TUSCALOOSA, ALABAMA — Kelly Kretschman didn’t cry. Her eyes looked watery, but maybe that was just a reflection off the white war paint smeared on her cheekbones. She took a seat at the long table next to her teammates for a press conference after a devastating loss in the National Pro Fastpitch championship series.
When her coach suggested that the veteran softball player should be proud of her team, of her effort, Kretschman nodded, but her eyes stayed focused on her lap. She certainly should be proud of her season with the USSSA Pride—of her entire career. At 36 years old, she’s a four-time All-American and a two-time Olympic medalist in right field. Just a few days before this championship series began, Kretschman became the first player in history to win the triple crown for the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league—meaning she led the league in batting average (.466), home runs (13), and runs batted in (45). She’s a dominant force in a competitive league. But no one, really, is paying attention.
“You see Major League Baseball and you see guys that get the opportunity to play on the biggest stage. We’re playing that biggest stage for us right now,” Kretschman’s coach Lonnie Alameda said in the same post-game press conference. Their team, the Pride, had just lost a three-game series to the Chicago Bandits by one run. After the final out, Kretschman compared the rivalry between the two teams to another great rivalry: the Red Sox and the Yankees.
“The biggest thing is, no matter who’s on our team and who’s on theirs, it’s still one of the greatest rivalries in sports,” Kretschman paused. “It kind of gets overlooked because our league gets overlooked.”
In the bottom of the fourth inning in game two of the championship series, the Bandits had runners on second and third. And the Bandits are a loud team. An apparent leader stands in the dugout and acts as a kind of director, getting her teammates’ attention and then commanding them to perform synchronized chants. Some of these chants are simple, like yelling “two balls” to try and get inside a pitcher’s head, and some are so complicated I can’t even follow them.
When left fielder Natalie Hernandez connected her bat to a rising slider, though, they went silent. Hernandez fouled a ball high over the protective netting and into the stands. A section over from me, an older man sitting alone in the middle of a sea of empty seats reached over his head to catch it. He missed. The ball slid through his fingers before bouncing on the concrete behind him.
A man in my section cupped his hands around his mouth and jokingly shouted the name of the man who’d bobbled the ball. Most of the fans at these games knew each other. They were parents of the women on the field, or longtime devoted softball fans. “You catch like a girl,” he teased the man who failed. I looked around, waiting for someone to rebuke him. The Bandit players began their chant again.
On the field stood some of the best catchers in the world—catchers who happened to be women, who had once been girls. Just a week before, Sporting Goods company Rawlings had announced that it would begin awarding The Gold Glove, one of the most iconic defensive awards in baseball, to women’s softball players. The first one had been presented to A.J. Andrews of the Akron Racers on the same field in front of us two days earlier. Over the course of this three-game series, I saw a left fielder make an incredible diving catch, a third baseman sprint into foul territory to catch a ball, and several amazing line-drive cutoffs. Yet all around me, fans laughed at the joke.
The stereotype that women are poor athletes, that to mess up or fail is to “play like a girl,” permeates almost all of women’s athleticism. It’s this argument that has been used for decades as an excuse to ignore women’s work. For the media, it’s easy to dismiss covering something if you can dismiss the athleticism involved. But it’s truly impossible to dismiss the athleticism of the NPF.
“There is incredible talent in this league,” commissioner Cheri Kempf told me on the phone before the series started. “As we look at the championship, we expect to see incredible plays, incredible athleticism.”
And she was right. There were remarkable hits, pitches, and plays in every game I saw, throughout every team’s lineup. Megan Wiggins, the first player to walk up to home plate for the USSSA Pride in the opening game for the championship series, went yard in her first at-bat. In the final game of the series, Chicago Bandits players Taylor Edwards and Brittany Cervantes hit back-to-back home runs and pitcher Angel Bunner only gave up a single.
Before the games, the Pride players loosened up by playing a game of hacky sack in a circle on the field in plain view of fans. The Bandits patted everyone who got a hit on the head when they returned to the dugout. They’re professional ballplayers, but it still looks fun. And after a great play, there is no gentle clapping from the dugout. The Bandits poured out of their dugout for home runs, and the Pride cheered so loud for their own defensive plays that the fans couldn’t be heard over them.
