Sports

Hayward breaks new ground

Victoria Hayward
Courtesy of Victoria Hayward
Victoria Hayward plays in Athletes Unlimited Softball.

Victoria Hayward has made an impact on and off the field with Athletes Unlimited Softball, an innovative professional league that wraps up its inaugural season next week.

The Mountain View High graduate is not only one of the league’s stars, she’s also a founding member and head of the player executive committee.

“I’m so happy to be part of it and to help create a future for women’s sports,” Hayward said in a phone interview Thursday from Rosemont, Ill., home of the Parkway Bank Sports Complex that hosts the five-week season. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”

That opportunity presented itself last October when the commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch – the league Hayward played in last year – asked her to come to New York City to meet with the two businessmen behind Athletes Unlimited: Jon Patricof (former president of Major League Soccer’s New York City FC) and Jonathan Soros.

‘They pitched it to me and three other players,” Hayward recalled. “So often in women’s pro sports, they put a ‘W’ before the league name or model it after the men’s game, and that hadn’t been working. Jon and Jonathan found another way for women’s sports to excel and be relevant.”

First on board

Touting a player-first model with profit sharing, fluid teams and a fantasy sports element, Hayward was hooked. She was the first player to sign on. The others soon followed and together “we formed a leadership committee and helped get it going,” Hayward said.

When she graduated from Mountain View a decade ago, Hayward never imagined playing in a league like this one day.

“Absolutely not,” the outfielder said. “It’s so new. This league is the future of softball.”

Athletes Unlimited has practically reinvented the game – and pro sports. The league puts the power in the players’ hands; there are no general managers or coaches, and the players pick the teams.

They also make the rules, which include being rewarded for personal and team success. At the end of each three-game week, the four players with the most points (based on winning games and innings, individual stats and being voted MVP) are chosen as captains who get to draft their teams for the next week.

“It’s really fun and a totally new experience,” said Hayward, who noted that Athletes Unlimited is launching a women’s volleyball league in February. “I love every minute of it.”

Hayward has been captain twice and entered last weekend with the third-highest point total among the league’s 57 players.

“I’m seeing the ball well,” said Hayward, batting .433 after nine games, seven of which her team won. “I came in prepared. I came in a few weeks early to train with a few other players. I’ve also faced a lot of these pitchers before and took what I learned from those at-bats.”

Eye on the Olympics

A member of Canada’s national softball team for 11 years – Hayward was born in Toronto and moved to Mountain View at age 8 – she’s been preparing for the Tokyo Olympics since her squad qualified last September. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the summer games from this year to next.

While disappointing to Hayward and others anticipating the return of softball to the Olympics after a 12-year hiatus, the delay did bring more star power to Athletes Unlimited.

“(The league) was organized to start after the Olympics,” said Hayward, who was training in Florida prior to coming to Rosemont. “By starting now, we got the big names that would have retired (after Tokyo). This is a great way to say fresh and competitive.”

Players live in what Hayward called a “shield,” different from a quarantine bubble “because we interact with a few people who are not inside it.” COVID-19 safety protocols are being followed, she said, and only two players have tested positive for the virus; both were back playing within seven days.

The season concludes with games scheduled Saturday (televised on ESPN 3), Sunday (ESPN 2) and Monday (CBS Sports Network). Then the individual champion is crowned.

Title or not, Hayward will be back.

“I definitely will play next year,” she said. “With opportunities like this, it’s hard to hang up the cleats.”

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