Here are some of the big ones:
• 148 games streamed live on a variety of platforms, led by NPFTV and including The Olympic Channel, MLB.com, and Flo Softball.
• A second year franchise, Scrap Yard Dawgs, won the Cowles Cup at the Championship Series, proving again, that new franchises can realistically compete in the league.
• Kelly Kretschman was awarded her third consecutive NPF Player of the Year.
• Monica Abbott, among other things, set a league record in being awarded her 4th Championship Series Most Valuable Player. In regular season play, she threw her 4th professional no-hitter.
• Eight players from Softball Australia competed together on the Chicago Bandits’ roster.
• For the first time in professional sports league history, a complete team from outside the contiguous United States, competed in regular season play.
It is worth expanding on the topic of the last two points and the participation specifically of Australia and China. Why are international teams such as these supporting participation of their national teams inside the NPF? The answer is, the brass ring. Australia, China and more international teams, have realized over 10 years of non-Olympic inclusion and reduced or eliminated developmental funding, has led to noticeable suffering within the sport itself. That suffering has occurred specifically in the areas of elite development and overall participation numbers.
Australia is a country with a deep reputation of success in women’s softball. They were on the medal stand in all 4 Olympic Games with 3 bronze and a silver. China, also with a heavy reputation of success is the country that competed in the gold medal game against the United States in the very first Olympic Games for softball in Atlanta in 1996.
The way to rectify the problems of declining elite development and youth participation, is to make up lost ground in refining the development of the teams at the highest level. Fifty games in two and a half months against the best competition in the world, goes a long way in making great players realize their potentials. National television and internet presence in their respective countries places the sport of softball into everyday conversations. This will make players and the program overall, more noticeable and relevant in the respective countries and will, in turn, create the brass ring effect in providing young people something to reach for and dream of becoming. This will, in turn, affect youth participation in a positive manner.
No one knows better than U.S. softball participants and our very broad fan base, how top level competition and broad based media coverage can elevate a sport in monstrous proportions.
It is a brave and visionary move on the part of the leaders of both Australia and China along with their respective organizations and partners. But it is a move that can historically change the landscape not only for those particular countries, but for global softball development and participation. That’s a true game changer. That’s the big picture. We will continue to strive for global inclusion in the NPF. There is something special awaiting our game once that is completely executed.
In 2016, Craig Cress (Executive Director of USA Softball), and I stood at the podium at the NFCA Opening meeting separately, and said that we would do better together in ensuring NPF players the opportunity to compete for the United States. As a result, nearly half of the candidates invited to try out for USA Softball teams in 2018 are NPF players. There is still work to do on the collective co-existence of NPF and USA Softball, but everyone knows it makes sense. We will continue to work towards gold medals and professional careers that don’t include ultimatums and hard choices.
In 2018, National Pro Fastpitch will celebrate its 15th season. Here’s a little valuable perspective on 15 years as a professional league:
• NFL celebrated its 15th season in 1935
• NBA celebrated its 15th season in 1932
• MLB celebrated its 15th season in 1891
• The Women’s College World Series celebrated its 15th season in 1996. That year: the Series was in its 3rd location in 15 years (Columbus, GA), with an uncertain future location; the NCAA bracket consisted of 32 total teams; and it was the first time ESPN had aired more than one championship game - that year they aired a total of four.
All of those entities have come a long way. As a sidenote, 36 baseball teams went defunct in professional baseball since the beginning of the National League. Prior to that, 54 others came and went, making the casualties in professional baseball alone, a grand total of 90 teams. It’s easy, but shortsighted to only evaluate an entity once success is achieved.
What’s important to take away from the value of time spent in development is to note the contributing factors of success.
For our sport, there were three very significant factors:
1. Title IV was a game changer - legislated equality and funding.
2. The inclusion of softball into the “Olympic Sport” category in NCAA - changed funding levels and priority placement for facilities and media coverage.
3. Television coverage - would likely have never happened without the first two factors above, but is arguably the most significant of all in popularizing and mainstreaming the sport of softball.
We can not change the need for time and maturity in the overall development of softball at the professional level, but we can speed up the process by paying attention. The league will grow again in 2018. With last week’s announcement of the addition of the Aussie Spirit as a complete competing team, the reach and priority of professional softball has been expanded. We will grow more in our coverage, our exposure and our partnerships.
As always, there is much to do. As we put 2017 in the rear view mirror, there is reason for optimism in putting our eyes on the road ahead. Professional softball is resilient, steady and headed for some amazing and incredible opportunities in the future. Stay tuned!
- Commissioner Cheri Kempf