There are six teams in the NPF: the Akron Racers, the Chicago Bandits, the Dallas Charge, the Pennsylvania Rebellion, the Scrapyard Dawgs, and Florida’s USSSA Pride. As in any professional sports league, some teams are better than others. The Bandits, the USSSA Pride, and the newly established Scrapyard Dawgs were the best teams in 2016. For the most part, though, the teams are pretty evenly matched. Even though the Pride came into the postseason in first place, they lost the cup to the Bandits, who entered the series ranked third.
Those six teams located across the country may have just played a 50-game season, but very few people know they exist. Even sports trivia buffs can’t name three National Pro Fastpitch players, despite the fact that they are some of the best athletes in the country. Though Kelly Kretschman plays right field, she is essentially the Ted Williams of pro softball. Williams played 19 years of Major League Baseball; this is Kretschman’s 11th season. Both won the triple crown and MVP trophies. Both were outstanding outfielders and the kind of players that center a team. Kretschman’s so good that the USSSA Pride essentially built the team around her eight years ago. But unlike Williams, she won’t get the headlines, the fans, or the Hall of Fame unless something changes.
“If somebody doesn’t know [about this league], they think about beer-league softball. They don’t take it seriously,” Kempf told me. “Once they see it played, all of that is gone. I don’t care who they are. Even Major League Baseball players are impressed when they watch this game.”
The National Pro Softball league isn’t new. In its current iteration, it’s been around since 2004. Women’s softball has been played professionally in the United States since the first league, the International Women’s Professional Softball Association (IWPSA), was founded in 1976. That 10-team organization only survived four seasons, ultimately crumbling because of a lack of funding and inadequate playing facilities, but its very existence encouraged women’s college softball to be taken more seriously. In 1982, the NCAA sanctioned the Women’s College World Series.
The NPF owes its creation to Jane Cowles, a former Utah State softball player who conceived a blueprint for the league in 1989 and convinced her parents to financially back her in creating it. Today, the cup awarded at the end of the championship series is named after Cowles. She and her family spent eight years planning before the Women’s Pro Softball League (WPSL) officially launched a four-team league in 1997. But the league seriously struggled to make money. In 2002, the season was suspended so that the WPSL could rebrand. In 2004, the NPF launched as a franchise-based organization where teams are individually owned and managed, just like Major League Baseball.
Right now the league has 135 players, each team with no more than 23. According to the NPF website, the league expects to average around 1,500 to 2,500 people in attendance at each game. That’s about a third of the draw of the National Women’s Soccer League, which pulls in a little more than 5,000 fans a game, and significantly less than that of Major League Baseball games, which on average welcome crowds of around 30,000. And tickets are fairly cheap. It only cost $15 to get in the door for the championship series.
“The game is awesome to watch at this level. Hopefully we can continue to grow it,” USSSA Pride coach Alameda said at a post-game press conference. “It’s going to be an outstanding game if we keep contributing to it.”
The players, coaches, and managers of the league are certainly contributing. They are playing the best softball possibly in the world, and breaking records. The league added a brand new team this year, signed its first million-dollar contract, and had record attendance at the championship series. Though final attendance numbers for the year haven’t been calculated yet, the NPF thinks they’ll probably be the highest in history. Even that record attendance, though, at times felt sparse. There were never lines for hot dogs, and every single row had seats open, even behind home plate. Along the baselines, whole sections shone with the exposed aluminum of empty stands. The NPF hasn’t broken through to the mainstream the way that women’s soccer has. That might be because softball was dumped from the Olympic games in 2008, keeping one less spotlight off the sport. But maybe softball hasn’t broken through yet because it just doesn’t have the support its players deserve.
This year’s NPF championship series was held at Rhoads Stadium at the University of Alabama. Only half the teams in the league have their own stadium, and to alternate locations throughout a three-game series would be a little ridiculous for a league of this size. So instead the game is played on neutral territory, in a town that loves sports.
