Transitioning from college life to “the real world” can be a challenging adjustment for anyone. But for student-athletes, who in most cases are forced to abruptly abandon the sport they’ve spent their entire life training for, the change is often much more painstaking.
Currently, almost 480,000 students participate in a college sport according to the NCAA, with over 100,000 of those participating in football, baseball or men’s basketball. Although less than two percent of all college athletes make it to the professional leagues, the fact still remains that male athletes are afforded the opportunity to envision the potential of taking their skills to the next level and building a highly-lucrative career on a much broader scale than their female counterparts.
For softball players, who make up just over 20,000 of all NCAA athletes, the lack of opportunity to build a professional career after college is severely limited. Despite the fact that college softball remains one of the most watched sports in all of athletics, it’s virtually non-existent on a professional level.
The National Pro Fastpitch, which re-launched under a new name in 2014, exists as the only professional softball league in the country. The six-team organization, which includes teams in the United States, Canada, Australia and China, is currently made up of less than 200 players and competes in just 144 games and a championship series annually.
Although pitcher Monica Abbott signed a record-breaking $1M contract in 2016, for the majority of NPF athletes, the annual salary is somewhere between $5,000-20,000. In most cases, this below-average wage forces players to seek international opportunities in the offseason, where the compensation has the potential to be much higher.
In Japan, for example, where support for softball is significantly larger, players can earn upwards of $60,000 in the country’s corporate-sponsored 12-team professional league. It’s important to note that Japan has also opted to add softball to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is returning for the first time since 2008. Still, the unfortunate reality is that only a handful of the most qualified softball athletes in the world will ever make it to these international leagues.
Increasing professional opportunities for softball players starts, first and foremost, with expanded media coverage. While NPF currently has a media presence on MLB.com, B/R Live and ESPN+, the league does not generate any revenue from its game broadcasts. Much like the WNBA, which has recently seen a significant spike in ratings and engagement, building the popularity of professional softball begins by offering fans the opportunity to watch the games on the networks where they most often consume sports. Likewise, although the MLB is currently marketed as NPF’s development partner, the league’s public role is virtually non-existent.
Fortunately, softball merchandising companies like RIP-IT are using a grassroots strategy to provide additional monetization opportunities for players outside of the field. By partnering with professional players, RIP-IT is finding new ways to offer expanded revenue streams for athletes who receive low annual salaries. It’s alternative opportunities like these that will continue to allow professional softball athletes the ability to play the sport they love while still bringing in a livable wage. Because for college softball athletes, learning how to stop playing is one skill they never teach on the field.