ESPN to exclusively air Athletes Unlimited softball, lacrosse in significant media rights deal

·6 min read

Athletes Unlimited’s summer seasons of softball and lacrosse will air exclusively on ESPN’s networks two years after the player-led leagues first launched, the company announced Wednesday morning.

The main channels of ESPN and ESPN2 will air 34 contests and ESPNU will air an additional 56, placing a total of 90 on linear networks over the two-year deal that runs through 2023. The rest of the at least 160 games will air on ESPN+, the company said. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

It’s a win not only for the young league, but for women’s sports as a collective since they are rarely given airtime, let alone prominent and consistent linear TV slots.

“One of the biggest obstacles for fans of women’s sports to date has been accessibility to the game and the content,” Athletes Unlimited (AU) CEO and co-founder Jon Patricof told Yahoo Sports. “Even if you love pro softball or love pro lacrosse, it’s hard to find it. Typically it’s on multiple platforms. The fact that we know we can put everything under the ESPN umbrella in these sports I think is going to be great for fans and in turn great for advertisers.”

Placement on ESPN networks will mean built-in fans from ESPN’s NCAA Division I collegiate sports package, access to larger audiences and better lead-in programming. The deal does not include AU’s other offerings in volleyball and basketball, which launched in January with well-known WNBA names attached.

“We’re exploring all of our options and discussions with a number of parties about what we’re going to do with basketball and volleyball,” Patricof told Yahoo Sports. “What I have realized is there’s obviously a lot of power in the network we’ve built, but there’s also unique dynamics with each sport. So we’re actively in discussions with a number of different parties.”

ESPN deal will transition WCWS to AU softball

Hannah Flippen, No. 19 of Team Warren, celebrates with her teammates after her home run in the third inning against Team Osterman during the final weekend of the Athletes Unlimited softball league on Sept. 28, 2020, at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Hannah Flippen, No. 19 of Team Warren, celebrates with her teammates after her home run in the third inning against Team Osterman during the final weekend of the Athletes Unlimited softball league on Sept. 28, 2020, at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois. (Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

AU leagues are player-driven based on individual points and without set teams or rosters. Players draft teams weekly over five-week seasons and accrue points based on individual and team accomplishments as set forth by each sport’s Player Executive Committee. All games are held in one location with three games per week for each team.

It first launched in August 2020 with softball, which Patricof called “something of a sleeping giant." Games aired on ESPN3 and CBS Sports Network the first season and last summer on CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports, Facebook and YouTube. It’s also the first sport to expand with AUX (pronounced A-U-X) Softball launching as a two-week competition in June.

The deal goes beyond game coverage and will begin with the AU Softball Draft produced by ESPN and airing live from the espnW Summit in New York City on May 4.

“That already starts to extend the ways in which fans can engage and interact with Athletes Unlimited,” Patricof told Yahoo Sports.

The NCAA Division I softball conference championships begin in mid-May with the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) concluding in June. It's a vastly growing audience with Game 2 of the 2021 WCWS the most-viewed Game 2 on record at 2.1 million average viewers. That transitions into AUX Softball (June 13) and AU Softball (July 29) with first pitch scheduled to air on ESPN2 (7 p.m. ET).

“I think there’s going to be a lot of positivity that comes not only from us having softball and lacrosse with ESPN,” Patricof said, “but also the fact that we’re on with a network partner that has a lot of other softball game coverage and a lot of original content around it as well as studio shows. And also the same can be said for lacrosse that it has the other men’s pro leagues as well as the NCAA.”

ESPN announced a four-year media rights agreement with the men’s Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) last month in addition to the National Lacrosse League (NLL) and its men’s and women’s NCAA deal. AU Lacrosse, entering its second season, began in late July 2021 but does not have a schedule yet. ESPN and AU also collaborated on a four-part series, “Going Pro: Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse,” that will air on ESPN+ and followed four AU rookies in 2021.

“It creates more touch points for fans to engage with our leagues [and] our players,” Patricof said.

AU will continue to produce and oversee the game broadcasts and will "work to collaborate wherever possible" with ESPN, Patricof said. Broadcast teams have not been announced.

Women’s sports and media rights deals

TV rights and sponsorship deals are the biggest source of revenue for major sports rights holders and leagues, but women’s sports have largely been left out of the equation. Over the last few years, that has started to change, positively impacting aspects like marketing, sponsorship, awareness and cultural relevance.

“The role that distribution partners like ESPN play in helping enable the success of the league is absolutely tremendous,” Patricof told Yahoo Sports. “I’m not sure there’s any more significant component outside the athletes to building a successful platform.”

For comparison’s sake, the ESPN family of networks will air 25 regular season WNBA games in its 26th year of broadcasting the most established women’s sports league in the U.S. It also aired 25 last year, with eight underwritten by Google. The 2022 schedule includes a record-tying nine on ABC, five on ESPN and 10 on ESPN2. The 12-team WNBA expanded by four games to a 36-game schedule this summer with tipoff on May 6, though none of those games are on ESPN channels.

The WNBA’s deal is worth a reported $25 million annually, and commissioner Cathy Engelbert plans to bridge the media rights gap by signing a better deal.

The NWSL announced a “landmark” three-year media rights deal with CBS Sports in April 2020. CBS proper will air two regular season matches this summer and CBS Sports Network will have 11 plus three playoff matches. The season begins Saturday amid the ongoing Challenge Cup.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), always a leader in women’s equity, signed a 10-year deal it said is worth more than $525 million and runs through 2026.

With viewership continuously rising, it’s past time for new media deals that properly value women’s sports and show investment by broadcast companies. That, in turn, creates value for sponsors, which helps marketing and furthers awareness and viewership, which boosts media rights deals and so forth.

AU x ESPN schedule highlights

AUX SoftballJune 13-25, SDSU Softball Stadium in San Diego

  • Monday, June 13: Game 2 of opening night doubleheader on ESPN (8:30 p.m. ET)

  • Wednesday, June 15 and Monday, June 20: ESPN2 doubleheaders

  • Thursday, June 23: Title IX 50th anniversary doubleheader on ESPNU

  • All 18 games over two weeks on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU

AU Softball June 29-Aug. 28, Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois

  • Friday, July 29: First pitch of 2022 season on ESPN2 (7 p.m. ET)

  • Sunday, July 31 and Saturday, Aug. 20: ESPN2 doubleheaders

  • Seven games on ESPN2, six on ESPNU and 17 on ESPN+