Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros
“What would happen if we started with a blank sheet of paper?” So began the genesis of a revolutionary new approach to professional women’s sports leagues. Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros sought to put the power in the hands of athletes by building an innovative platform for women’s sports when they co-founded Athletes Unlimited (AU). Tossing the traditional sports model aside, these bold business disruptors have built an extraordinary partnership with pro athletes that puts individual players in control of the game – taking head coaches, club owners and locked rosters out of the equation. From player-led executive committees to creating unprecedented pathways for long-term equity and ways to give back to athletes’ chosen nonprofits, Patricof and Soros have truly created something transformative. For their unwavering commitment to elevating the voices of women athletes by building a more equitable and inclusive model for professional sports, they are the Women’s Sports Foundation’s 2023 Champion for Equality Award recipients.
Patricof and Soros launched AU’s cutting-edge model with softball in 2020, adding volleyball and lacrosse in 2021, and basketball in 2022. The leagues consist of a never-before-seen competition format, scoring system, and a player-led organizational structure. Forgoing bouncing back and forth between cities and stadiums, players compete in one place throughout a five-week season. At the beginning of each season, four captains are appointed to draft the first week’s teams and the one-of-a-kind scoring system rewards players for peak performance where they can earn points (and monetary bonuses) for winning as a team, their individual stats and being voted MVPs of the game. At the end of each week, the top four players become the new captains and draft a team from scratch for the next week. This model is tailored towards sports fans who follow athletes and not teams, providing a unique experience for them each week.
From Patricof’s experience growing the Disney, ESPN and ABC brands across emerging channels, leading the Tribeca Film Festival then the NYC Football Club to Soros’ experience founding JS Capital, co-founding Give Lively LLC, and sitting on the boards of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and GivingTuesday; these co-founders have demonstrated a visionary approach throughout their careers. AU’s game-changing model was built on this solid foundation and from day one, Patricof and Soros were prepared to dive in and disrupt the women’s sports ecosystem and it is paying off. In just three years, AU has had 13 seasons across 4 sports involving over 350 world class athletes and announced it had secured more than $30 million in new capital from investors both inside and outside of the sports ecosystem. Other notable milestones include becoming the first ever pro sports league to organize as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) and becoming carbon neutral in the United States. These are a few of the reasons why Fast Company recognized AU as one of the ‘world’s most innovative companies’ in 2023, making them the first women’s sports organization to receive the tribute.
Through AU, Patricof and Soros are out to prove that women’s sports, which have historically been undervalued in our society, can be successful by doing things differently. By striking deals with consumer brand powerhouses like Nike, Gatorade, and ESPN, they are helping give some of the world’s best athletes a platform to thrive like never before. It is their hope that AU’s model provides a roadmap for the future of all sports and shows what is possible when we upend conventional power structures and center athletes as decision-makers and stakeholders, ultimately reshaping attitudes and expectations around women as professional athletes and establishing new norms for how businesses show up in the world.