Can pro softball learn from WNBA? How WCWS stars could grow Caitlin Clark-level success

NORMAN — Jayda Coleman sprinted toward the center field wall, backpedaled without looking behind her, leapt and snagged a home run-robbing catch while colliding with the outfield padding.

Coleman has showcased her electric play throughout her four-year career with the OU softball team. While exciting, these moments are fleeting. OU head coach Patty Gasso has opened up about her seniors’ anxieties about their futures throughout this season.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors who are wondering, ‘What am I going to do’ when this is all over?” Gasso said on April 23. “It comes fast on you. When the lights turn off, what is next on my horizon? I don’t know. And the idea of, ‘I don’t know’ is very looming.”

The reality that Coleman’s heroics, which thousands enjoy and marvel over on social media, won’t be seen on a larger scale than during her collegiate days is a tough pill to swallow.

Dr. Allison Smith, a former collegiate softball player and an assistant professor of sport leadership and administration at the University of Massachusetts Boston, researches athletic identity in Division I, II and III athletes.

“The higher commitment you have for the love of your sport, the more difficulty you have when you leave that sport behind,” Smith told The Oklahoman. “So it's not surprising to hear that despite OU having three back-to-back championships and potentially going for a fourth, it doesn't matter that those players are playing at the highest caliber in our sport.

“There's still some anxiety around what to do now, what to do next with your life because there aren't as many opportunities for women's softball players.”

More: OU softball has dynasty, but more women's sports thriving in Oklahoma

Oklahoma outfielder Jayda Coleman (24) catches the ball for an out in the fifth inning of a softball game between the Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Florida State Seminoles in Game 2 of the Norman Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament at Love's Field, Friday, May 24, 2024. Oklahoma won 4-2 to advance to the Women's College World Series.
Oklahoma outfielder Jayda Coleman (24) catches the ball for an out in the fifth inning of a softball game between the Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the Florida State Seminoles in Game 2 of the Norman Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament at Love's Field, Friday, May 24, 2024. Oklahoma won 4-2 to advance to the Women's College World Series.

Game days in Norman and less than 30 miles north at Devon Park have become a way of life.

Streets close, fans tailgate hours before a first pitch and softball savants hang on to every play. On the morning of March 1, thousands huddled outside the gates and settled on the front lawn to catch a glimpse of the Love’s Field grand opening, OU’s $48 million complex, which holds 4,200 people and is the largest on-campus softball stadium in the country.

College softball has seen monumental growth over the past decade not only in Oklahoma where the Women’s College World Series is held annually, but around the nation. Last season’s WCWS finale drew an average audience of nearly 1.9 million viewers on ESPN, according to Nielsen, up 7% over the previous year.

According to a study conducted by Wasserman’s global insights team, women’s sports comprise an average of 15% of total sports media coverage in the U.S. and is projected to reach closer to 20% by 2025. However, availability remains an issue in women’s professional sports.

The broadening of the college game comes as the rise in popularity of women’s professional sports leagues around the country — such as the National Women’s Soccer League and the Women’s National Basketball Association — is at an all-time high.

Still, there isn’t currently a viable pro option for past and current collegiate softball stars to continue building their brands or for diehard fans to follow. And with a revenue-sharing model headed for collegiate athletics, softball players left without a major professional league after graduating will likely be even more under the microscope.

There have been several iterations of pro softball leagues over the years, but none have been successful. Athletes Unlimited (AU) and the Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF) league are aiming to do what those before them couldn’t.

But the question persists: what will it take for a professional softball league to transform from fledgling to stable, or in a perfect world, able to generate mass revenue? Research and experts point to at least three necessities for a future definitive professional softball league: investment, viewership and access.

“The main tipping point (for the NWSL) was the investment that they received,” Nicole Melton, an associate professor of sports management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst told The Oklahoman. “You've seen now this ripple effect of that and I think that's changing the narrative around what the value of women's sport is, and so that it is an investment that people need to get behind.”

Oklahoma City’s Jocelyn Alo (78) hits a grand slam during a Women's Professional Fastpitch softball league game between the Oklahoma City Spark and the Smash It Sports Vipers at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.
Oklahoma City’s Jocelyn Alo (78) hits a grand slam during a Women's Professional Fastpitch softball league game between the Oklahoma City Spark and the Smash It Sports Vipers at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, July 26, 2023.

