Softball has long been one of the most popular sports in the United States, and in recent years, it has continued to show serious signs of continued growth.
Television ratings for softball continue to increase—in 2019, ESPN reported record-breaking viewership for college softball across the board. ESPN had a double-digit viewership increase in 2019, surpassing the previous best viewership levels since 2016. Further illustrating the sport’s strength, the Department of Education (DoE) reported in 2019 that college softball teams reported $450 million in revenue in 2016-2017 (the last year data has been reported), something that just 14 seasons ago would not have been the case. The DoE also reported that only three men’s sports—football, men’s basketball, and men’s baseball—reported more revenue than women’s softball.
With so much clout already established around the sport, softball was supposed to have a 2020 unlike any other sport. The Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City, Ok., was expected to attract a record-breaking crowd. Television ratings for the annual event were expected to soar. But perhaps the biggest highlight for the sport in 2020 would be its reintroduction to the Olympics in Tokyo—the sport had not been played at the Olympic Games since 2008 when the U.S. softball team won the silver medal. Unfortunately, these events all came to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the interest in the sport—and the desire to play—didn’t falter.
In its Participation Report 2020, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported that softball had approximately 2.2 million total fast-pitch participants and just over seven million slow-pitch participants in 2019. USA Softball, the sport’s national governing body, estimates it has (pre-COVID 19) approximately 2.25 million participants in the game, and that’s just at the 18 and under level. Since the pandemic, games, and tournaments have been harder to schedule in many parts of the country. Still, the organization has continued to see play where possible, particularly in areas such as the Southeast, Arizona, and Oklahoma. Once mandated restrictions allow, USA Softball has been able to host more than 70 events so far this year at its facility, the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium Complex.
“It has been back to business as usual for the most part in our complex,” said USA Softball Director of National Teams Chris Sebren. “Though while we are back to hosting events, we have implemented COVID-19 safety measures throughout the facility, so that means things like face masks and social distancing. But it’s been great to see people excited to get back to playing softball.”
USA Softball recently completed a $27.5 million renovation of its complex in Oklahoma City. The project added 4,000 seats in an upper deck, bringing the total permanent seats to 9,000. With an outfield seating capacity of approximately 3,000, the Hall of Fame Complex can now accommodate 12,000 spectators. The renovations also added 131 new restrooms, new concession stands, new sod, and more available space for things like press and media.
“When we host the Women’s College World Series next year, it will be amazing to see the stadium as full as it can be,” Sebren added.
USA Softball has still been doing all it can to keep the sport at the forefront and encourage more participation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization began producing the Sport Development Series through the USA Softball Resource Center, which is the organization’s online resource center. The Sport Development Series features a panel comprised of a variety of people from various aspects of the game that speak on different softball-related topics. The panels have been featured every other week for the past 20-plus weeks.
“It’s a different topic each week and we cover things like recruiting, mental health awareness and how to stay involved in the game even after you’re no longer playing,” explained USA Softball Managing Director of Sport Development Destiny Martinez. “We try to feature a Team USA member on them as well. We’re essentially trying to provide information for everyone that’s a part of USA Softball, whether they are an umpire, coach, parent or player.”
In addition to strategic and focused content created for all members, USA Softball is continuing its flagship programs to attract more youth to the sport. About five years ago, USA Softball partnered with Major League Baseball and USA Baseball for the PLAY BALL initiative. PLAY BALL encourages participation in softball and baseball among people of all ages, but especially youth. The initiative highlights various ways softball is played, whether as recreational or championship-level and provides information and instruction to help them play properly. Before the pandemic, USA Softball had impacted quite a few cities around the country, bringing out elementary-age kids to learn about the sport and even interact with some attending Team USA players.
“We ran them through different stations of base running, agilities, ground balls, pop-flys, and even how to play a quick whiffle ball game,” explained USA Softball Communications Manager Katie Willis. “At the end of the event, they are sent home with a foam bat and ball set to hopefully encourage them to continue playing and maybe look into signing up for local league play. This is one of our big initiatives to grow the game on a grassroots level.”
Fun at Bat is another significant USA Softball initiative that’s also a partnership with USA Baseball. The initiative’s eight-week curriculum focuses on introducing kids from kindergarten through fifth grade to softball and baseball, emphasizing things like character development and having fun. The organization is working with its associations across the country to get the curriculum implemented into elementary schools.
“The cost-free program teachers the coaches how to interact with kids and also comes with a full set of equipment,” Willis added. “This initiative will hopefully provide kids with an introduction to the sport at a young age and then they will hopefully enjoy the sport enough to go sign up with their local association.”
Just like the many youth players across the country excited about getting back on the field, so have the 35,000-plus players with Senior Softball USA. Many of its events were canceled early in the year, but the organization was able to pick up during the summer and host many annual events.
“Our players have had a lot of desire to get back to playing,” added Senior Softball USA Executive Director Fran Dowell. “We’ve had to change some things and add in a strict protocol for COVID-19, but it has been working well and everyone is taking those protocols seriously.”
Senior Softball USA has been experiencing an increase in its participation numbers, particularly with the 40s and 50s age groups. This year has even instituted a new women’s series that would encourage them to play in a certain number of specific events. They receive a discount to attend and play in the Women’s World Cup Championship if they do.
“We’re gearing to women this year,” added Dowell. “We’re hoping to get more female teams playing.”
While PONY Softball’s 2020 season has been nonexistent, the organization hopes that as we enter 2021, its play can begin resuming as normal. Last year, a new focus was to create more upper-level tournament opportunities in various regions and even internationally. Though it ran smoothly and successfully in 2019, the new tournaments were canceled this year, but the organization hopes that the 2021 season will pick right back up where 2019 left off.
“We’re certainly hoping that the next season volunteers and leagues and players are still motivated to play,” said PONY Baseball and Softball President and CEO Abe Key. “Socialization and physical and mental well-being are very important for young children and adults, so they need to get back on the field and interact with teams and teammates again. There are so many lessons to be learned on the athletic field, from winning and losing gracefully to listening to your coach and organizing your time. Sports like softball teach great life lessons and helps make them learn to be better leaders for tomorrow.”