights.
Overall, Soros notes that industry conditions are improving. A ruling last year ensured that NCAA athletes would be paid, at least partially; this year, the US women’s soccer team finally got equal pay to their male counterparts. “Things are moving in the right direction, overall,” he says. But he says his league is actively doing more. “With a little intention and partnership, you can move them much faster.”