The NWSL completed a groundbreaking media rights deal in November with Amazon’s Prime Video, ESPN, CBS Sports and Scripps Sports for a combined $240 million over the next four years.

While Title IX has helped level the playing field for women’s competitive representation in collegiate athletics, that equity isn’t reflected in the professional ranks. The Wasserman study also showed that women’s sports comprises only 8% of total professional sporting events in the U.S.

“We're finally getting both of those entities on TV, especially through streaming services,” Smith said. “So if you can see it, you can actually become a fan of it.

“But if you've never known their story or never seen them play, it's hard to invest in that. It's hard for pro women's sports to grow if you can't even access it.”

One of the factors in play with the WNBA’s meteoric start to its season was how the league and its media partners capitalized on the popularity of the game at the collegiate level. Led by rising stars like Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese and their intense rivalries, viewers of college basketball sought more.

When the WCWS — which takes place from May 30 to June 7 in Oklahoma City — ends, many fans are left craving more softball. Those who study the trends of women’s athletics find it hard to believe fans would’ve turned down more softball from Jocelyn Alo, Monica Abbott or Cat Osterman.

If there’s going to be a shift in the professional softball landscape, it’s going to come down to accessibility.

“The media has to do the same thing with softball,” Melton said. “Let it build over the season, really capitalize within the College World Series tournaments and then take those stories in and generate excitement that now you get to see them in Athletes Unlimited.”

More: How OU softball's seniors led Sooners to their eighth consecutive WCWS

‘A long-term game’

Sam Fischer joined Athletes Unlimited during its inaugural season in 2020.

Fischer, who starred at Loyola Marymount in college, has played professionally at home and abroad since 2012, including two seasons in the National Pro Fastpitch, a venture that has disbanded twice, most recently in 2021. Fischer has been a member of the AU player executive committee from 2021-24 and currently serves as its chairperson.

“What makes Athletes Unlimited different is that they take a player's opinion, experience, thoughts, wants, needs and desires into play,” Fischer said. “In our player executive committee meetings, we talk about what we want for the future, what we want now and what makes sense for us as players.”

The league is unlike any in the United States. Sixty players compete for five weeks at Parkway Bank Sports Complex in Rosemont, Illinois, where the teams change weekly and individuals earn points and are crowned champions as opposed to teams.

AU inked a multi-year broadcast deal with ESPN earlier this year after AU Pro Softball posted a 38% year-over-year increase in 2023. The league also signed a five-year stadium lease extension for the Illinois complex, providing a stable home in Chicago.

“You have to think about this as a long-term game,” Smith said. "I think AU, in my mind, has a little bit of a leg up because they do have this contract and they do have this investment from ESPN.”

Smith also thinks camera angles are a big factor in increasing viewership.

“(WPF) looks like you're streaming a high school or a travel ball game," she said. "If you don't invest in giving it the platform where viewers can see the game and see the different angles, and I know that takes money, but if you don't invest in that part of it on the front end, why would anyone tune in?”

Fischer sees the Rosemont stadium as a second home. For softball players who, for years, had to figure out where they were playing each year, it provides long overdue comfortability.

And for fans, it creates a home team environment.

Chicagoans gain more professional sports and fans across the country know where the five-week season will be each year and can plan a weekend trip for it.

“It gives us such great hope for the future because,” Fischer said, “there's never been a promise of, ‘Hey, five years from now, this league is going to be right here.’ So that part in pro softball is huge.

“New York has the Yankees, they know that the Yankees are going to be there. That's how it feels to go into Rosemont and play. At that field, you get to see familiar faces, they get to look forward to you coming back and it really builds a nice culture for us.”

Former OU softball star Jocelyn Alo will play for Athletes Unlimited in the summer of 2024. Alo remains a member of the Oklahoma City Spark.
Former OU softball star Jocelyn Alo will play for Athletes Unlimited in the summer of 2024. Alo remains a member of the Oklahoma City Spark.

Fischer says during the league’s meetings, they study everything to try and improve on the current structure similar to the WNBA and NWSL.

