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TOKYO — Asked to imagine her future in fourth grade, Aubree Munro drew herself in a Team USA softball jersey. It was 2004, and that summer, she begged her mom to wake her in the middle of the night when the Olympic softball games were played in Greece. Ten years old, she struggled to stay up for the whole game, but she got to see the first few innings of Team USA’s gold medal run.
Growing up, Janie Reed would practice signing her autograph with “USA” right after it. She aspired to join the ranks of Olympic softball players like Stacey Nuveman, Jennie Finch, and the rest of the 2008 team that took home silver from Beijing. Recently, she found a poster of that team in her parents’ garage — a relic of the last time softball was played on an Olympic stage. That is, until Wednesday morning in Fukushima, Japan, when a slate of softball games marked the long-delayed start to the “2020” Olympics.
Munro and Reed are living out their childhood dreams as members of the American team that defeated Italy 2-0 in just the second event of the Games that will dominate the global sports narrative for the next three weeks. But in the 13 years that have elapsed since the ‘08 Games, plenty of equally talented athletes have been forced out of softball.
“We’ve all seen a spike in [sponsorship] opportunities since we've been put back in the Olympics,” Munro said when she spoke to Yahoo Sports in February. “But in the window between 2008 and and 2016 [when it was announced that softball would be part of the 2020 Games], a lot of the money, a lot of the sponsorships for the team in general kind of fizzled out, and then it's tough also to get the individual sponsorships.
“You saw a lot of really talented women hang it up, potentially prematurely, because there just weren't enough opportunities, and you got to pay the bills somehow.”
The best baseball players in the world don’t have that problem. They also don’t play in the Olympics.
Simply put: Softball needs the Olympics more than baseball does. It’s not about charity, it’s about equity and opportunity — or more accurately, the lack thereof for three years and 11 months out of every four.
The not-incidental corollary is that Olympic softball is a better showcase of talent than Olympic baseball.
“Not that it's not a great opportunity on the baseball side, but with the softball side, you have a contingent of women that are the best athletes possible,” said Jessica Mendoza, who played on both the ‘04 and ‘08 USA Olympic softball teams and is now an MLB analyst for ESPN. She’ll be covering both bat-and-ball sports in Japan, the latest achievement in a broadcast career built, at least in part, on the valuable experience and name recognition that comes with being an Olympic medalist. “It's different in a lot of ways, but with softball it's flat out the pinnacle.”
That men who throw a small round ball, or try to hit it with a bat, make more money when they do so successfully than women is, unfortunately, neither exceptional in sports at large nor newsworthy. But the uneasy pairing of baseball and softball is a particular case in which the women’s precious place within the Olympics is rendered more precarious by the men’s lavish options elsewhere.
Without the Olympics, softball peaks with the College World Series, a popular event that recently drew better ratings than its baseball counterpart. But those players are 18-22 years old and even the best of them will struggle to support themselves on softball alone after they graduate.
“The few opportunities that are after college are just not on television in the same capacity as the Olympic Games,” Mendoza said. “It’s not even close.”
The TV thing matters. Increasingly, an athlete’s earning potential — especially for female athletes — is tied to their personal platform. It’s how they garner sponsorship deals. Now it's also the basis of an entire new league format for women's sports that looks to leverage the popularity of individual athletes.
And for girls who love the game and grow up to be women who want to work in baseball, the lack of a corresponding W league means that the chance to build a resume in post-graduate softball is that much more important.
“We're not playing Major League Baseball as women. The Olympics is our way of showing that I've played my sport at the highest level you can possibly play,” Mendoza said. “For resume purposes, it's like, you can say I played a national championship game. But the Olympics is just this other level that you can add to be able to cross over and compete with all these men that want the same jobs.”
Baseball and softball were not officially linked for their Olympic appearances in the '90s and aughts, but they were voted out together in 2005 and have returned this year two disciplines in a now-joint IOC federation. That means that going forward, as baseball goes, so does softball. Both are out for Paris 2024 with their fate for the Los Angeles 2028 Olympics still hanging in the balance.
A number of inauspicious factors will ultimately go into the IOC’s decision, like global reach and youth popularity, but it certainly doesn’t help that baseball’s biggest stars never participate in the Olympics. The prevailing wisdom has long been that MLB and the team owners would never sanction a break in the jam-packed season to allow players to travel to a rival tournament. And with their major league careers providing more than enough money and glory, the players have never been especially motivated to push for the opportunity either.
The result looks like a paradox or an impasse. For all their grassroots initiatives to get girls into bat-and-ball sports, perhaps the best way MLB could support the careers of their current female counterparts is by throwing their star power — which extends across national teams, as many of the best international players end up in the league — behind softball’s quest to stay an Olympic sport. But the scheduling conflict seemingly makes that impossible.
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Mendoza said, though, when I lamented this. “I mean, there's all these examples of different sports that take a break for the Olympics because they understand the importance.”
(Japan’s NPB and Korea’s KBO leagues both paused their seasons to accommodate the current Olympics; the NHL has also done so in the past and is reportedly willing to do so for the 2022 Games.)
Mendoza wants MLB to do it for softball’s sake. And because she thinks they can — the current condensed format takes only 12 days and could be squeezed into an extended All-Star break. Once every four years. At least for the L.A. Games. They don’t even have to go anywhere.
And because it wouldn’t be all altruism, either. Mendoza sees it as an opportunity for baseball to grow its perpetually fretted-over fanbase.
“To be perfectly honest,” she said, “most of the audience that is watching the Olympic Games is not watching Major League Baseball. So now you're bringing people in.”
It’s a good point, and maybe it will motivate a change. Because softball’s plight certainly hasn’t.
“Now with softball being in and out of the Olympics,” Reed said, “it makes it really, really sad I guess for the sport in this country.”
More Olympics coverage from Yahoo Sports: