‘Kinda like fantasy sports in real life’: Athletes Unlimited gears up for inaugural softball season

When Cat Osterman throws her practice bullpen sessions ahead of Athletes Unlimited’s upcoming softball season, she throws to a different catcher every day. As one of 56 players in a new pro league where captains draft new teams every week, Osterman has a lot of players to get to know.

At 37, Osterman is one of the oldest in the league. A veteran of the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, Osterman retired in 2015 but announced a comeback in 2018 to try to play in the 2020 Tokyo Games. She made the team that qualified for Tokyo, but when the Olympics were postponed to 2021, Osterman wanted to get in-game reps somewhere.

That’s when she signed onto Athletes Unlimited, a league she calls “kinda like fantasy sports in real life.” The season, which begins Aug. 29 at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois, is the first for Athletes Unlimited, which pioneers a new approach to professional women’s sports.

During the season, players will earn points for team wins as well as various individual stats, and those who accumulate the most points each week will serve as team captains for the next week and get to draft their teams. All games will be held at a single site without fans.

For Osterman, that means potentially having to throw to a new catcher every week. With interaction between athletes limited due to coronavirus safety precautions, Osterman has been getting to know some of the younger catchers through bullpen sessions.

Athletes Unlimited catcher Amanda Chidester prepares for the upcoming season at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois. (Photo: Courtesy: Jade Hewitt, Athletes Unlimited)

“Not only is it gonna be getting comfortable throwing to them, but you use that 45 minutes to chat a little bit with them while you work in order to try to get to know people and see how they tick,” Osterman told USA TODAY Sports. “And I think a lot of team-picking is going to come down to who’s performing so it’s just gonna be kind of keeping track of what everyone is doing.”

Weathering the storm

Athletes Unlimited announced its pro softball league March 3, just a week before the sports world largely shut down due to COVID-19. But if there’s a league designed to weather a global pandemic, it’s this one.

Even with the uncertainty around sports, many players were confident that Athletes Unlimited’s season would still go on.

Due to the structure of re-drafting teams every week, the league was already starting small — just four teams and 56 players — and games were to be played at a single site during a month-long season. With no sports for much of the summer, Athletes Unlimited was able to secure TV deals with ESPN and CBS Sports Network. And Jon Patricof, the co-CEO of Athletes Unlimited, believes the player-driven structure will allow the league to survive a season without fans.

“The whole vision behind Athletes Unlimited (is), so many leagues are spending so much time being focused on creating a team brand or a city-based brand, and for us it doesn’t fit with where fans are going in the future,” Patricof said. “Fans are focused on following the athletes and their careers on and off the field, and that's what Athletes Unlimited is all about.

“We’re letting them participate in the league, vote on certain elements of what happens on the field and then we have … the dugout cam, which we were making available at certain times during the game. Members of our fan base are gonna be able to interact with players who are in the dugout.”

A new style

The league doesn’t have official coaches. Instead, there will be four “facilitators,” non-players designated to help run practices, set lineups, make decisions, or anything else the team captain might want help with. The facilitators for the season are 2008 Olympian Lauren Lappin, University of Washington volunteer assistant Whitney Jones, Florida State volunteer assistant Christian Conrad and Mike Viramontez, formerly a volunteer assistant at North Texas.

And because professional softball players generally have other jobs in the offseason, many are also involved in coaching at the high school or college level.

“It helps just in terms of logically thinking lineups and planning a practice and some of the things that some of the people might overlook,” said Victoria Hayward, an outfielder who has coached at LSU, UMass, Maryland and UCF. “But I do think it's helpful just in terms of thinking of the game in a different way and managing matchups.”

Now, in the week before their season begins, it’s up to the players to get to know each other to ensure they can be on a team with any of the other players. Athletes are not allowed to do a lot of socializing inside their “shield” — the term they use instead of “bubble” — but Hayward likes to sit on a grassy patch outside the players’apartment and have socially distant conversations about softball. The athletes also talk over Zoom and during workouts.

Athletes Unlimited is new. It’s different. The changes in strategy will take some getting used to for everyone. But the players signed on for the upcoming season see it as an opportunity to be part of something. 

“Softball’s been missing in our world as professional softball players so we are just incredibly excited to get to play softball,” Hayward said. “But above that … there’s been so much energy and talk about Athletes Unlimited and you can feel it when you walk into the stadium, this is different, this is bigger, this is going to be great.”

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