“Seeing what's happening with those other leagues is giving us the chance to dream a little bigger,” Fischer said. “To expand our thoughts a little bit more and broaden our horizons.”

Louisiana head coach Gerry Glasco served as the head coach of the WPF’s Smash It Sports Vipers last summer. The team announced earlier this year it won’t play in 2024 amid the upheaval in the WPF.

The Oklahoma City Spark left the league, going independent, and the USSSA Pride also announced it wouldn’t play in 2024. Glasco coached in the NPF for three years, the WPF for two years and sees the AU as currently the best option for athletes, although concerns remain.

“I think that when players switch teams in some way, it doesn’t attract that ultimate fan base, it's not growing,” Glasco told The Oklahoman. “I think they have to put the girls in a league with a traditional, competitive situation. AU is the best option we’ve got right now for these kids.”

For a league like AU to get to where teams across the nation compete, create fan bases and generate revenue, significant investment from team owners is essential, like in the NWSL. Angel City FC’s ownership group includes actress Natalie Portman and several venture capitalists, including Serena Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian.

While not perfect in many people’s eyes, what AU has already accomplished can’t be overstated.

“I wake up every day and think, ‘Holy cow, I can't believe that this is where we're at,’” Fischer said. “It's so amazing, I feel like I'm getting paid the best I've been paid with the opportunity to earn more with the win bonus.

“I'm so grateful, but also still dreaming more.”

More: Who will Oklahoma State softball face in WCWS opener? Three things to know about Florida

‘Aren’t as many opportunities’

For years, professional softball leagues and collegiate softball have failed to capitalize on superstars’ fandoms within the sport.

And until 2021, college athletes weren’t able to profit off their likeness.

When the then-NCAA career home run record holder and OU legend Lauren Chamberlain’s collegiate career ended, she was selected No. 1 overall by USSSA Pride and was the biggest star in the sport. Nearly two years ago, when Alo — who broke Chamberlain’s home run record — ended her college career, she had reached a significant level of fame.

“We've let our athletes down,” Glasco said. “By not coming up with a system or a league for them to go to. I know a lot of people have tried, a lot of people have wanted that to happen, but nobody's been able to accomplish it. And hopefully, there's somebody out there who wants to take that challenge and provide a league for the girls.

“I think that whoever does that, it's going to take some wealth to invest in it, if someone does that I think it’d be a rewarding opportunity.”

Without a central league to star in on the field and grow her brand off of it, Alo has been forced to play in a variety of leagues.

The larger-than-life power hitter signed a one-month contract with the Savannah Bananas, an exhibition baseball team that is essentially the Harlem Globetrotters on the diamond. She also signed with AU and will compete in the league’s AUX event in Wichita, Kansas, another opportunity for compensation and competition the league offers, while also playing for the OKC Spark.

Savannah's Jocelyn Alo prepares to bat during a baseball game between Savannah Bananas and the Party Animals at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May, 16, 2024.
Savannah's Jocelyn Alo prepares to bat during a baseball game between Savannah Bananas and the Party Animals at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Thursday, May, 16, 2024.

“I think ultimately, however we can get to that point where players don't have to have second and third jobs,” Fischer said, “those are the decisions to be made to get to that growth.”

Fischer’s first professional softball contract in 2012 earned her $5,900 for 50 games.

In 2018 and 2019, Fischer was finally able to earn a living playing softball year-round, by playing in Japan and the U.S. What AU has provided her has been life-changing.

“In my time going from $5,900 for a full summer and getting a quarter for laundry, I'm like sitting here now thinking that I'm queen of the world,” Fischer says. “Even just from when I got out of college to now, the difference is unbelievable. And that was in those 12 years so I can only imagine what the next 12 are going to look like. And that's me imagining, it starts with money.”

Today, with NIL, there are opportunities for collegiate softball players to see more money than in the professional ranks. Through its Crimson and Cream Collective — which Chamberlain spearheads as general manager — OU has landed a variety of teamwide deals for its softball team.

The amount a collegiate athlete earns is only going to grow in the future. Following the NCAA and power conference’s decision last Thursday to settle three antitrust cases and allow schools to directly pay athletes, they also agreed to a revenue-sharing model allowing each school to shuttle around $20 million in new cash per year to its athletes, according to multiple reports.

