A League That Really is Their Own: Talking With Pro Athlete Cassidy Lichtman

Cassidy Lichtman is a former member of the USA volleyball Women’s National Team and was a two time all American and an academic all American at Stanford. She’s been  playing with Athletes Unlimited, the new network of pro volleyball, basketball, softball and lacrosse leagues for women, where the players are running the show. They’re making decisions from recruiting to civic leadership to what they’re wearing. They also play a five week season in a single city so women with kids and other jobs can continue playing pro sports. Athletes Unlimited has a bunch of innovative ways for fans to participate and follow their favorite players. Cassidy is on AU’s board and is the chair of the volleyball players executive committee. She’s also the founder of P/ATH,  an organization that harnesses the influence of professional athletes to impact young people. 

Here’s a slightly edited version of our conversation. Photo: Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited

SP: Was volleyball always your favorite sport?

CL: There were many sports, but there was always volleyball. My mom is a volleyball coach, she played growing up, my older brother plays and, you know, volleyball is a hard sport to play when you’re really little. So she used to bring us to the gym, and, you know, I’d take a ball and go play with myself for a while. But I also played little league and we swam, and, you know, in middle school played softball and basketball, volleyball was always kind of my first love and the thing that I knew I wanted to do, you know, in the long term.

SP.  What was your first impression when you heard about AU? 

CL: When I graduated college, I played for the national team and professionally overseas. There wasn’t really an option available in the US. So I played for five years, around the world and with the US team. I’d been retired for about four years and had no plans to come back and play competitively. And then one of my teammates from the national team was playing here and was part of the founding group. As I talked to her, I thought maybe this is gonna be real, which in my lifetime, there has not been professional volleyball in the U.S. Every once in a while somebody says they’re gonna start it, and it’s not a real opportunity. And so after I talked to our CEO and co-founders and heard more about it, I decided this could be real. It is  going to be something pretty cool, and if it is something that we can build, that is going to last beyond us, I want to be a part of building that.

SP: There are so many interesting things about this model. The most obvious one is that it is not a city-based team. So how does that change the equation for the athletes?

CL: It is super interesting. It is a short season–the actual season is five weeks, usually within an additional week or two of preseason. We all come to one city. So right now we’re in Dallas. So we brought 44 athletes there. There are no clubs or club owners or management. It is just us, and we switch teams every week. 

I think it’s really smart in the sense that we’re not spending a bunch of money on travel and the upkeep of all these different clubs. It’s just about us and our experience, and we can make the venue really great because we’re all playing in the same place. It creates a really interesting environment in which you have 43 other people who are both your opponents and your teammates. We’ll play a match and then go back to the same locker room together and be talking and joking about it. I think it’s a really cool thing that though we don’t have long-standing rivalries of the traditional sports model, it is really exciting to have new teams each week. And fans can say ‘I really want to see this matchup between these players’ and then they can follow their favorite players through the league.

SP: Does that change how you actually think about playing?

CL: Yes. I think it’s an interesting challenge, which is fun in-and-of-itself, because when you get to this point in your career there’s rarely something entirely new being thrown at you. For us, we drop new teams and we have two days of practice before we play our first match with that team. That requires you to figure out how you can gel as quickly as possible and get to know that person next to you as quickly as possible? 

So on the teams I’ve been on the last couple of weeks, we’ve had conversations about what I’m like as a player? What do I bring? What do I need? Whether I’m struggling? How can you tell if I’m struggling and how do you communicate with me? We’re having those conversations right off the bat, so that everybody just kind of knows where we’re all starting. But the teams that do really well are those ones who can confine that chemistry the fastest. And it’s, it is really crazy that, you know, within two days, you can feel like, this is my team, and I’m, you know, 100% going for them. And then five days later, you’re gonna switch.

And we get to know each other so well, which is also a different challenge, because then your teammates are going to be across the net for you next week. And she knows all your secrets. And so you have to keep adapting and evolving, it is surprising how at times you can find that chemistry so quickly and sometimes you don’t. The good thing about that is if you go to a traditional League and you play for six or seven months on the worst team, you’re not having a good experience, and it’s gonna last that whole time Here, if your on a team  you don’t like much,one week later you switch

SP: I imagine that forces you to push all your other skills like communication and leadership. Also, with how the league is structured, it seems that you come together and make decisions in a way that is very different than the old model of professional leagues.

