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#ProDucks In Vanguard Of Pro League

Aug 17, 2020

The other day, Oregon softball alum Gwen Svekis went to the Parkway Bank Sports Complex, just northwest of Chicago, to get in some hitting.

The facility is located in Rosemont, Ill., and will host the inaugural Athletes Unlimited Softball League season, beginning Aug. 30. Svekis isn't only a player in the league — one of four Ducks who plan to participate — but she's been involved with Athletes Unlimited nearly from its inception, helping get off the ground a company seeking to empower athletes at the professional level, across a wide range of sports.

When Svekis arrived at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex for her workout last week, signage was in place for the upcoming start of the season. Her heart soared.

"It just looks great," she said in a phone interview Friday. "This is the first we've really been able to see our vision standing up tall, finally coming to life. We're just so excited for it to launch."

In a nutshell, Athletes Unlimited is looking to reframe the organizational model for professional sports, moving the emphasis for fans away from loyalty to teams, and toward loyalty to players. Rather than signing contracts binding themselves to specific teams, players work directly for the league, and will be split into teams during weekly drafts through the monthlong softball season.

Svekis sits on a five-player executive committee that is in charge of governance for the softball league. She's also the manager of player care and player coordinator across all sports for Athletes Unlimited, which believes the upcoming softball season will be the first of many sports to be contested under this new model.

"It's definitely a lot on my plate," said Svekis, an all-American as a senior at Oregon in 2018, when she hit .324 with 17 home runs to help the Ducks reach the Women's College World Series for the third time in her four years. "But it's cool because it's rewarding to look at the softball league and say, 'Wow, I had a direct hand in making this league what I think is best for our player group and our sport. …

"We're not gender-specific; right now we're running with women's sports because there's an opportunity due to them being undervalued, under-broadcast, under-funded, all of it. So there's a market to break through in women's sports. But our vision long-term is to revolutionize sports in general."

Svekis was a freshman at Oregon in 2015, when the senior class included two of her potential teammates in the Athletes Unlimited league, Janie (Takeda) Reed and Karissa Hovinga. When Svekis was a senior, the Ducks' shortstop was another Athletes Unlimited participant, DJ Sanders, with whom Svekis has played the last two years on the roster of the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch.

That league cancelled its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Athletes Unlimited participants isolated in advance of the league's inception, and the league has protocols in place to protect against spreading the coronavirus. So now it's full-speed ahead, with the start of the season less than two weeks away for Svekis and her fellow UO alums.

"It's really, really cool for us all to get together, and hopefully get a few chances to throw the 'O' loud and proud," Svekis said.

It was her ties to National Pro Fastpitch that led to the opportunity with Athletes Unlimited, Svekis said. NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf told Svekis about an interesting proposal she'd heard, and before Svekis knew it, she and a handful of other players were sitting around an office table in midtown New York, overlooking Central Park, listening to a pitch from AU founders John Patricof and Jonathan Soros.

To a power hitter like Svekis, the pitch was a fastball right down the middle. It was a chance not only for her to compete in the sport she loves, but also put to use her education: Svekis earned a General Social Science degree with a business concentration at Oregon, and a Master's of Athletic Administration from Indiana, while she served as a graduate manager.

"It's been really rewarding, knowing my schooling helped me do something like this," said Svekis, who has been working full-time for Athletes Unlimited since the spring.

The softball league's four teams will each play three games per week, but the final standings will be a comparison not of team records, but rather player performance. Players will earn points for team victories and also the statistics they generate, and their compensation at the end of the season will be determined by those results.

The top performer at the end of the six-week training period and season could earn as much as $35,000, Svekis said. At a minimum, players are guaranteed $10,000.

Rooting for players rather than teams might seem radical, but that mentality has fueled fantasy sports for decades. Svekis points out that she's a LeBron James fan more than a fan of his team, the Los Angeles Lakers; she follows the New York Liberty primarily because of their recent No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick, UO alum Sabrina Ionescu, rather than out of loyalty to the franchise itself.

"People are a lot more familiar with individual players now than they ever have been before," Svekis said. "We're trying to get ahead of that curve, and revolutionize the way people consume sports in general."

All of the Athletes Unlimited games will be available to watch live, via broadcast and streaming productions by ESPN and CBS Sports. For Oregon fans, that's a month's worth of chances to watch Svekis and her fellow alums in action.

"I'm a Duck through and through," Svekis said. "I'm as proud a Duck as a Duck could be. Obviously everything that's happened the last couple years (with Oregon's coaching change after the 2018 season) has made it a little bit strange, because it's a different program from the one I was associated with. But Missy" — second-year coach Melyssa Lombardi — "has done a really great job of connecting and trying to bridge the gap between the last generation of Ducks and this new generation."

Oregon fans who packed Jane Sanders Stadium to root for Svekis back in 2018, and look forward to doing so again in the future for the likes of Haley Cruse and Jordan Dail, will no doubt appreciate that sentiment. And they'll flock to TVs and computer screens in droves over the next few weeks, to cheer on Svekis, Sanders, Hovinga and Reed again with their Athletes Unlimited teams.