Having just signed a contract to participate in one of the outdoor sports tournaments 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 wasn’t sure what volleyball would look like,” says Lloyd, 32. I withdrew from the offer.
But last month, she’s back in the game, joining an intense five-week league that has seen volleyball players descend on Dallas for a tough tournament with its own rules. It is the only women’s professional volleyball league in the United States
It is one of five leagues run by Athletes Unlimited (AU), a company whose model aims to give “lowest-rated” athletes – all women – more power over federation decisions and agency over their careers. Launched in 2020, AU, a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), released its first annual report, a demand of PBCs, noting its accomplishments, including providing childcare benefits, establishing a racial equality group, and making regular donations to nonprofits that chosen by the players. Now, it will turn to creating a larger audience and engaging fans more.
A public benefit corporation is a corporation in which its stakeholders give social interest over financial returns, and its board of directors governs the corporation in that spirit; These companies include Patagonia, Kickstarter and Warby Parker. (It refers to the way the business is incorporated, which is different from being a B Corp, which is a certification.) says Jonathan Soros, co-founder of AU and CEO of investment firm JS Capital Management LLC. “What are you making of it.” Soros calls his interpretation “shareholder equity,” the idea that investors will receive a “satisfactory financial return with their direct support of the company’s non-financial mission.” (The university has not publicly named the names of its other investors yet.)
This is not the norm in sports, where traditional tournaments maximize profits, and management gives few votes to the people who earn money – the athletes – creating tension between the two factions. “It’s ultimately about the owners absorbing as much value as possible in competing with the athletes,” Soros says. Instead, with the AU model, the goal was to “think of athletes not just as their teams, but as a broader community”.
For mathematics in particular, there are stark financial disparities. In particular, a recent lawsuit exposed pay inequality between female and male soccer players: the US women’s team was compensated 40% less than the men’s team. In basketball, a high-paid WNBA player earns about one-fifth of a low-paid NBA player. In 2021, Golden State star Steve Curry reportedly earned the equivalent of more than 350 WNBA salaries – nearly twice the actual number of players in the WNBA.
Playing for a non-profit
AU runs five leagues a year: two for softball and one each for volleyball, basketball and lacrosse. Although tournaments offer invitations to top athletes in each sport, carefully selected based on topical abilities and needs, athletes can also attend open auditions, as long as they have completed their NCAA eligibility. Each league’s roster totals from 44 to 60 players per season.
The league format is very unusual — Lloyd had never seen it, “and I’ve been playing this sport since I was 11,” she says. In the five leagues, there are no specific teams. League leaders select teams and lead them through the first set of matches (there are three matches per week for five weeks). Depending on the team’s achievements, each player collects points and moves up and down the leaderboard. The top players in the ranking become captains for the upcoming matches.
All league games take place in one place, like the NBA’s COVID bubble format. There are no coaches, but “facilitators” who work at the behest of leaders. “They give the athletes more power than the coach,” says Lloyd. In addition to the base wages of $10,000, they receive win bonuses, as well as end-of-season bonuses calculated according to leaderboard placements, all accrued at an average payout of $20,000 for the five weeks, minus expenses. This is a similar pay rate to the outdoor leagues, says Lloyd; The WNBA is said to pay about $120,000 for a three-month season.
But here the effect begins: Before they start their tournaments, all players choose a non-profit charitable organization they wish to support. A donation equal to 50% of the player’s reward goes to that non-profit organization of their choice. Lloyd’s is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Softball player Jasmine Jackson, 25, declined to join because he was uncomfortable with the idea of people competing in the world rankings. But she found that the American university system still prized teamwork over individual accomplishments. “You can hit twice at home in one game, but you still get more points from winning each half and winning the game,” says Jackson, who has played for Team USA for five years. What prompted her to sign up was the nonprofit donation component — her charitable foundation is the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights — and now, she also works in AU as Director of Civic Leadership, connecting players with the nonprofit organizations of their choice.
Benefits, for home advantage
Some who join Ajman University are recruited outside of college, while others are still older and may be outside of their sport; It also serves people like Lloyd, in special circumstances. “We don’t compete with the WNBA, but we think we are complementary,” Soros says. CAF “seasons” are short-lived and complementary to regular sports, because the tournament is held in the off-season. Most importantly, for women’s volleyball and lacrosse, it is the only option to play professionally in the United States
In order to practice her sport professionally, Lloyd traveled abroad to compete for ten years. This year, with her new 11-month-old daughter, she favored proximity to Dallas versus Italy, a five-week commitment versus an eight-month contract. The company also offered her multiple childcare options, including finding her a daycare or outsourcing a nanny to accompany her — both of which they would pay for.
Elsewhere, the CAF treats pregnancy as a “normal part of a professional sports journey,” the report said. Women do not have to disclose their pregnancy, and the company will pay for part-time leave or even full medical leave. Although the patrols only take five weeks, Soros says, the company essentially offers 25 weeks of paid pregnancy and childcare leave in all seasons. “If you were in a company that was just maximizing profits, you might say, ‘Well, that’s not money we can spend today,'” he says. “
Lloyd still wants to return to outdoor competition next year. “I love to play outside, so my dream of playing is not over,” she says. But she acknowledges that the university publicly advocates for the athletes, while colleagues abroad have often complained of feeling like robots. “Outsiders, you’re not given much space to be a person,” she says. “You are there for your job.” “A thousand percent, I think women would feel safer and more determined to sign contracts abroad if they felt protected,” she adds.
Creating and sustaining a community
By contrast, AU includes athletes in the league’s decision-making process, and engages them primarily as advisors. Each league has a Players Executive Committee (PEC), which includes five players who meet weekly throughout the year to discuss topics including recruitment, venues, uniforms and equipment, with the mindset that athletes know their sport better than anyone else, including management. “We’re pretty much a part of every decision,” says Jackson, who is a member of the PEC committee, from choosing cleats to turf. I reported that one of the broadcast staff asked the committee what night they’d like to play on.
Jackson is also a member of the African Union’s Racial Equality Working Group, which was established in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. They work with historically black colleges and universities to ensure that budding athletes of color can be fairly recruited and put into trials. During the tournaments, they also run programs like Friday Night Lights and Storytelling For Inclusion, both of which bring players together for open discussions on racial and intersectional issues, such as religion and democracy. By playing roles in recruitment and programming, the idea is that athletes create and maintain their own communities.
In the coming years, the company wants to increase its sports offering, possibly create men’s leagues, and become the first carbon-neutral professional league. Its number one priority is to increase the audience, hoping to convert those who are already tuned in to similar events like the College World Series. “The main problem with being a two-year-old company is that most of the world hasn’t even heard of us yet,” Soros admits. The leagues are already broadcast on ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS Sports, but Soros wants to emphasize the unique nature of the competition to potential audiences. Because of the rotating teams, every game is completely different, avoid dead games and explosions. Fans can attend matches, but AU’s main sources of income are sponsorship and media rights.
Overall, Soros notes, industry conditions are improving. Last year, a ruling ensured that NCAA players were paid, at least in part; This year, the US women’s soccer team finally earned equal pay to their male counterparts. “Things are going in the right direction on a large scale,” he says. But he says his league is actively doing more. “With a little intent and partnership, you can transfer it a lot faster.”