There’s a light mist in the air before the second game, and fans stay huddled up higher in the stands to stay under the roof of the stadium. On the television broadcast, the stadium must have looked empty. At that game, I happened to find myself sitting next to a Tuscaloosa legend named John Ed Belvin and his wife Brenda. John Ed, as Warren St. John wrote in his book on Alabama football culture Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, is a “wheeling and dealing ticket scalper whose access to good seats gives him power on par with the governor.” In a past life, he was a softball umpire, and from our seats behind home plate he watched the calls with a quizzical eye. John Ed sees a lot of Alabama games in every sport and particularly a lot of softball games. “At the college level, there are still pitchers who dominate,” he told me between innings, “But these girls, they can hit.”
Brenda sat right next to me for most of the game. She told me she doesn’t do much anymore now that she’s retired, but later admitted that she sings in several bands around Tuscaloosa. Because she’s paid, I joked, “Oh, so you’re actually a professional musician!” She laughed.
“Honey, it’s like saying you’re a professional softball player.” She raised her eyebrows at the girls on the field. “You could buy a used car with what these girls are paid… maybe.”
She’s right. Teams in the NPF must squeeze their 18- to 23-player roster into an $150,000 salary cap. Very few players earn more than $20,000 a season. The average pay for an NPF player is between $5,000 and $6,000 for the three-month season, which lasts from May to August. That’s less money than minor league baseball players are paid at the A, AA, and AAA levels. The minimum salary for a single Major League Baseball player ($507,500) is three times the salary cap for an entire NPF team.
There are a few exceptions. Monica Abbott, a pitcher for the Scrapyard Dawgs, recently signed the first million-dollar contract in NPF history. (To fit the structure of the league salary cap, Abbott will be paid $20,000 for each of the next six seasons and given “attendance bonuses” to make up the rest of her cost.) The first million-dollar contract in Major League Baseball was given to Nolan Ryan in 1979, for just a single year of play. But Abbott’s contract is meant to be hopeful, to spark a little attention to a sport that should get more.
In the final game of the semifinals versus the Bandits, Abbott threw 101 pitches, on par with what a great ace in Major League Baseball might throw. Sixty-six of those were strikes, and she struck out eight players. To say Abbott is the most dominant pitcher in the NPF, and among the most dominant pitchers in the world, isn’t an opinion. It’s a quantifiable fact. In 2016, she went 19-3 for the Scrapyard Dawgs with an ERA of .98 and 185 strikeouts in 142 innings pitched. If she were an MLB player, those kind of numbers would make her a Hall of Famer, no question.
“U.S. women’s soccer made such a huge statement for all female athletes,” Monica Abbott told ESPNW in July. “It’s time for [the National Pro Fastpitch League] to be seen by the world.”
Softball, like other women’s sports, is constantly demeaned by its existing position of inferiority when arguing for better representation. “Sure, our average crowd is less than Major League Baseball, and our players aren’t paid the same,” commissioner Cheri Kempf told me, “But those are products of partnerships, exposure, and the activation of those partnerships. On merit, on entertainment value, on talent, and on product, it’s the same game. The only difference is the engagement of corporate sponsorships.”
The way Kempf sees it, the league can’t be expected to churn out the same kind of numbers as Major League Baseball without the same kind of advertising support that their brother league enjoys. She’s not wrong. The only corporate sponsorships the NPF has right now are tied to the sporting goods business. There are no major advertisers like Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, or Comcast. By contrast, almost everything about a Major League Baseball game has a brand slapped on it, from novelty soda cups to free T-shirts. Those sponsorships make the league the money it needs to pay its athletes. Kempf’s four-person staff is trying their best, but there’s only so much they can do without financial backing.
“I think the mindset of corporate america is equivalent to about 1942. We need someone to understand that we can deliver, that we have value. Before Branch Rickey [the executive who integrated Jackie Robinson into MLB in 1947], people did not believe that black men had entertainment value on the same scale,” Kempf told me. “We’re the same way. We’re like the Negro league. Here we are playing. There’s a dedicated committed audience that follows us and supports us […] But the mainstream doesn’t realize it, because we are not able to play in that space, because we don’t have the partnership dollars of corporate America.”
