Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Is Softball on Life Support?

USA softball suffered another blow yesterday when Jennie Finch announced her retirement, effective at the end of this summer. The sport, which has already seen its Olympic hopes erased for the next two Games, is arguably losing its most visible star. Only 29, Finch is still at the top of her game, but what does she have to play for? Without the Olympics, her only meaningful tournaments are the World Championships and the World Cup of Softball. And the World Cup of Softball, which begins tomorrow night, has seen its level of competition dramatically decrease. Once a gathering of the best softball teams in the world, this year's tournament features just three countries: USA, Japan, and Canada. How is that 38 years after the passage of Title IX, only three countries a) can field competitive teams, or b) choose to compete in what has now become one of the highest levels of competition for the sport?

Even the National Pro Fastpitch league, the only professional outlet for female softball players, has seen its number of teams drop from eight at its height to just
four this year. More girls are playing sports now than 20 or even 10 years ago. Since the enactment of Title IX, female participation in college sports has increased 456%. The interest in playing the sport is clearly there, so why are the powers-that-be pulling the plug on opportunities?

In the case of the Olympics, speculation is that the US was too dominant,
winning the first three gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004) since the sport's induction into the Games. But that wasn't the case in 2008, when the US lost to Japan in the gold medal game. And if being too dominant is a concern, then why is table tennis still included, when the Chinese have won 20 of 24 gold medals (and a Chinese woman has won every single gold) since the sport's entry into the Games in 1988? Another reason suggested for the sport's cancellation is that it is "too American" for the Olympic Committee. But there are 128 member countries in the International Softball Federation, almost twice as many members as the International Ice Hockey Federation, which has 69.

With the National Pro Fastpitch league, the issue seems to be money: teams folded because they couldn't sustain operations with low attendance. The New England Riptide, for example, folded before the 2009 season for economic reasons, with the hope and intention of returning in 2010. It didn't. And without the Olympics to generate the interest in the sport for spectators, the outlook does not look promising for growing the league.

So what does all of this mean for a sport that has given us such great athletes as Lisa Fernandez, Dot Richardson, Cat Osterman, Jessica Mendoza, and Jennie Finch? It means that after college, these women have few opportunities to play at an elite level, when they are at their athletic peak. It means that if given the choice between playing soccer and softball, young girls might choose the former because the stage is bigger. It means that the great college players right now will likely never get a chance to play in an Olympic Games. And it means that fans of the sport will be relegated to watching just the best players from three countries every July—for now.