Athletes Unlimited Signs Big Sponsor in Boost for Women's Sports
(Bloomberg) -- Athletes Unlimited, a growing network of women’s pro-sports leagues, has signed its biggest sponsorship agreement yet as the organization aims to boost its profile by adding new sports to its lineup.
The seven-figure deal with green personal finance company Aspiration Financial will focus on promoting sustainability initiatives like reforestation campaigns with the leagues through 2023. Financial details of the arrangement, which also includes jersey patches and signage, weren’t disclosed.
AU is looking to grow its portfolio of women’s sports leagues in a field that’s long left athletes with few professional options after college. It operates U.S. pro leagues for women’s softball, indoor volleyball and lacrosse, running short, five-week seasons held entirely in one venue. In 2022, it’ll debut women’s basketball during the Women’s National Basketball Association’s offseason, providing athletes an alternative to playing abroad to earn paychecks.
Games have been broadcast on national networks like ESPN and CBS Sports, along with streaming services including YouTube and Facebook, and regional deals with the likes of NESN and MSG Network. The leagues have attracted sponsors including Nike Inc., PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.-owned Geico.
“There’s been interest in women’s sports for a long time,” said AU Chief Executive Officer Jon Patricof. “The fanbase has been there, and finally we have leagues that create opportunities.”
Viewership in women’s sports has jumped recently, with numbers up last year from the National Women’s Soccer League to the Women’s College World Series. This past WNBA season drew the most viewers the league has had in 13 years, up 51% from the year prior.
Consulting firm Deloitte said in a 2020 report that women’s sports events have already demonstrated their monetary potential and recommended that broadcasters, sponsors and apparel vendors capitalize on the opportunity. Researchers found that investment is on the rise, with the acquisition of several franchises in the U.S. and Europe, increased prize purses and the expansion of youth-level programs.
AU was founded in March 2020 by Patricof, the former president of Major League Soccer franchise NYC FC, and Jonathan Soros prior to holding its first softball games that fall. Unlike traditional league setups, AU doesn’t have teams representing cities, opting instead to have fluid rosters that reward player performance over the course of a season.
Sponsors are the most crucial revenue stream for AU, which also makes money from ticket sales and loyalty plan subscriptions. Other deals include one with Topps, which makes its softball trading cards, and the leagues have worked with the sportsbooks at DraftKings and Caesars for betting.
Management is now seeking additional sports to enter, though it likely won’t take another leap until at least 2023 — after the new basketball league tips off. There have been discussions for a range of sports from hockey to soccer to track-and-field, said Patricof. The hope is that having a network of sports, rather than solo leagues, will create the size necessary to coax big-money sponsors into the fray.
“I’ve known all along from being in the sports and entertainment world that scale matters,” Patricof said. “Our partners are the backbone of our financial model.”
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