Kempf, and many other players I talked to over the course of the championship series in Alabama, were insistent about one thing. There might be a reason softball hasn’t broken through to mainstream America, but whatever it is, it’s not the level of play happening on the field. Everyone felt the need to push back against that argument, whether or not I brought it up. There’s a misconception out there in the world that if women’s sports deserved to be covered, they would be. That if excellent athleticism is happening, fans will find it. That if something is valuable, people will learn about it. But the women of professional softball know that’s not true. They know how good they are.
There was far less national outlet coverage at this championship series than the play deserved. ESPN was not there (though ESPNW was). Sports Illustrated was not there. SBNation was not there. The press in the press box was almost entirely local. According to a study published last year in the journal Communication & Sport, ESPN’s SportsCenter only spent 2% of its airtime focusing on female athletes. Most other broadcasts did about the same. This study suggests this neglect of women’s sports in mainstream media coverage has been happening for at least a quarter of a century.
Though the researchers found that sports coverage over the past 25 years has gotten much more “respectful”—meaning fewer sexist and degrading comments—those comments haven’t been replaced by positive analysis of the work women do. They’ve been replaced by silence. “The media plays a huge role in building and sustaining audiences for sport and they do it very well for men’s sports and they do it horribly for women’s sports,” Cheryl Cooky, an author of the study and a professor of women’s studies at Purdue, told The Atlantic.
The NPF championship series was broadcast on the CBS Sports Network—a channel only available if you have a cable subscription and pay for an additional sports package—and on the league’s online player, NPFTV. There were three cameras that I could see on the field at the game—one in left field, one in the press box behind the plate, and one carried by a mobile camera operator on the field. Commissioner Cheri Kempf later told me that there were 9 cameras in the production of a series, but that still pales in comparison to a Major League Baseball game, where (in most stadiums) there are three cameras in each dugout alone. Watching the game on television could, then, make softball seem slower than it actually is. With fewer cuts, fewer replays, and fewer camera angles, that could be part of the reason it looks less exciting.
This CBS deal, which was signed before the 2016 season, is progress for the league. CBS has broadcast the last 3 seasons for the NPF including 18 games in 2014, 22 games in 2015. In 2016, CBS aired 22 games, the 2016 Draft live, and the 30 minute long NPF Championship Series preview show. The 2011, 2012 and 2013 NPF Championship Finals were contracted by ESPN to air on ESPN2. According to Kempf, in 2013, ESPN2 also carried 4 regular season games, and “those games all rated between a .11 and .28.” The ratings for this year’s games are unknown because CBSSN is an unrated network.
Although the league declined to comment upon how much money they make off the CBS deal, it is, at least, a boost in exposure. And that’s what the NPF really needs to fix its money problems. Even though the talent is already there, the league needs people to write about them, and their games to be broadcast, so that advertisers will see their sport as valuable.
“No one else wants to be the first,” commissioner Kempf told me. “But somebody’s gonna have to step outside the box. We need that person to step up and say, ‘You know what? We don’t have to invest all of us on this league.’ They could be a title sponsor of a 12-week television package for a fraction of a cost for the 85th college football game that gets seen by 2,000 people.”
And Kempf has reason to believe that if more of their games were aired on television, the audience would come with them. The ratings for the league’s broadcast championship series won’t be available until the fourth quarter, but the games must have done fairly well, because the 22 games shown on CBSSN in 2015 were re-aired 35 times for a total of 57 aired games. (CBSSN did not respond to a request for the ratings of the NPF league games.) The last available ratings are from the 2013 National Pro Fastpitch championship series, which came in at .1—that’s 10 times lower than the least-viewed MLB game.
But general audiences have proven that they will watch high-level softball if they can access it easily and it’s given a choice time slot. In 2015 the Women’s College World Series outperformed the College Baseball World Series by 31%. The final game of that series brought more than 2.2 million viewers. And the league itself is growing in size, too. The Dallas Charge was just created in 2015, and the Scrapyard Dawgs (located near Houston, Texas) made their debut this year.
