STARKVILLE — Mia Davidson sat on the edge of a crowded gray couch, her eyes — everyone’s eyes — fixed on the TV.
Above the set, gold balloons spelled out “22 DRAFT.” Behind Davidson was a three-word message in the same lettering from the teammates who surrounded her: “U DON’T SUCK.”
Talk about an understatement.
The Mississippi State star catcher was the seventh pick — and one of just 13 players selected — in Wednesday’s draft for a professional league called Athletes Unlimited. She heard the news shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday with her teammates, including her sister Montana Davidson, in attendance.
“It was so special, especially growing up with a lot of them and just having them there — just like another set of sisters, besides mine,” Davidson said. “(Montana) was there, which made it extra special.”
Davidson got to cross off another goal on her lifelong checklist, and that’s no metaphor: She pretended to tick a mock checkbox in the air during her media session Wednesday at Nusz Park’s indoor facility.
“It was something special because I’ve been working for it my whole life,” Davidson said. “That’s always been the dream to play pro, and getting to do it, it’s very exciting.”
She’ll get that shot with Athletes Unlimited, which has already had plenty of Mississippi State ties in its two years in existence.
Former Bulldogs managers Nicole Pendley and Katiyana Mauga have both participated, as has current MSU volunteer assistant coach DJ Sanders.
The league recently signed a deal with ESPN to air 34 softball and lacrosse games on ESPN or ESPN2, 56 more on ESPNU and at least 70 more on ESPN+.
That’s huge for a growing sport rarely seen on the national airwaves at the professional level.
“Anytime that we can get women’s softball, whether it’s college or professional, on the big networks is a big deal for us,” Mississippi State coach Samantha Ricketts said. “I think we’re all really excited about that — a chance for young softball players to be able to look up and see a future and something to look up to.”
Now, Ricketts and the rest of the Bulldogs will get to watch Davidson go head to head with Sanders and plenty of other talented athletes. All-time NCAA home run leader Jocelyn Alo of Oklahoma was the league’s first overall pick Wednesday; from the Southeastern Conference, Arkansas’ Danielle Gibson went fifth, Davidson went seventh, and Florida’s Hannah Adams went ninth.
None of them is bound for a specific team, though; Athletes Unlimited has never done that. The league’s structure is unique: four captains draft teams of players every week, and the teams compete against each other. Games aren’t scored in the traditional sense; players earn fantasy-style points that accrue throughout based on individual and team performance.
The top four players every week get to be captains, and bonuses are doled out at the end of the season according to the final point standings.
That will give Davidson a chance to play both with and against Sanders — something she’s looking forward to — and meet new faces throughout the league.
“I love how you get to play with someone different,” Davidson said. “You’re not playing the same team over and over again; you’re playing different people every week, and I think that’s super exciting.”
With her new opportunity, Davidson has a chance to go from growing the Bulldogs’ program to growing softball on a new level.
She’s aced her five years in Starkville, setting myriad records — including the SEC career mark for home runs — and helping Mississippi State progress along the way. Davidson was on the field for MSU’s first victory in the SEC tournament as well as back-to-back regional final appearances in 2019 and 2021.
On Wednesday, Davidson parlayed that into a professional career in a field with few opportunities. Besides Athletes Unlimited, only the new Women’s Professional Fastpitch league — set to begin in June — offered pro softball in the U.S.
“We’re trying to grow the game at all levels, and the professional level is the biggest level in our game right now, especially without softball being in the Olympics,” Ricketts said. “That’s something she takes seriously as well — growing the game, really giving back to the youth — so looking forward to seeing what she can do at the next level as well.”
Davidson wasn’t sure she’d get the chance. She alluded during her media session to “hopefully” hearing her name called, but she and her teammates were fixated on the live feed with each pick.
But as soon as Athletes Unlimited’s Tori Vidales announced the pick as a catcher, Davidson relaxed. She smiled as her name was called, as her teammates screamed, as mini confetti poppers were fired in her direction.
It was what Mia Davidson had been waiting for.
“It’s just a great moment to share that will last forever,” Davidson said. “I love it.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.