When it comes to women’s lacrosse, Michele DeJuliis has seen it all. 

An All-American at Penn State, she helped the US women’s national lacrosse team win gold at the 2009 Women’s Lacrosse World Cup, having been a part of the program since 1994. A 2013 inductee to the US National Lacrosse Hall of Fame, she served as the commissioner of the United Women’s Lacrosse League before founding and guiding the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League, which had just signed a major sponsorship deal with Nike before it was forced to fold in 2020 due to COVID-19. 

After decades of fighting for the future of her sport, watching the WPLL fold was hard and emotional for DeJuliis. But after talking with Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros, the Co-Founders of Athletes Unlimited, DeJuliis felt confident in the direction of professional women’s lacrosse. 

As one door closed, another opened, with DeJuliis immediately pivoting to partner with the upstart league. 

“As emotional as it was for me, it was the right decision for the women that play our game,” she says. “Knowing that Jon and Jonathan have a serious passion for giving women’s sports the opportunity to be in the spotlight.

“They don’t leave a stone unturned.”

Sam Apuzzo dodges against Becca Block (Athletes Unlimited)

DeJuliis’ drive to grow the game of lacrosse is bone-deep. It’s what first inspired her to start Ultimate Goal Lacrosse 20 years ago. It’s what allowed her to persevere through the ups and downs and arrive at her current role as Senior Director at Athletes Unlimited. And it’s what helps her to know that Athletes Unlimited has the power to grow the sport.

Having led Ultimate Goal Lacrosse for so long, she knows not only the value of developing kids early, but also for those kids to see their sport on TV.

“It’s all the opportunities that we would have wanted in the WPLL and [Patricof and Soros] having the resources to do it,” she says. “To have our sport, as long as the major impact people in our sport have been trying for years, especially at the collegiate level to get our sport on TV. And to have that now?”

DeJuliis knows that visibility matters. And with Athletes Unlimited games airing on CBS Sports Network and FS1, as well as being streamed on Facebook and YouTube, the sport of women’s lacrosse has never had so much concentrated exposure. 

“What I love about it is that we’re able to be in so many homes across the U.S. Hopefully those people are sports freaks, or just love to watch whatever sport they can on TV, and they’re catching our games.”

DeJuliis credits the people within the organization for having the vision and teamwork needed to bring lacrosse to the next level. 

“It takes a team and everybody within the AU community is all in, nobody has egos,” she says. “This is about getting a job done. Everybody is working so hard to make sure that these women have a great experience.”

Part of creating that experience has meant making the game faster. 

The Athletes Unlimited shot clock is 60 seconds, compared to the NCAA’s 90. The field is shorter and skinnier, only 95 yards by 60 yards as compared to the NCAA’s 120 yards by 75 yards. The rosters are also smaller, something that Athletes Unlimited says attracts “complete athletes” who are capable of playing both ends of the field.

These changes weren’t just made to speed the game up. The smaller rosters are also part of a larger campaign to make lacrosse more accessible and increase the chances of the sport’s inclusion at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Angie Benson makes a save on Cortney Fortunato (Athletes Unlimited)

The sport’s Olympic goal took a monumental step forward on July 20, when the International Olympic Committee voted to grant World Lacrosse, the international federation for lacrosse, full recognition.

The decision was exciting, if not surprising for DeJuliis. 

“I think it will happen,” she says. “It’s just a matter of time. You just have to remain hopeful and do whatever you can to support the Olympic dream.”

While Athletes Unlimited’s first priority is developing a sustainable professional league, those within the organization understand that they’re fighting for the future of the sport as a whole, and that Olympic inclusion would be downright game-changing. 

For DeJuliis, the best thing AU can do is showcase the sport at its best. 

“I hope that the Olympics, anybody that’s involved in that committee, can see what we’ve got displayed here and say, ‘this is something that we gotta have’,” she continued.

Adjusting the field and roster sizes may have been difficult for athletes and organizers, but it, too, will help in getting lacrosse to LA.

In order for a sport to be included in the Olympics, it needs to have international participation from at least 40 countries on three different continents. Having smaller roster sizes makes it easier to get more countries on board. The fewer people per team, the more affordable it is for countries to sponsor and train.

“There’s so much opportunity,” DeJuliis says. “Anybody that can now dedicate time and money, the sizing of this it’s just more manageable.

“I can only imagine that countries that start picking it up, we’ll see a huge jump in their growth… [and] their ability to actually perform and be competitive in World Lacrosse.”

At the last Women’s Lacrosse World Championships in 2019, 22 countries participated. Nine of them were new to the tournament. But even during a COVID year, World Lacrosse has only continued to grow, as was made evident by the IOC’s recognition. 

“I think [World Lacrosse] has made tremendous progress from where we were two years ago to now, having that recognition is unbelievable,” she says.

Even with all of the Olympics discussion, the scheduling of the Athletes Unlimited to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics was purely coincidence. Ultimately, it was what worked for some of the players to be able to compete while also focusing on the World Cup or coaching collegiately. 

At the same time, as people are plugged into a summer of sports, Athletes Unlimited gives fans a reason to keep the TV on, during and even after the Olympics conclude. 

“I think that with all that goes on in our world, especially with all of the things everybody’s been through, this is something that people need,” she says. “It’s just another opportunity to see another cool sport that is being showcased.

“Hopefully they flip on a channel and they watch for 10 seconds and they’re like, ‘I gotta keep watching’.”

Watch now, watch next year, and there’s a good chance you’ll be watching in 2028 as well.

Editor’s note: Athletes Unlimited is a sponsor of Just Women’s Sports.