The next step for women’s softball

Story by Chris Graham

Softball seemed poised to become the next big thing in women’s sports after the successful barnstorming tour of the United States Olympic team preceding the 2004 Athens Games that drew sellout crowds in 22 cities.

At least one more tour of the States could be in the offing – in 2008 preceding the Beijing Olympics – but it doesn’t appear that a similarly styled 2012 trip will be on the schedule.

The sport has been dropped from the Olympics lineup for the ’12 Games in London – leading some in the softball know to question whether the game’s zooming popularity in the U.S. and worldwide will be able to continue into the future.

“I think it’s a big thing that softball is out of the Olympics now,” said Angela Tincher, a Virginia Tech sophomore who pitched against the U.S. national team in an exhibition game in Salem in 2004 and who compiled a 26-9 record with a glittering 1.01 earned-run average for the Hokies this spring.

“We have a pro league now, but it’s nothing anywhere close to Major League Baseball, for example – and it’s not a real great option for somebody who wants to continue in softball. So the fact that softball is out of the Olympics now is, I think, surprising. It’s something that you look to from the time you’re a kid, and now it’s not even there after the next Olympics,” Tincher said.

“I hope somehow maybe it would get appealed and that they would bring it back in because they realize how big the Olympics are to the sport,” Tincher told the “ACC Nation” radio show.

The Plant City, Fla.,-based International Softball Federation is leading the effort to get women’s softball back onto the Olympic schedule. ISF president Don Porter agrees with Tincher’s assessment that the International Olympic Committee’s decision to drop the sport from the London Games could have an impact on its long-term growth potential.

“This is disappointing to the athletes who aspire to want to be in the Olympics. That’s the sad part about it. We’ve received hundreds of e-mails from athletes about the decision taking the sport off the Olympic program. It’s very disappointing from that standpoint,” Porter told The Augusta Free Press.

Porter said the federation’s philosophy with regard to the growth of the sport at this stage is “we’re going to keep moving.”

“We’ve got more international events on the schedule. We just approved two new countries in Africa to become members of our federation. We’re up to 129 member countries now that have national federations. So it’s not as if our sport is going to go away. But this is going to make it more difficult for us to promote and develop the sport because of the impact on our funding,” Porter said.

“The Olympics are where you gain a lot of credibility and a lot of recognition for your sport,” Porter said.

Donna Lopiano, the CEO of the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation, said Olympics visibility is one of the key factors that can contribute to the growth of an emerging sport like softball.

“There are many factors that cause the growth of a sport – one of which is having aspirational role models or an aspirational level of competition that you want to be in. And for sure, there is nothing more visible than the Olympic Games. Could that be a professional softball league? Sure – if it were as visible,” Lopiano told the AFP.

“The point is, you have to have role models at the top and media coverage at the top to drive the aspirations of children to play a sport,” Lopiano said.

“That being said, I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s a bad thing to happen for any sport to lose Olympic visibility – because less than 6.9 percent of all print and electronic media sports coverage is devoted toward women’s sports. So we have nothing comparable to the Olympic Games,” Lopiano said.

But that in itself is changing, notes JoAnne Graf, the coach of the women’s softball team at Florida State.

“The last few years, every game of the World Series has been on TV. The last two years, we’ve seen some super regionals on TV. This year, we saw regional games on TV, we saw a lot of conference games, conference-tournament games on TV,” Graf told “ACC Nation” last week.

“The game is being played all over – the youth leagues, the high-school level – and it’s just growing tremendously internationally. The disappointing thing is that the Olympics dropped it for 2012 – but hopefully they’ll add it back,” Graf said.

Softball advocates have a healthy arsenal of arguments to offer to the IOC to persuade the committee to return the sport to the Olympics lineup – the chief one among them being the IOC’s own claim that its aim is to promote gender equity, said Kevin Wamsley, a University of West Ontario professor who is one of the world’s leading experts on the Olympic Games.

“Eliminating a women’s team sport has hurt IOC credibility,” Wamsley told the AFP.

“Advocates must attack the decision on these grounds if they are to be successful. The IOC does not care if a sport suffers,” Wamsley said.

“Women’s softball must address the communities which support it and not fix itself to the tail of the Olympics. Olympic fans are far more fickle, as are the ebb and flow of Olympic politics,” Wamsley said.

That’s what Porter sees being at play here.

“It’s a political issue. It’s not so much our sport as it is politics – and the decision that was made in Torino and last year in Singapore was a political decision. It was not a sport decision,” Porter said.

“We have to live with it – and try to do what we can to regroup. And that’s what we’re doing,” Porter said.

 

(Published 05-26-06)



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