Utah softball stars Hannah Flippen and Anissa Urtez join Athletes Unlimited in changing their sport and the way it’s watched

(Photo courtesy of Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited) Hannah Flippen, the University of Utah all-time leader in runs, hits and batting average, fields a ball during practice for the inaugural Athletes Unlimited softball season, scheduled for Aug. 30-Sept. 29 in Rosemont, Ill. The AU model gives players individual points for pivotal plays and reshuffles the players on the four teams every week.

Hannah Flippen doesn’t have much experience as a fantasy sports team owner. Still, if it falls on her to step up to the draft board and pick her teammates for a week during the new Athletes Unlimited softball season, she won’t be flying blind.

“I know that I have three brothers at home that are going to be watching every single game and keeping their own stats and they’re probably going to text me every week, like, ‘You should draft this kid, this kid, this kid and you should start this girl and close with this girl,’” the 25-year-old former University of Utah standout said. “So I have my own little task force at home working for me that I’m going to rely on pretty heavily.”

And the task of forming a team may fall to Flippen, who is also an infielder for the USA Softball team. Athletes Unlimited sports have no team owners, coaches or managers. So those roles, and more, will be handled by the players. But that’s not the only unique aspect of Athletes Unlimited, a new player in team sports with a vision of turning the way sports are watched inside out.

In addition to runs and outs, players will earn individual points — yes, points — for making big plays for their team (think home run, strikeout, stolen base or RBI). A running tally will be kept throughout the four-week season, which runs Aug. 29-Sept. 29 at the Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Ill. At the end of each week, the four players with the most points will be named team captains and they will draft new teammates from the pool of 56 players for the next week’s round of games.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah's Anissa Urtez rounds third as she scores a run during the NCAA softball regional game against BYU at Dumke Family Field at the U. of U. in Salt Lake City Friday May 19, 2017.

It’s like fantasy football or baseball, except that the players are invested in the individual stakes. The higher they are ranked, the bigger the bonus they’ll take home at the end of the season.

Jon Patricof left his position as the president of the MLS team New York FC two years ago to found Athletes Unlimited with Jonathan Soros in part, he said, because he saw an opportunity in women’s sports, which he said are undervalued. This softball season will be the organization’s inaugural event, followed by women’s volleyball in February and another yet-to-be-determined sport later in 2021.

“The genesis of the idea was, you know, fan behavior is changing and fans are following athletes much more than they are following teams,” said Patricof, who has recruited such athletes as Kevin Durant and Abby Wambach to be on Athletes Unlimited’s athlete advisory board. “And so that was one big idea and a second big idea was: How do you really empower athletes? So much of what happens in professional leagues, you have kind of owners on one side and athletes on another side. What if you could really unify that?”

The players will make a base salary of $10,000, but the total purse is $1 million. That leaves $44,000 up for grabs.

Those who stand to make the most money will also have the most responsibility. The four captains, with the help of an on-campus facilitator and any off-campus lifelines they may want to reach out to, will make the decisions about team makeup, management and training. That could distract from their play, which could ultimately cost them money or their captain status. It could also place them in awkward situations. In many ways, the draft is like picking teams on the sandlot, where a captain may have to choose between a friend and a more talented player.

Still, Flippen — the Utes’ all-time leader in runs, hits and batting average — isn’t shying away from the opportunity.

She said “it’s like, ‘OK, do you want to play with, like, the most elite athletes or do you want to play with your best friends?’ And thankfully, I’m in a group where both of those things are relevant for me. I have great friends who have good energy and love the game, but they’re also really talented. So that’s kind of what I’m going to go off of.”

One of those friends is former Utes teammate Anissa Urtez, who is also an infielder. Urtez is on the Mexico National Team that qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and will be joined by five teammates in Illinois. Nine total Team USA players, including Flippen, will also be there, along with three players from the Canadian national team and one from Italy’s team. In total, the group will include 19 Olympians.

When the season was originally scheduled, those players expected to be coming off softball’s first appearance in the Olympics since it was dropped after the 2008 Summer Games. Most of the rest — including newly named Dixie State assistant coach Sahvanna Jacquish — expected it to be one last hurrah after wrapping up a summer of playing professionally in the National Pro Fastpitch league. Of course, COVID-19 changed all that.

Urtez, 25, hasn’t played since she joined the Mexico team at a tournament in Puerto Vallarta in February.

“I’m just so excited to, like, finally have some answers for softball. It’s not just, like, the waiting game anymore. It’s like, ‘OK, we’re actually going to play,’ like, ‘This is exciting!’” she said. “And they’re taking so many precautions for us to be able to get on the field. I feel safe in that sense, too. I don’t feel like I’m doing something reckless.”

Urtez and her partner, catcher Amanda Chidester, arrived on campus a few weeks early, and that proved to be prudent. Chidester tested positive for COVID-19 during initial testing despite not showing any symptoms, and she and her traveling companions, including Urtez, had to quarantine for two weeks. All have since been cleared to play.

In addition to being tested before and after they arrive in the “shield,” the term Patricof prefers to the “bubble,” players will be tested multiple times a week for at least the first two weeks. Among other precautions, they are not allowed to go grocery shopping; instead food is delivered to their hotel or apartment. No one other than roommates is allowed to enter players’ rooms and they can only travel two people per car. Breaking any of those rules results in a fine.

Those measures are far and above what Flippen experienced last month in Florida after she agreed to play on an independent pro team against another team from Texas. Two weeks into the season, play had to be stopped because of a coronavirus outbreak.

Flippen, who stepped down from her role as an assistant coach with Utah in part to participate in the Athletes Unlimited season, doesn’t expect that in Rosemont.

“It’s all the precautions that you could ever imagine being taken,” Flippen said. “And I’m really grateful for it because I want this whole league to happen.”

Urtez said she thinks the Athletes Unlimited platform could put softball in the spotlight in a way it never has been, especially with the opener being broadcast on ESPN2 and the rest of the games available on ESPN3 and the CBS Sports Network. And that’s a dream, maybe even a fantasy, she’s had for quite a while.

“It’s new. It’s fresh. There’s no sports really going on right now, so I thought it would be a cool opportunity for the sport of softball. And I was like, ‘Well, I want to be a part of that,” she said. “Of course I do.”


Week 1 schedule

Game 1: Aug. 29, 11 a.m., ESPN2

Game 2: Aug. 29, 2 p.m., ESPN3

Game 3: Aug. 30, 11 a.m., ESPN3

Game 4: Aug. 30, 1:30 p.m., ESPN3

Game 5: Aug. 31, 2 p.m., CBSSN

Game 6: Aug. 31, 6 p.m., CBSSN