And that’s not accounting for side NIL deals with collectives. With all Division I athletes dating back to 2016 becoming eligible to receive a share as part of the settlement class, Chamberlain voiced her opinion on X, formerly known as Twitter, with Abbott and Osterman commenting as well.

The question for collegiate softball, a traditionally non-revenue driving sport, in a revenue-sharing model, is how much will its athletes receive? The issue is even more pressing for softball athletes when a stable, central professional league doesn’t exist as it does for baseball, basketball or football players.

“There should be concern about the equity involved,” Smith said. “If that is the way that college athletics goes, how will Title IX come into play and what would that look like? Or will it be under employment law because now they'll be considered employees and be more like Title VII and looking at equity in that way? I'm not sure. I think this is where these conversations are so important.

“This is why having researchers that specialize in that area is so crucial because we're in this unique landscape where no one knows what the next step is going to be.”

NCAA president Charlie Baker said in January that Title IX terminology is more “about equal participation” and not “so much about equal amounts.”

The question of pay equity was raised recently when college basketball’s latest phenoms were drafted into the WNBA for a salary less than they were receiving from NIL deals in college. The difference between basketball players and softball players is the WNBA has never been more accessible and doesn't appear to be slowing down.

Smith can see these concerns arising in a potential revenue-sharing model for female collegiate athletes.

“What's not going to make us worry about that happening in college sports,” Smith said. “If there's not some type of legislation to protect or to try to ensure some type of gender equity?”

More: WCWS bracket 2024: Who made college softball tournament this season? Schedule, matchups

‘Momentum shift’ for WNBA, NWSL

While several ideas continue to pop up for professional softball, researchers say investment from media companies and ownership groups remains.

What could a thriving, central and stable professional softball league similar to the NWSL or WNBA look like?

About half of the teams in the WNBA share an ownership group with their NBA counterparts. Benefits include sharing arenas and joint-branding opportunities. In Portland, Oregon, the NWSL’s Portland Thorns shares an ownership group and a stadium with the Portland Timbers of the MLS.

Due to unprecedented ticket demands to begin this season, several WNBA games have been moved to larger arenas.

“This cascading effect of more investors getting into women's sports,” Melton says, “is another opportunity for people to invest and see that return on investment triple and quadruple. Look at the folks that bought WNBA teams for basically pennies, now they're selling it for multi-million dollars.”

Oklahoma State softball coach Kenny Gajewski envisions a similar scenario, including a league partnered with Major League Baseball.

“If we could get Major League Baseball to continue to be on board,” Gajewski said, “it seems like they're taking the baby steps, but we need some owner, somebody to jump in and take risks. Risk is good. There's something good at the end when you take risks. I'm getting to coach the most powerful women in the world here. Our world is ready for that.”

Researchers believe softball’s arrival back on the Olympic stage will provide a positive trend for professional softball. During the 2020 Summer Olympics, softball athletes were able to showcase their talents and build their brands on a larger scale.

Smith remembers the inspiring feeling of watching stars like Abbott, Jennie Finch and Osterman on the U.S. Olympic team as a high schooler in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia.

“It’s such a big momentum shift,” Smith said. “For these college athletes, the opportunity now to make the national team and play on that stage at the Olympics, the biggest global event, I think that's such a cool thing for them to see and I am crossing my fingers that the eyes will be on softball during the Olympics so that maybe future Olympic sites will want to host softball.”

This year’s WCWS players won’t have the opportunity to play on the world’s biggest stage at the Paris games, but softball is on the docket for the 2028 games in Los Angeles. Audiences who fall in love with the stars of today will also be left hanging for more.

“We get so excited throughout the super regionals and world series and then it's like, now we don't know too much of where these women are going to go next,” Melton said.

If the NWSL and WNBA are indicators, large investment into women’s sports is paying off.

“I think in the next five to 10 years we're gonna see drastic changes for the better,” Melton said. “If anybody can do it, it’s those softball players. They are committed, driven and they will make it happen, but it's just making sure that we give them a proper platform to perform on.

“And that rests on the shoulders of the media companies and the sponsors and supporting these women.”

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Oklahoma softball faces a post-college slump. Can we learn from WNBA?