Sports

College softball coaches worry the arrival of athlete pay could slow their sport's growth

OKLAHOMA CITY — (AP) — Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo energized college softball two years ago on the way to becoming the career home run leader and the sport's visibility has increased ever since.

Six of the nine sessions at this year's Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City set attendance records. Game 1 of the championship series set an attendance record that was broken the next day for Game 2. A total of 12,324 watched at Devon Park last Thursday as Oklahoma defeated Texas to claim a record fourth straight national title.

ESPN said the World Series finals games were the most watched on record. The two games averaged 2 million viewers, with Game 2 peaking at 2.5 million. The championship series had a 24% increase in viewership from the previous year.

Those who have built college softball are encouraged by the progress.

“I believe the sport has done an amazing job of growing viewership,” said UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, who has led the Bruins to two of their record 12 national titles. “We’ve gotten into living rooms. People have fallen in love with the sport. There are conferences that dedicated great resources, funds, facilities, coaching salaries – all kinds of things to be able to support the sport.”

Still, there is uneasiness about the sport’s future.

The NCAA's recent agreement with the major conferences to settle federal antitrust litigation sets a path for schools to begin directly paying athletes, a move that could have major consequences for sports beyond football and men's basketball. Even with softball's steady growth, some coaches are concerned money could be steered away from their sport and threaten its stability. Some worry that schools could drop the sport altogether.

CUTS COMING?

“We’re all hoping that it doesn’t hurt softball, that’s for sure,” said Texas coach Mike White, whose school has one of the largest budgets in college athletics. “We are in a growth stage, along with several other women’s sports that have taken off right now. We’re certainly afraid of (changes hurting softball), that’s for sure. We don’t want that to happen. We’re hoping each individual school sees the benefit of keeping the money in softball and keeping it as a premier sport.”

According to NCAA statistics and databases, 295 Division I schools offered softball in 2023 and there were 6,737 players, up slightly from 6,452 athletes at the same number of programs in 2019.

Inouye-Perez said she is confident her program will be fine, but was not sure about others in softball and beyond.

“I don’t fear the sport dying, but I do say I feel badly that I don’t believe the amount of teams are going to be able to sustain what’s coming in the future,” she said. “I don’t know. That’s just potentially what could happen because we’ve had conversations of understanding the impact of what could happen, knowing every school is going to have to find a way to be able to fund all Olympic sports.”

SOME ATHLETES TO BENEFIT

Oklahoma softball star Tiare Jennings said she is glad softball players soon will have another path to being paid beyond earning endorsement money through name, image and likeness deals. She said past Oklahoma greats such as Lauren Chamberlain, the former career home run leader, should have had the chance to make money when they played. Jennings recently passed Chamberlain and moved into third place all-time with 98 career home runs.

“It's important when they leave college just to have a foundation, have something for their future families, for themselves — just to have some security blanket when you leave college, knowing that you can go invest or start a business, stuff like that — to just kickstart your life,” she said.

UNEQUAL DISTRIBUTION?

Florida coach Tim Walton said he hopes the changes benefit softball players, but he’s worried that some could be cut out to take care of the best ones.

“My greatest fear for a long time has just been, at what point in time is our model sustainable for all sports, coaches, programs across the country,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern. I do believe we’re heading down a path that’s going to be probably a lot more equivalent for males and female athletes alike. But how many of them? I think that’s the biggest question that I would have.”

There are also questions about the future of athletic scholarships.

As of now, schools can distribute 11.7 scholarships across a baseball roster of 32 players, for example, and the number for a softball team is 12. Walton believes revenue sharing is the right thing to do, but is concerned it could lead to the elimination of so-called Olympic sports.

RESPONSIBILITY FOR LEADERS

USA Softball executive director Craig Cress is watching because his program draws from the college ranks, and he wants the sport to be in good shape as it prepares for a return to the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028. He said the changes will be good if decision makers look at the big picture.

“I just think that it will be done the right way,” he said. “There’s always ways to legislate or to make sure that things are being done properly. And I think this is just another way that the athletes are going to benefit from it. So us as administrators and organizations really just need to figure out how we’re going to do it to make sure ... we’re doing it the proper way.”

Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso believes the gatekeepers will do the right thing.

“I feel really good about where our sport is,” she said. “I feel really good about the momentum of our sport through viewership, attendance, so forth. I just don’t know enough about what’s going on right now. But I’ve got to trust it’s in the hands of those who are going to make good decisions for our student-athletes and for athletics in general.”

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AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports

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