Adjacent to the Ballpark at Rosemont, where Athletes Unlimited played its inaugural pro softball season, the Parkway Bank Sports Complex’s dome houses an indoor practice field, weight rooms, batting cages and, in one corner of the three-acre expanse, a series of booths with the latest in sports tech gadgetry.
The Athletes Unlimited Innovation Lab was a resource for the 57 pro softball players to train and recover better. Sparta Science, Hyperice, WIN Reality, HitTrax and Franklin Sports were among the companies that worked with the players throughout the summer.
“This year was my 10th season playing professionally,” says outfielder Megan Wiggins, “and I probably felt most like a professional.”
Athletes Unlimited is a new venture by co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, who saw both an opportunity for more women’s pro sports and a chance to reimagine a competition format to be more athlete-centric. During the six-week softball schedule that concluded with a doubleheader on CBS Sports Network on Monday evening, player captains redrafted teams each week and earned bonus money based on a series of performance incentives.
“How do we create the best environment for the players? I always said the major criteria for success was: Are the players going to come out of this experience and say that it was a great, incredible honor and be excited to come back and play for a second?” says Patricof, the CEO of Athletes Unlimited and a former president of Major League Soccer’s NYCFC. “That was the spirit behind it, and out of that came the athlete innovation lab and the concept of, ‘Let’s bring together a great series of technology partners who are in the space of athlete wellbeing, health, performance and let’s bring the state-of-the-art to the athletes.’ ”
As a fledgling professional sport, softball leagues aren’t always able to afford the latest amenities the way that even a well-funded college program might be able to. Pitcher Haylie Wiggins, for example, had access to Hyperice’s NormaTec Pulse sleeve for recovery on her left pitching arm at Michigan. In the five years since graduating, however, she didn’t have one until this summer.
“Recovery is so huge for us,” Wiggins says of the six-week season, adding about NormaTec: “That was just something that I haven’t had since college. So being able to know that I could go in there after a game or on an off-day and just get that recovery and compression on my arm was really important for me.”
Hyperice provided its full suite of tools for the players, including the Hypervolt Plus percussion massage device, the Vyper vibrating roller, and the Venom lower back pad for heat and vibration treatment. Those offerings were in particularly high demand in Rosemont, with ample inventory for the players to use in the lab and to take home. “I think that’s really important as a professional athlete—to feel like you don’t have to sacrifice one day and not do something because there’s not enough tools or somebody’s using it,” Wiggins says. “Just the accessibility and time and the quantity of different resources that we have is really cool.”
The biweekly Sparta Science screenings not only helped the athletes in the moment but also helped identify training weaknesses that may need an offseason to address. (Wiggins says its vertical jump scores helped fuel some friendly competition too.) Wagner, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the final weekly re-draft, was an avid consumer of Lasso Gear compression socks and the Halo Sport hydration drinks. She cited friends who swore by WIN Reality and HitTrax too. “Everything that’s in there is good for somebody, and there are at least multiple people using it,” Wagner says.
Athletes Unlimited deems the lab a success and will replicate it in both future softball seasons and in other sports leagues, such as the volleyball circuit scheduled to begin play in 2021. The lab proved to be a good testing ground for the tech companies, as well.
“Our mission aligns very much with Athletes Unlimited and how they put the power in the hands of the players themselves,” says Dan Canina, Hyperice’s director of global performance. “I think we also, more than anything, proved how much we can help support the players, especially in that accelerated, condensed season the way that they have structured it out in these different cities and in these hubs. That’s really where our technology shines.”
Athletes Unlimited was the site of WIN Reality’s first softball VR product, which was followed subsequently with distribution to five top college programs last month. The full version of the softball VR simulator is slated for next month, and an amateur product that will operate on Oculus Quest is due in the coming weeks.
Patricof says he hopes future seasons of Athletes Unlimited (in a post-pandemic world) might also have a fan-facing innovation lab. For now, however, the tools were woven into social media and TV coverage, which included not only CBS Sports Network but also ESPN2 and ESPNU.
“Athletes Unlimited is a very digitally-driven property,” Patricof says. “And if you look at the way in which we’ve produced our content, built out our social channels, built out our communication channel, putting on the live game is one major part, but equally important to us is telling the story of what happened off the field.”
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