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Berri: Let's Put The NPF In Historical Perspective

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(Photo courtesy of Canadian Wild)

When UCLA defeated Oklahoma on June 4 to claim the 2019 NCAA championship at the Women's College World Series, the game produced a television ratings success of great proportions. With reportedly 1.8 million people tuning in to watch, it marked the fourth largest audience this year for a softball or baseball game on cable television. At the time of the broadcast, only three Major League Baseball games had a larger cable television audience in 2019, therefore demonstrating the substantial market that exists for college softball.

Three stars for WCWS runner-up Oklahoma subsequently left college and joined the National Pro Fastpitch as professional softball players. Sydney Romero and Shay Knighten are now playing for the USSSA Pride, while Caleigh Clifton is competing for the Chicago Bandits. Although the NPF employs a large number of former college stars, the league does not currently attract the same audience that is seen in the collegiate game.

The NPF, in its 16th season, is still very much in its developmental stages. For some, it seems puzzling that a league that has existed for over a decade and employs so many talented softball players still struggles to find the same audiences that college softball enjoys. But, let's put things in historical perspective.

As quoted in my textbook, Sports Economics, in 1890, Woodrow Wilson—then, the President of Princeton University, and eventually, of the United States—stated the following:

"Princeton is noted in this wide world for three things: football, baseball, and college instruction." 

Wilson had good reason to list sports before college instruction in 1890. According to Andrew Zimbalist, football games between Princeton and Yale in the 1880s attracted about 40,000 fans and generated more than $25,000 in gate revenue, which was a considerable sum at the time. It is clear that college sports were already a huge business in the late 19th century.

The same story, though, can't be said about professional sports during that time in history. The MLB's National League existed for 16 years in 1891. But, judging by the attendance figures of the day, professional baseball was not that popular. The average National League team only attracted 2,408 fans per game in 1891, while the Cincinnati Reds attracted just 1,455 fans per contest at the time. In other words, if you were an observer of professional baseball in 1891, you might have been tempted to adopt a tone similar about the MLB as that of NPF critics today.

A similar story can be told about the NFL. Again, college football games were already able to attract roughly 40,000 fans for a game in the 1880s. But, in 1935—the 16th season of the NFL and nearly 50 years after it was clear college football was quite popular—the attendance average in the NFL was only 12,830 fans per game. To boot, the NFL championship game between the New York Giants and Detroit Lions that season only saw 15,000 fans show up.

The NFL's struggles continued for decades. Of the first 43 franchises to join the league, 31 went out of business. Again, this was a league that employed stars from college football. These stars likely grew accustomed to playing in front of very large crowds in college. But, the NFL experience was clearly quite different.

And it was the same story in the NBA. In the 1961–62 NBA season—its 16th season—stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Pettit, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor were employed. Still, the average attendance that season was only 4,566 fans. Today, we might be amazed to learn that during the 1961–62 campaign, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points per game and Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double per contest for the entire season. But, at the time, few people bothered to show up to watch these records being set.

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Q&A With USSSA Executive Director And CEO Don DeDonatis III

USSSA Executive Director and CEO Don DeDonatis III answered questions about the Pride's future in professional softball.

Today, Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA have global audiences. Millions of people watch the players in these leagues, who are known around the world. But, for each league—despite employing some of the best talent colleges had to offer—such success was not enjoyed in Year 16. The major problem for each league, historically, wasn't marketing, or facilities or player pay. The big issue was simply how much emotional attachment fans could develop during the early goings of each league.

Colleges tend to do well with respect to sports because there is already an embedded audience that wishes to support their teams. If you are a fan of Oklahoma—because you attended that university, your parents attended or you simply grew up in Oklahoma—you are likely interested in any contest featuring a Sooners sports team. The same is true for myriad colleges across the country.

But, what happens when players from those familiar universities wear the uniforms of the Pride or the Bandits in the NPF? Well, it is similar to what happened in the past when college basketball stars played for the Warriors and Royals of the NBA in 1962. Or, when college football stars competed for the Pirates and Dodgers of the NFL in 1935. Fans of those sports simply had little emotional attachment to those teams. Without an emotional attachment, fan interest—even when players are well known—is likely to be limited.

Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to the creation of familiarity. As the NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball have demonstrated, a fan base takes time to build. This will likely be the same story for the NPF. Yes, this can be frustrating. As fans of the NPF, we know this is a great league and a great game.  We know these players are incredibly talented. So, we just want this league to be immensely popular like the college game is. History, however, tells us that we just need more time.

Maybe the NPF would be propelled by wider-reaching marketing campaigns, improved facilities and better pay. But, what the NPF really needs is more history.