How ESPN is fueling the rising popularity of the Women’s College World Series and softball around the country
When it comes to college athletics, popularity and profitability are the driving forces behind the amount of media coverage a sport, league or team receives each year. For women’s sports, which have traditionally seen less broadcast attention from major networks than men’s sports, proving increasing popularity and consistent profitability is even more important.
While football, men’s basketball and baseball still top the NCAA financial charts, most fans may be surprised to learn that softball is ranked fourth amongst the most profitable college sports in the U.S.
For ESPN and its affiliated networks, which air the annual Women’s College World Series and over 1,200 regular season games each year, the rising popularity and the steady increase in revenue generation of NCAA softball is a win-win for both the network and fans. However, despite the fact that ESPN has owned the rights to college softball for over forty years, the network has only been airing the Women’s College World Series for the last 18 years.
In that time, college softball has seen a steady increase in fan engagement. Last year’s two-game Women’s College World Series between the Florida State Seminoles and Washington Huskies, for example, drew nearly 1.4 million viewers, which was a 40 percent increase from when the network began airing the series in the year 2000.
Likewise, according to Softball America, Oklahoma’s two-game series sweep over Florida the year before was the most watched sweep in Women’s College World Series history, with an average of 1.72 million viewers tuning in. By comparison, the net average for MLB games in 2017 was just under one million according to Sports Business Daily.
If that wasn’t enough evidence of the sport’s rising popularity, the final game of this year’s Women’s College World Series between the UCLA Bruins and the Oklahoma Sooners hit a four-year high with nearly 1.57 million fans watching, and drew the largest single-game audience since Game 3 between the Michigan Wolverines and the Florida Gators in 2015 with 2.27 million, according to Sports Media Watch. This year’s Super Regionals also saw a 36 percent uptick in viewership year over year with the entire Women’s College World Series drawing a 20 percent year over year increase.
In terms of profitability, during the 2016-17 season, college softball teams across the country reported an estimated $450 million in revenue, according to the Department of Education. By comparison, no college team reported more than $1 million in revenue over the 2003-04 season, the first year the data was collected.
For young athletes who play or are interested in playing softball, this increase in popularity and profitability is certainly positive for the game’s collegiate and professional expansion.
In 2016, slow-pitch softball around the country saw an 8.1 percent increase in participation while youth baseball rose by just 7.7 percent. However, while the MLB continues to thrive and provide ample opportunities for young male athletes to aspire after high school or college, the game of softball at the professional level is still drastically underserved.
As it stands, National Pro Fastpitch, which is currently in its fifteenth season and made up of just six teams, provides the only opportunity for women to participate in professional softball at the national level in the United States. However, much like the Women’s College World Series, NPF didn’t receive high-level broadcast coverage until recently and didn’t begin airing on ESPN until 2010 when the network purchased the right to 16 games.
While it’s clear from the numbers that college softball and the NCAA Women’s College World Series in particular has become one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year, a lot of credit can be given to the sports growing national broadcast coverage. Additionally, for women’s sports, which are all too often undervalued in the national media landscape, the increasing popularity of college softball also lends well to the push from apparel and lifestyle companies like RIP-IT, which are continuously working to advance the fastpitch athletic experience by offering high-performance gear tailored specifically to female athletes.
As networks continue to broaden their coverage of college softball and National Pro Fastpitch, national popularity and revenue generation will inevitably continue to rise as well. The key to offering advanced opportunities for young athletes begins with the media and its dedication to increasing consistent coverage of women’s sports.