Jun 21, 2022 - Sports

The growing pro softball landscape

Illustration of softball bats getting progressively taller.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

On the heels of the Women's College World Series, two pro softball leagues began play last week.

Why it matters: The existence of multiple leagues is indicative of softball's recent growth, spurred by increasing popularity of the college game and the uptick in investment across women's sports.

  • AUX is a condensed version of the fantasy-style Athletes Unlimited league that launched in 2020. The standard five-week edition begins its third season in July.
  • Women's Professional Fastpitch (WPF) replaces National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), which shuttered last year after two decades due to COVID-induced financial losses.

State of play: Jocelyn Alo, the Oklahoma superstar coming off her second straight WCWS title, was drafted No. 1 overall by both leagues.

  • She chose WPF and debuted on Friday. The league's commissioner, Lauren Chamberlain, is a fellow Sooner whose NCAA career HR record Alo broke in March.
  • WPF has just two teams for its inaugural, exhibition-style season. Athletes Unlimited has added AUX in year three and inked a two-year broadcast deal with ESPN.

The big picture: Softball is the latest women's sport to see such progress. The WNBA recently raised a record $75 million, the NWSL inked its first CBA and USWNT finally achieved equal pay.

Yes, but: Given the popularity of college softball (the WCWS outdrew the men’s last year), it's surprising that the professional game has yet to truly take off.

  • Consider that most of Alo's senior teammates' and opponents' careers are now over due to a lack of viable professional options, and it's been that way for decades. One key reason? No external financial support.
  • The WNBA survived early on thanks to subsidies from the NBA, which still partially owns the league, and the NWSL received similar support from U.S. Soccer. NPF got nothing.
  • Now, the WNBA and NWSL are thriving, and these nascent softball leagues hope to join them.

What they're saying: "More opportunities for pro softball players is a great thing overall," Athletes Unlimited CEO Jon Patricof tells Axios.

  • "I continue to be a believer that you need to treat women's sports like sports, not like a niche platform, and that’s where we are."
  • To wit, the addition of AUX means more compensation for athletes, and "the deal with ESPN ensures tremendous coverage and visibility," adds Patricof.
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