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NCAA Softball Is Now A Revenue Sport. . . Really!

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(Photo courtesy of Linda Donnelly)

People tend to divide college sports into revenue producing sports and non-revenue producing sports. For many people, the list of sports that generate revenue include football and men's basketball. Which means the list of non-revenue sports is everything else.

The data, though, tells a very different story. According to the Department of Education, college softball teams reported $450 million in revenue in 2016-17 (the last year data has been reported). The top school listed -- Florida State (the 2018 NCAA champions) -- reported $2.2 million in softball revenues. Baylor University also reported $2.2 million in revenue and 42 additional programs reported more than $1 million in revenues.

When we look at all college sports, we see that only three men's sports -- football, men's basketball, and baseball -- report larger revenues than women's softball. The Department of Education reports revenue on at least 30 men's college sports, so at least 27 men's college sports are not doing as well today at women's softball.

The data from the Department of Education only goes back to the 2003-04 season. When we adjust the revenue data for inflation, we don't see a single college softball team reporting more than $1 million in revenue 14 years ago. So, in just 14 seasons we have seen remarkable growth in the amount of money in softball.

To put softball's growth in perspective, let's look at a few other sports. According to the Department of Education, revenue in men's college basketball grew from $1.1 billion (adjusted for inflation) in 2003-04 to $2.0 billion in 2016-17. This is an 83.9 percent increase in revenues.

When we look at football and men's baseball, the growth in revenues was 115.8 percent and 185 percent respectively. In women's basketball, revenues grew 158.3 percent. But in women's softball, total reported revenues grew by 217.4 percent. Yes, softball is growing faster than all these sports.

The growth in women's softball isn't just seen in the revenue data. In 2015, it was reported the Women's College World Series between Michigan and Florida averaged 1.85 million viewers. Meanwhile the Men's College World Series only averaged 1.4 million viewers. So, the WCWS attracted 31% more viewers than the CWS in 2015.

In 2017, it was reported that Oklahoma's two-game sweep of Florida averaged 1.72 million viewers, the most watched sweep in WCWS history. The opening game of this series -- a game that lasted 17 innings -- had 1.583 viewers. This was the most viewers for an opening game in WCWS history. Those numbers were significantly larger than what ESPN was attracting for Monday Night Baseball that same year. According to Marketwatch, ESPN was only seeing 1.1 million viewers on average for Major League Baseball on Monday night in April that season.

In 2018, the WCWS ratings declined. It was reported the second game of the series between Florida State and Washington only attracted 1.5 million viewers. Although the 2018 series didn't attract quite the same audience as Oklahoma and Florida the year before, Sports Media Watch did report that

"... FSU’s win was the most-watched weeknight baseball or softball game since MLB Opening Day (Giants-Dodgers: 2.0M). It topped the competing Marlins-Cardinals MLB game on FS1 by nearly 300% (383K)."

The television ratings numbers tell the same story we see in the revenue numbers. Women's college softball can no longer be described as just another "non-revenue" sport. Increasingly softball teams -- and their players -- are major attractions for a universities' sports fans.

And that attraction is being reflected in the salaries of coaches. Recently the salaries of the head coaches at the University of Michigan were reported. Not surprisingly, the highest paid coaches were in football, men's basketball, and women's basketball. But the fourth highest paid coach was Carol Hutchins, who is paid $539,000 to coach women's softball for the Wolverines. This salary is more than $100,000 higher than the remaining head coach at Michigan.

Hutchins’ large salary, though, is not the most any college pays its softball coach. The honor for highest salary appears to go to Patty Gasso of the University of Oklahoma. The contract she signed in 2017 is going to pay her $1 million annually until 2024.

All of this tells an important story. Whether we look at coaches' salaries, television ratings, or revenue data, it is clear the traditional view of women's softball is no longer true. Softball is no longer a "non-revenue" sport. And given what we have seen, college softball will likely be even bigger in the future.

Of course, the players don’t see much of this because of NCAA rules and that means, getting paid much to play softball is still in the future. Currently graduating players can go to the National Pro Fastpitch League. In 2019, the NPF will have its 16th season. As we see in the history of Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the Women's National Basketball Association; leagues that are less than 20 years old tend to struggle. It simply takes a very long time for fans to develop emotional attachments to the teams in a sports league.

But history tells us that with patience, this does happen. Once upon a time college softball was a "non-revenue" sport that struggled to find an audience. That clearly has changed. And eventually, for the women who wish to earn a living playing softball professionally, this will change for the NPF as well.

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