When we were forming the strategy for Athletes Unlimited back in 2019, it was clear that women’s softball was a sleeping giant in the sports world. It has generated major TV audiences and has an extremely passionate fan base at both the youth and college levels across the USA. In fact, NCAA softball has regularly equaled or exceeded college baseball’s TV ratings and some postseason men’s pro sports as well.
Even coming out of a shortened regular season, the 2021 Women’s College World Series, which ended Thursday when Oklahoma beat Florida State 5-1, has been captivating.
Longtime fans have been excited to see the final games played in front of capacity crowds at the beautiful USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex in Oklahoma City, which underwent a renovation to expand its capacity by nearly 50% last year. Meanwhile, ESPN furthered its track record of more than two decades of building college softball into a major TV property.
More exposure, big viewership growth
ESPN's wall-to-wall coverage included a dedicated studio program, two broadcast teams and coverage on the SEC and ACC Networks (both controlled by ESPN). In addition, they introduced umpire and rail cameras and drones.
As – or even more – important, in the midst of NBA and NHL playoffs, softball has been heavily featured on SportsCenter. This coverage means even noncore fans get exposure to the sport.
As a result, ESPN has recorded the largest pre-finals average audience on record with more than 1 million viewers and the second most viewed pre-finals game on record of over 1.6 million. These numbers are massive compared with average viewership of 642,000 across the NBC networks and digital for the 2021 NHL First Round Playoffs.
Meanwhile, CBS is doing similar work on behalf of the National Women’s Soccer League, embracing the property and moving games from smaller cable channels to the main network, resulting in viewership growth nearing 500% (albeit an audience still smaller than the WCWS). The WNBA has also seen record numbers due to more and better broadcast TV windows from ABC along with the incredible talent, growing popularity and central role in American society played by so many of the league's incredible players.
Sports life after college?
At Athletes Unlimited, we are now operating a network of professional leagues that include three women’s sports: softball, volleyball and lacrosse. The growing success of softball only further reinforces our view of the opportunity that exists for these sports to thrive at the professional level and provide these incredible athletes opportunities to extend their careers beyond college.
Women athletic directors? Not in most elite NCAA conferences, where men still hold outsize advantage
Over the past weeks, softball fans have marked the end of stellar collegiate careers for the likes of Giselle Juarez, Sis Bates, Dejah Mulipola and Carrie Eberle. But the end of this chapter of their careers marks the start of another one and a chance for fans to continue to follow them: All four were among 12 selected in our first college draft and have been invited to join Athletes Unlimited Softball’s second season, which starts this August and will air on CBS Sports Network and Fox Sports.
The growth of college softball didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of deliberate and sustained investment from media companies and marketing partners to deliver a high-quality product that does justice to the athletes competing and the loyal fans who support them. As great as the College World Series is, it should not be the end of the road for these amazing athletes.
Jon Patricof is CEO and Cheri Kempf is senior director of Athletes Unlimited.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Softball hits a home run. Hear the Women’s College World Series roar.