Once people can find high-level softball, there’s good reasons why they’ll watch. If you made a list of every common complaint lodged against professional baseball, then changed the game to fix all of those problems, what you would get is something remarkably similar to professional softball. Baseball games, people complain, are too long. Softball games are seven innings instead of nine, and average around two hours. That’s a full hour less than MLB’s three hours and four minutes.
Just a few weeks ago, Zach Schonbrun wrote a New York Times article bemoaning the lack of creativity in baseball. As the sport becomes more technical, he argued, the mystique of the game is lost. But the National Pro Fastpitch League is teeming with obvious displays of eccentricity, even inside the box. Megan Wiggins, centerfield for the USSSA Pride, has a batting stance so wide it almost takes up the entire box. The batter who follows her, Kelly Kretschman, lines her feet up parallel to the back line of the box. Monica Abbott’s pitching motion makes her look like a windup toy, but it also makes her the best player in the game.
In Major League Baseball, most plays are predictable the minute the ball leaves the bat. Unless a fielder truly messes up, an infield ground ball will almost never result in a hit. The distance between home plate and first base in the MLB is 90 feet, but in professional softball, that distance is only 60 feet. That means that every play has potential. If a runner is fast enough, she can outrun even a simple ground ball. That makes the game feel faster, and more equitable. A great pitcher can still win you a game, but that’s rarer and rarer. Softball, for now at least, is much more dependent on whole team efforts than on single home runs by individual players.
After watching four games in Tuscaloosa and many more streaming, I can tell you it’s impossible to deny how entertaining of a game the women of the NPF are playing. The games are often nail-biters into the final inning. The players are powerful. Their energy and enthusiasm are strong. The level of play is on par with any professional sport. The only thing not on par is the attention they receive.
The stadium where the national championship series happens is less than a mile from University Boulevard, the main drag of the University of Alabama. In between the stately pillars of old row fraternities and the sports complexes, there are a few strip malls filled with restaurants. At Chipotle, the cashier handed out free tickets to the final game the night before it was played.
It was a Tuesday evening before classes began, but after Greek rush week. Two students in oversized T-shirts took tickets from the top of a large stack. “I played softball in high school, but I would have had to go to a smaller school to keep playing, you know?” a girl named Caroline told me between bites of her burrito bowl. Her friend nodded. “I kind of stopped trying to get any better because there wasn’t any point. I loved softball but it’s not, like, a career.”
“I didn’t even know there was pro softball,” the friend chimed in. They told me they probably won’t go to the game. “I kind of just took them to be nice,” Caroline shrugged.
You don’t exactly give away tickets at a Chipotle for a game you expect to have good attendance. The final game, held on a Tuesday evening, had the lowest attendance of the three. (The series totaled 7,048 fans according to Kempf, but the NPF did not provide attendance numbers for individual games.) But everything that could happen to make this game great did. It featured two of the oldest and most storied teams in NPF history. The weather wasn’t too hot and it wasn’t raining. The score stayed close up until the very end.
The Chicago Bandits won the third game by one run, and they celebrated like any championship team would. They piled on top of each other. One player gave another a piggyback ride. Someone from the league brought out championship T-shirts and hats, and each of the women pulled hers on over her jersey. From cannons beside the dugouts, red, white, and blue confetti blasted into the air and landed on the field. As a man read the game’s stats through the loudspeaker, one of the players made snow angels in the pile of confetti on the field. They were jubilant.
But unlike other championship teams, they celebrated almost alone. By the end of the game, the stands were mostly empty. I did a rough head count and got to almost 300 spectators by the time the confetti cannons blew. The best players in the country deserve more than an audience of family members. They deserve to have their plays reviewed on SportsCenter, their faces printed on magazines, and their names known by more than a select few.
When the man over the speaker announced the Chicago Bandits as the winners of the 2016 National Pro Fastpitch championship series and presented them with the league’s greatest prize. The loudest cheers came not from the stands, but from the players themselves. They knew they should be proud of themselves. Even if no one else did.