CL: Yeah, absolutely. Most pro leagues have the league itself as an organization that obviously has a lot of power. The owners of each team have a lot of power and are big voices in decision making. And maybe there’s a player’s association at the negotiating table. For Athletes Unlimited, there are four sports–volleyball, softball, lacrosse, and basketball. And each sport has a five-person player executive committee. And we’re not even really kind of at the negotiating table, we’re just at the table with our founders and our staff trying to figure out what’s best. And so every decision about our league comes through us, you know, from, you know, where we want to play, and what venue, hotel room to stay in? Who the official is going to be at our matches, what are we going to wear, all of it. And it’s really revolutionary. I mean, I don’t know that there’s any organization that’s ever given the athletes this much voice and power. We can always go to the larger player group and ask for their feedback and opinion on things, too. And I think it works because we all have the same goals, we all want this league to succeed and be sustainable. And we also want our athletes to be treated as well as possible and paid as well as possible. And so it takes a lot of trust. But it really feels like we’re all sitting at the same table just trying to kind of collaborate and find the best solutions.

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SP: I know one of those decisions you made together was deciding whether you wanted to play in Texas with everything that’s been going on there.

CL: Yeah, it was, it was really hard. And I think for some of us, at least, that that moment was just difficult. And we had played in in Dallas, the previous season, we were planning on coming back and had already made made plans, you know, how to venue how to hotel, and legislation hit and jumped onto government bonds and sorrows who are our founders and our and the rest of the senior staff, we talked to them, you know, weekly on calls. And that week, the call wasn’t there. Are we still good to go? And they came to us very genuinely without question. You know, again, like I said, we had plans in place already. But had we said, we’re out, they would have figured out how to make that happen? And they kind of asked us, okay, what if we’re gonna go back? Like, what are the hurdles we need to cross to get there? What do we need to find out to get there? And, you know, the first thing for us was just, can we make sure that our, you know, our players and our staff are safe, that if they need medical care, they can get it? You know, there was some kind of concern about the new gun legislation. So that was the very, like, the conversation wasn’t gonna go anywhere unless we could expect a reasonable degree of safety. So we got past that. 

And then the next question for us was, how do the people on the ground feel? And because the the real decision was, you know, are we essentially boycotting Texas? Or are we going to go and what’s going to be more impactful and powerful? You know, when it comes to a boycott, we had not actually announced we were coming to Dallas, so I don’t know that. That’s not going would have made a lot of news and we’re not a giant, we’re not busy, or Nike or be you know, this was probably a few months after major league baseball pulled their All Star game out of Atlanta. And I remember seeing an article like an op ed by Stacey Abrams, and some others saying, you know, sometimes boycotts have unintended consequences and affect the people who you’re kind of most trying to help. And so we were really adamant that we wanted to hear from people who are doing the work on the ground. And so some of the staff, you know, spoke to people who work in in some of these grassroots organizations to say, Do you have an opinion on this, and they encourage us to stay and use the platform that we have while we’re here. 

And so we ended up deciding that that was kind of the most powerful impact we could have was coming into this space, particularly being I think, a league of female athletes. And then figuring out okay, what can we do while we’re here to stand up for what we believe in our values.

So we have voter registration and all of our matches for anybody who wants to register. And then, you know, education was another really big concern of ours, because of some of the education legislation in Texas. And so we wanted to sell some books at our, at our venue. So we have books kind of curated by our athletes, in particular kinds of lifting up voices, that maybe you are not being heard as much or being suppressed. There’s also a wall in our venue where we’ve decided to highlight women from history that again, or maybe not, or maybe being overlooked, again, selected by our athletes. So that’s people like Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells, and bell hooks and Patsy Mink.

 I think, as we went into it, we were really thinking not of how do we show up in protest,  but how do we show up and live our values? And so in the scope of what we’re doing those women that we’re celebrating, are part of the reason why we’re able to be here and do this, and be on the court together and bring, you know, white and black and Hispanic and Asian and Native women, all in the same court. So we feel like whether or not somebody kind of intuitively thinks that a bookstore and a women’s history wall like goes with volleyball, you know, for us, I think it does. 

SP: How does this new kind of structure of the league change your relationship with fans?

