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For 17 Years, NPF Provided Softball Pros Chance To Play

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(Photo by NPF)

The news many had been expecting finally became official on Sunday—National Pro Fastpitch, the longest-running professional softball league in the U.S., announced it would be suspending operations indefinitely.

NPF was the second-longest tenured women’s pro sports league in the country, after the WNBA. It was a successor to the Women’s Professional Softball League, which launched in the 1990s.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, NPF was on uneven ground financially and struggled to retain its members. The 2020 season was canceled due to the pandemic, and the league canceled the 2021 season as well to allow players to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.

“In a lot of ways, it’s not news,” said Cheri Kempf, who was the NPF’s president and commissioner from 2007 to 2020 before becoming the senior director of Athletes Unlimited. “We’re in the middle of the second season of NPF not being there. There were probably more people taking away from the league than contributing to it.”

Most NPF teams were owned by individuals rather than corporations, and money was often an issue. Membership fluctuated between four and six teams each season, several of which lasted no more than two or three seasons. Four of NPF’s six members for its inaugural season in 2004—the California Sunbirds, New York/New Jersey Juggernaut, Arizona Heat and New England Riptide—were out of the league by 2008.

Several expansion franchises, including the Philadelphia Force, Pennsylvania Rebellion and Texas Charge, also did not last long.

The Akron Racers and Chicago Bandits were the league’s lone consistent members. The Bandits took their name from a team in the International Women’s Professional Softball Association, a short-lived league in the late 1970s.

They spent their first few seasons in the outer Chicago suburbs of Lisle and Elgin before moving to their new softball-specific stadium in Rosemont, immediately outside of Chicago, in 2011. The Rosemont ballpark was the first facility in the U.S. constructed specifically for a professional softball team.

Owned by the village of Rosemont and boasting great players like Jennie Finch, Tammy Williams and Monica Abbott, the Bandits won four Cowles Cup championships and seven regular-season championships between their inception in 2005 and 2019. Their four titles are second only to the five won by the USSSA Pride.

“Everyone having the goal to grow the game was a really cool thing to be a part of,” said Abby Ramirez, an infielder for the Bandits from 2017 to 2019 who now plays for Athletes Unlimited. “It was tough because we didn’t have a lot of resources, but up until COVID it felt like everyone was doing their best and trying to grow the game with the right intentions.”

NPF had some high-profile television contracts early on—ESPN2 broadcast two games in the 2005 championship series, and CBS Sports televised several live games as well. But by its last season in 2019, games were only available on FloSoftball, a paid online streaming service.

In its later years, NPF consisted of legacy teams like the Bandits and Racers (who became the Cleveland Comets in 2018), teams sponsored by independent organizations Scrap Yard Fast Pitch and USSSA and a few national teams with U.S. bases. The Chinese, Australian and Canadian softball governing bodies all operated NPF teams in 2019, playing in Florida, Minnesota and Southern Illinois, respectively.

But Scrap Yard left the league after the 2017 season, and USSSA did the same in 2019—with both doing so immediately after winning the Cowles Cup. A new expansion team, the California Commotion, was set to join NPF in 2020, but the pandemic and a multitude of other factors prevented the league from forging ahead.

“When you’re in a women’s professional sport, it’s real important that everybody involved with that is working positively toward the ultimate goal of growing the league,” Kempf said. “And not negatively toward separating and dividing, and fighting for power and control.”

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