Little League Coverage Points To Softball's Growth
Michele Smith has had first-hand exposure to the growth of softball throughout her several years in and around the game. That's because, for the past two decades, Smith has traveled near and far to cover the sport as ESPN's lead softball analyst.
One of Smith's staple assignments during that time has been to serve as a color commentator for the Little League Softball World Series, which occurs annually at Alpenrose Stadium in Portland, Ore. The event, which is currently in its 26th season in Portland and 46th overall, is aired each August on the ESPN family of networks and features girls ages 10–12 years old on 10 teams from around the world.
This year, every game of pool play at the Little League Softball World Series is available for streaming on ESPN's subscription service, ESPN+. The elimination rounds, which begin Monday, are scheduled to be televised on ESPN's family of networks, including a primetime airing of Wednesday's final on the network's flagship channel.
"The fact that ESPN is covering it through all of its different platforms now, all of the pitches of the Little League Softball World Series can be seen, just like at the Women’s College World Series," Smith told Softball America in a phone interview. "Now, there are a lot more opportunities for the communities that want to follow these young ladies. It’s because of the exposure softball has gotten."
Like for the Women's College World Series, which produced record viewership totals across the board in 2019 and is also covered by Smith, ESPN recently made a commitment to cover youth softball like never before. Along with every pitch of the Little League Softball World Series, ESPN chose to cover the entirety of the 2019 Junior League Softball World Series and Senior League Softball World Series for the first time ever, as more than 150 youth softball games will have been streamed on ESPN's platforms by the end of the summer.
For Smith, who earned two Olympic gold medals with USA Softball during her playing days, the growth of softball is evident through this type of expansive coverage of the sport, from the youth to the collegiate ranks.
"Everything that we’ve seen the Little League World Series on the boys’ side become, it’s becoming on the girls’ side as well," said Smith, a former left-handed star pitcher. "It gives young girls the opportunity to see others like them. Now, little girls can turn on the TV and be like, ‘Hey, if she can do it, then I can do it.’ That’s really what it is all about."
Beyond the opportunities for exposure that it provides to girls in the sport, the Little League Softball World Series is a unique event in an age when travel ball seems to dominate the youth-softball landscape.
"The component that Little League holds so true to, just like we have seen in the collegiate sporting system, is that it is community-based," said Smith, who first signed on with ESPN in 1998. "You get people to rally around what they know and where they live. These are young athletes who are playing with their neighbors and with people they live in the same community with. That’s what I think makes Little League so special."
And if you ask Smith, whose playing career ended in 2002, the Little League Softball World Series is another reminder of the growth of girls' and women's sports as a whole.
"It’s really been over the last 15 years that things have truly exploded on the women’s front," Smith said. "I love seeing all of the possibility that exists (at the Little League Softball World Series). We still have a long way to go, but seeing these young girls recognized for their athleticism is great."