CL: It’s really interesting. And one of the ways that one of the things they thought about as they were designing the league, and that the current fans and the Future fans are shifting a little bit away from the, you know, I am a Rangers fan, or I’m a Lakers fan, to following individual players, our unlimited Club, which has all these numbers, and they can vote for Mbps, which gets us you know, extra points potentially. They can follow along and kind of new ways, by you know, getting a camera that is courtside. And you’re really seeing like from the player’s view and having players mic’d up so you can hear what they’re saying or talking to players, you know, in the middle of a game on broadcasts and and then beyond that our content team really is is focused on telling the stories of our players, we I think that’s what fans really want these days is to learn who we are off of the court, which, again, goes back to what we’re doing in Texas, but I think that’s really where the you know, the world is going with the sports world is going and this format just kind of lends itself to that. Maybe you have a favorite team each week. But really, you can follow this player throughout the trajectory of the league,

SP: Are you looking at your career in a different way now because of this league?

CL: Yeah, I mean, it Well, I think it’s interesting, like I had no plans to unretire to begin with. And part of that was possibly because I couldn’t play here in the US. And so I certainly was not going to go overseas for another season. So I think there are a lot of people like me who are done with that part of their career and, and are able to do this out or who want to work, you know, other jobs and do this for you know, six weeks out of the year. For me, personally, coming back was really about you know, what was going to last beyond me and making sure that I can build this I mean, listen, I love playing volleyball, and it’s really fun. But I also love playing volleyball, you know, at home in a gym where nobody’s watching. And so at this point I have found on the court and I love my teammates and you know, when you’re in the middle of it, you’re like, Man, this is amazing. But at the end of the day, what I feel most proud of and what I’m most excited about is, when I see, you know, the league growing and signs that we can become sustainable over a longer period of time.

SP: What do you see that is really necessary to make it successful?

CL: The biggest thing is investment. There are many different kinds of investment. From sponsors, for sure, and we’ve had great ones so far, and those relationships continue to grow. And then, you know, the media, our broadcast partners, and we’ve had great ones so far, and those continue to grow and and then the fans can invest in their time in it. And I think that, you know, for volleyball in particular, we’re such a huge sport, I think we’re probably the biggest sport that nobody talks about. And I think that is directly related to the fact that we are predominantly in the US a girl sport. But we’re the we’re the biggest girls sport in high school, the biggest team sport for girls in high school. So this was this was the biggest step was just getting a product out there that I mean, we think we are players as a product I’ve always been, there have always been good. I’ve always been ready to do this. But the investment from an organization like Athletes Unlimited to say, Okay, we’re going to take that and match that level, like five levels of quality, with the production value with the you know, the core, so it actually looks good. So it looks professional, I think that was the biggest step. And now it’s just going okay, how do we take this and make sure that we keep growing the numbers and people are watching.

SP: And it’s really exciting. And it’s so great to see, you know, this model that’s giving women athletes more power and more, you know, control over their work and their values and how they express them in the world. So when you’re off the court, I see one of you, one of the things you do is you have a nonprofit that works with kids.

CL: I have a nonprofit called Path. And it largely came out of, you know, I, I talk to kids all the time. And, you know, I know that when I walk into a gym and talk to a group of kids, they’re gonna listen a little bit differently when you say that I played for Stanford and the US National Team. And so I really want to be able to use kind of that influence that, that we have to, you know, do something more than trying to ball for them. So, and also, you know, I came out of volleyball in 2016 2017. So like, pretty tumultuous time for our country. And we’ve obviously been in this kind of very divisive environment. And I felt like, you know, if we’re going to, in the long term, kind of make strides to, to close those divides, we need kids to have some better skills around empathy and kind of self empowerment. Because at the moment, like we’re just not very good at interacting with each other, or looking at ourselves, and figuring out how, like, we belong in the world, having that kind of confidence. And I think sports are such a great vehicle for that. And it’s something that we all say that sports teach these kinds of life skills, and there’s very little intention around it normally. So what we do at path is create content featuring elite athletes and coaches from across sports, you know, NBA, NFL Olympics, WNBA. breaking down those kind of big concepts of, you know, empathy or equity into, you know, the short kind of tangible bites that kids can understand. And then give them all right now, here’s a couple things to think about. And here’s actual actionable ways to practice that skill in the same way that you’re practicing hitting a ball every day. They’re the same skills like being a good teammate, like if you think about what a great team culture is. I’ve always felt that as an athlete, I have two jobs. I want to bring my best and I want to help the person next we bring there’s Imagine if that’s how the world works. Today, everybody just brought those two concepts to life.