PHOTO COURTESY OF ATHLETES UNLIMITED

Amber McKenzie last played professionally in 2018 in the WPLL.

A League of Their Own: Women's Lacrosse Enters New Era with Athletes Unlimited


Amber McKenzie chuckles when the question’s asked, almost as if she’s been asked it before.

McKenzie played in the WPLL in 2018, then had her second son, Bolt, in 2019. She didn’t play in the league that year but was still part of it as a coach.

Last year was supposed to be her final year of professional lacrosse. Then, like it did across the globe, COVID-19 altered her plans. When the WPLL shuttered and Athletes Unlimited entered the picture as the future of the women’s pro game, McKenzie couldn’t help but run it back.

“There’s two of us who were born in 1987,” McKenzie said. “I’m going to see how it goes. I’m going to see how I play. I’ve been training really hard. I’ve been training like I did when I was in the U.S. program.

“In my mind, I can compete with these young women.”

There’s a certain exuberance that lingers long after talking to those involved with Athletes Unlimited, a network of professional women’s sports leagues that ditches the traditional model and instead runs player-centric formats that introduced a points system that rewards individual players for every play on the field.

The inaugural lacrosse season will feature 56 of the best players in the world. The five-week season runs from July 19-Aug. 22 and all games will be played at Maureen Hendricks Field in Boyds, Maryland.


“These world-class players deserve world-class environments to play in.”

— Jon Patricof


Athletes Unlimited has secured broadcast and streaming partnerships with CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports, Facebook and YouTube.

On Tuesday, Athletes Unlimited announced that Joe Beninati and Courtney Martinez Connor will comprise the broadcast team. Beninati is a 15-time Capital Region Emmy Award winner and spent 16 years doing Major League Lacrosse play-by-play. Martinez Connor is a decorated lacrosse analyst for both ESPN and the Big Ten Network.

For fans, this means more visibility and more chances to catch games. The Athletes Unlimited model, which has been successful in drawing greater attention to professional softball and volleyball, will also provide greater access and opportunities for engagement than any iteration of pro women’s lacrosse that’s ever existed. For example, fans can help vote for game MVPs, adding points on the leaderboard each week for the players selected.

Player performance will be at the forefront of every game day. With eight-minute quarters, 9-v-9 gameplay and a 60-second shot clock on a smaller 80-by-50-yard field, scoring will be plentiful.

And there will be new teams every week. Athletes Unlimited has abandoned the construct of traditional team-based play by having the top four players on the points leaderboard at the end of each week act as captains to draft new teams. Fans can interact in the draft room and watch it live via stream.

For players, it’s more than just a game. There are learning and growth opportunities that focus on the holistic person as opposed to just the athlete. Goalkeeper Mira Shane, a member of the player executive committee that meets weekly with those in the Athletes Unlimited front office, likened it to a retreat-like atmosphere.

“It’s almost like an intense, educational and training-driven program,” Shane said. “Almost like a community or retreat. A lot of people are going to be pushed in new ways and grow within the five weeks.”








Players can help shape the programming. Shane said Athletes Unlimited softball players had something they called “Friday Night Lights,” an open forum setup that allowed the players to have real and honest conversations about race, identity and more.

Players will also have the ability to publicize the causes they support. Every athlete picks a cause that’s important to her — instead of the league dictating what the players play for — and the players get to add even more individuality to their brands by raising awareness for these organizations.

McKenzie said there will be a nonprofit practice in which everyone will wear shirts or hats from the organizations, and Shane said many players in the league will raise funds or donate a percentage of their earnings to those causes after the season.

The league also will have partnerships with City Lax and Harlem Lacrosse to highlight the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in the sport.

“A lot of that is going to be having some key conversations in terms of mentorship,” Shane said. “It’s a priority of ours to make sure we have Zoom conversations and that we’re building long-lasting relationships with these kids.”

CEO Jon Patricof said Athletes Unlimited was founded with the player in mind. That means all players of all backgrounds and circumstances.

That’s part of what encouraged McKenzie, 34, to prolong her playing career. The mother of two boys, 5-year-old Storm and 2-year-old Bolt, said the league is “awesome” in supporting athletes who have children. Holly McGarvie Reilly, a 34-year-old midfielder who played with McKenzie on the world championship-winning 2009 and 2013 U.S. teams, also has two young sons. She’s the other player who was born in 1987.

“They support mothers,” McKenzie said. “Volleyball had one or maybe two mothers. There are two mothers in our league playing. That’s 100 percent supported by them. Both of my boys are coming with me.

“It really does take a village to be a mom and play, and Athletes Unlimited is so supportive of that.”

This article appears in the Championship Edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join our momentum.




PHOTO COURTESY OF ATHLETES UNLIMITED

Former Michigan goalie Mira Shane is one of the many world-class players on the Athletes Unlimited roster.


Seeking to change the culture surrounding female athletes who also seek to be mothers, Athletes Unlimited stipulates in all contracts that it will support and accommodate players who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Players can also choose whether to continue to play under their contracts, with no penalty.

Pregnant players who need to take leave for pregnancy-related reasons or to give birth can take off as much time as they need during the season — with pay.

“We’re a player-driven organization,” Patricof said. “Just learning how valuable and powerful that can be has reinforced how much emphasis we continue to place on putting the decisions in the hands of the players.

“Our commitment at Athletes Unlimited is that these world-class players deserve world-class environments to play in.”

Women’s lacrosse fans have seen two professional leagues — the UWLX and WPLL — fold within the past five seasons. Why should a third league inspire confidence for long-term growth and sustained success?

Patricof cited the successful Athletes Unlimited softball and volleyball seasons that launched during the pandemic and already have second seasons planned. The lacrosse players involved in planning have the benefit of taking the pros and cons of those seasons and implementing everything into their own sport.

Plus, Patricof said there’s something to be learned from the bumps in the road, too.

“We’re going to have significant national and global media attention on this league, more so than what’s ever existed before for the sport,” Patricof said. “You’re going to have so much visibility.

“We want it to be an incredibly fun environment. People can come out and engage with the fans, the game and each other. We want to take fan engagement to the next level. We want fans to engage whether they’re in the market or somewhere else. We’re creating a community.”

It’s that community that brought McKenzie back to the sport. When she graduated from North Carolina in 2009, the only opportunity she had to further her career was with the U.S. program. She loved that experience and the opportunities, but that was all that was available to her.

Now, the future looks bright. A world-class group of athletes will soon descend upon Boyds, Maryland, for a five-week experience that will be unlike anything women’s lacrosse has ever seen.

“They have the ability to make it what we’ve always wanted it to be,” McKenzie said.