Topps & AU Celebrate Women’s Sports (Cards)

Boom Times for Women’s Sports and Cards

Date: Jun 13, 2024
Author: Tom Devoto
Topics: 2024 Topps Athletes Unlimited Pro Softball, Athletes Unlimited, Education, Megan Wiggins, Odicci Alexander, softball, Sydney Romero, Tom Devoto, Wichita
Length: 1611 Words
Reading Time: ~9 Minutes

Get to know Athletes Unlimited and its cards in celebration of the release of 2024 Topps Athletes Unlimited Pro Softball.

There haven’t always been viable professional options for softball players in America. For the majority of athletes, their dreams ended in college, after which they joined the “real world.” Those who played professionally in America needed a second job, either inside or outside the game, to keep the bills paid. Some athletes got right into coaching, some headed overseas to play in Japan.

Athletes Unlimited (AU) is out to rewrite this narrative, for softball players and all women athletes. The organization’s mission is to uplift women’s sports and provide exciting professional competition for these athletes, and for fans to get excited about, too.

Read on to see why AU matters, what to expect from its 2024 softball season, and how its cards represent a growing market for women’s collectibles.    

Breaking New Ground for Women’s Sports

Athletes Unlimited was founded on March 3rd, 2020. Not the best timing, right?

The organization has four sports under its umbrella — softball, basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse. The AU softball season was scheduled to begin immediately following the 2020 Summer Olympics, which counted softball among its contests for the first time since 2008. Of course, those Olympics were postponed by COVID until the following year, instantly derailing the initial plan. But AU went ahead with its season at the end of August 2020, beginning with no crowds and strict social distancing protocols.

Despite challenging circumstances that complicated the league’s launch, AU athletes universally cite the organization’s sense of professionalism since day one as its strongest feature. 

“When I got here, it was finally a spot where I felt like a pro athlete,” said Sydney Romero, an infielder who’s been playing AU softball since 2021.

AU athletes feel like pros because they’re treated with respect and care — not necessarily something that’s always been a given. AU prides itself on its athlete-centricity, giving athletes an unprecedented level and autonomy and governance. For example, at least one athlete sits on the Board of Directors, and each sport has a Player Executive Committee that meets weekly with AU staff to address all facets of their league. Players are thankful for those open lines of communication, to be asked for feedback that is actually considered and often implemented.

“It’s really a player-driven league — we can make it our own, and help grow the game for the players coming after us,” Romero continued.

AU’s player-first initiatives extend off the field, as well. Nicole Pawlak, AU’s senior director of special projects, said that the league tries to showcase players’ personalities as much as they can, because they’re more than just athletes. 

One of the ways they do that is by giving athletes the platform to raise funds for charities they care about. The Athlete Causes program provides a matching donation equal to each AU player’s season win bonus to support their preferred cause. 

“The culture at AU really aligns with my values,” said Megan Faraimo, a pitcher who debuted with AU in 2023. She’s playing for Empowering Pacific Islander Communities in a nod to her heritage. “They’re trying to ascend the sport.” 

The AU Difference

For both fans and players alike, it takes some time to get comfortable with the differences in scoring and team structures in Athletes Unlimited.

“Oh, it’s a huge adjustment,” said outfielder Megan Wiggins, who’s entering her fifth year with AU. “But to be honest, when I’m out on the field, it’s hard to think about the specifics like that.”

To start, there’s more than one season. The Championship season, which all the players shorten to “Champ,” is the longer and larger campaign of the two. It consists of 60 athletes who split into four teams and play games over five weeks in Rosemont, Illinois, at a ballpark near O’Hare International Airport. AUX, meanwhile, adopts a smaller format with a faster pace that takes the show on the road. With 42 athletes split across three teams playing 18 games total, AUX packs a lot of action into its two-week season. The AUX 2024 season will be played in Wichita, Kansas starting June 10th. 

On the field, the game is played the same in both Champ and AUX, but both require a small learning curve for those familiar with the traditional game. There’s an individual competition component to AU — basically, every activity on the field has been assigned a point value, and players accrue points based on their performances in each game. A home run is 40 points, for example; get caught stealing, and you’ll lose 10 points. Additionally, bonus points are awarded for team success (winning individual innings or the whole game), as well as winning game MVP. 

Once each game ends, points are tabulated and the players are then ranked on a real-time statistical leaderboard that reflects their performances up to that point. First place on the leaderboard at the end of the season is crowned the champion.

“It’s a brand-new perspective,” said Faraimo. “It brings some new ideas into the game, but it keeps the things I love about softball the same.”

That leads into the next big change: There are no set teams. Each week, the athletes atop the leaderboard (four for Champ, three for AUX) serve as captains that draft their teams, formulate the gameplan, set the lineup, and make in-game adjustments. AU doesn’t have coaches in the traditional sense — each team has a “facilitator” that captains can rely on for guidance or a second opinion, but ultimately, the captain is in charge.

“Being a captain puts a lot on your plate, but it’s really cool to have both a coaching mindset and a player mindset within one game,” said pitcher Alyssa Denham, who captained two out of five weeks in 2023. (Her career record as an AU captain is 8-1 — seems like she’s got that dual mindset down.)

And so yes, there are differences, and for many, there could be a learning curve. But once the first pitch is thrown and the game gets underway, it just looks like competitive, entertaining, high-level softball.     

“Once you realize you’re playing the same sport you’ve played for literally your whole life, it makes it that much more fun,” said Romero.  

Topps & Athletes Unlimited

The relationship between Topps and AU stretches back as far as the organization itself does. Prior to the start of its first softball season, Topps announced that it would create an AU softball card set that would become the first women’s professional softball product in the brand’s 80-plus year history. That inaugural set was part of Topps On Demand, an online-exclusive product that was created during the season and shipped to collectors following its conclusion.

Topps and AU followed a similar strategy the following year, expanding to AU’s other sports based on the success of the experiment with softball, according to Pawlak. She said that in 2022, AU took a pause to get each of its sports on the same timeline, then began planning for a retail product that would package athletes from all four sports together in one box.  

While the reception for the 2023 Topps AU all-sports product was positive, conversations for this year’s product kept circling back to one-sport sets. Given that baseball is such an inextricable part of Topps’ DNA, it only made sense to double down on a softball product that would honor that lineage while also continuing to showcase AU’s groundbreaking nature.

“To have role models on sports trading cards, to understand the legacy of Topps, to understand that you don’t have to stop playing softball after college,” Pawlak said. “It would be pretty cool if this generation of young girls embraces this and does more with it the next time around.”

And this product includes groundbreakers. There’s Odicci Alexander, the flamethrowing right-handed pitcher who’s defending her 2023 championship this season. There’s Romero, a four-time Women’s College World Series champ between her playing and coaching career. (Romero and many other players coach while they’re not on the field themselves — she’s currently an assistant at the University of Oregon). There’s Wiggins, a power-hitting veteran who’s led her league in home runs six times in her pro career.

No matter what part of the game you love, somebody’s doing it well in AU.

A Growing Market for Women’s Cards

 2024 has been a banner year for growth in women’s sports; as each game continues to attract more attention, interest in women’s cards will only increase with it. 

Look no further than the headlines — in January, Caitlin Clark’s 2022 Bowman University Superfractor sold for $78,000 to become the second-most expensive women’s card in history. Just a few weeks ago, USC’s powerhouse beach volleyball team agreed to an NIL deal for a card set featuring the whole team.

America is waking up to the fact that women’s sports are sports, a belief that is core to AU’s existence. As the organization reimagines the future of pro sports, trading cards will be along for the ride — and the future for both is looking awfully bright. 

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