The NPF is just the latest in a string of women’s sports leagues collapsing before their time.
“Very sad,” one comment read. “I worked in media and public relations for the Virginia Roadsters […]. Such a great experience and the crowds were so appreciative to have us in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Great memories and great opportunities for female athletes and for female sports business professionals.”
“This league – and the women who played in it – were truly a gift to my daughter and to thousands of other girls who looked up to them,” another fan remarked.
“I really hope there is a person that is strong enough to get a professional […] league to form. Women and girls deserve this. It has been too long since Title IX.”
“Well done in destroying women’s sports.”
These Facebook comments were posted in reply to the August 1 announcement that National Pro Fastpitch would be suspending all operations, effective immediately. The organization, created in 2004, was a re-branded version of the Women’s Pro Softball league which had folded just three years earlier.
One could argue that the league’s shuttering was fairly predictable. Per Softball America, “even before the COVID-19 pandemic [which led to the abandonment of the 2020 and 2021 seasons], NPF was on uneven ground financially and struggled to retain its members.” Nevertheless, events like this tend to provoke much broader questions. How do sports leagues collapse so quickly? What is to blame for these failures?
On its face, the general answer to both questions is simple: a lack of dedicated and active franchise owners. The NPF (operated by the teams’ owners since 2005) had started rapidly losing teams since 2009, with some opting out of seasons and others liquidating altogether. Domestic and international expansion teams were added as a way to right the ship, but most of them also dissolved within a few years, with the only notable outlier—the Scrap Yard Dawgs—stumbling into controversy after (racist) controversy.
While it’s possible that these owners simply didn’t have the funds to properly support their teams and the league as a whole, former NPF president Cheri Kempf’s implication that there were people “fighting for power and control” who were “taking away from the league” rather than contributing to it suggests that those very owners put more effort into improving their stock portfolios than the league that they were supposed to support.
This shameful behavior is all too apparent when looking into the downfall of other women’s sports leagues. In 2007, the CWHL (a Canadian-American league that is not to be confused with the still-active PHF/NWHL) was signed over to the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association so that the league could expand after its commissioner’s resignation, until, that is, all of the owners decided to quit at the exact same time. Women’s Professional Soccer collapsed in 2012, in part due to an ongoing legal battle with one of the team’s owners, Dan Borislow of MagicJack. The reason why he was being punished in the first place? Bullying, harassing, and threatening his own players, a tactic that unfortunately seems to still be present in the league’s successor, the NWSL.
However, there is another reason why women’s leagues die: lack of proper media and sponsorship investment. The American Basketball League (an early rival of the WNBA) filed for bankruptcy and folded in 1998 with little warning. Hindsight tells us that they simply capitulated in the face of the WNBA’s growing popularity and NBA affiliation. However, Allison Hodges—a GM of one of the ABL’s teams—argues that they simply couldn’t afford any TV or media opportunities, even down to the local level. In fact, in order to dismiss the concerns that the league was financially unhealthy, top-tier officials lied to Hodges and told her that the local promotions for which she was aiming were “contrary to the national aspirations” of the ABL. It could be argued that just like the NPF’s switch from cable TV to low-access streaming platforms, the ABL’s lack of media opportunities helped seal their fate.
It should be noted that even when a league is not hurting for exposure, the quality of women’s sports coverage can be just as significant to its evolution as the quantity. A study released by USC and Purdue University showed that the percentage of network airtime dedicated to breaking news surrounding women’s leagues was steadily approaching a 30-year high of 8.7% during the ABL era. However, according to the data collected for this study from around this same time period, “women’s sports, women athletes, and even women spectators were habitually insulted as objects of derision, trivialization, infantilization and humorous sexualization.” Meanwhile, data from 2009 (a year when attendance of WPS games peaked) suggested that media coverage focused on “women athletes’ roles as mothers, or as wives or girlfriends (of men).” These findings raise one major question: Is all publicity helpful publicity when its subjects are treated with such disrespect?
The volatility of sponsorships can also have adverse effects on a league. Upon her announcement that the Women’s Professional Lacrosse League would be shuttering, CEO Michele DeJuliis explained that “with COVID, there’s no opportunity for us to bring in sponsor dollars, which is how we thrive.” Despite her hints about “some great new partners” supporting the league—as well as a planned sponsorship from Nike that seemingly never materialized—they simply could not continue without actual cash coming in from those opportunities.
At the end of the day, leagues can only survive past infancy with top-tier corporations and media entities willing to invest. Judging by each and every one of these examples, both are painfully hard to come by and stick with.
In late September, the U.S. Specialty Sports Association, USA Softball, and Smash It Sports announced that they would be debuting a brand-new softball league in 2022: the WPF. It’s hard not to wonder how the new league (which was marketed with the tagline #ProtectHerDream) will contend with Athletes Unlimited Softball, which has blown many leagues out of the water when it comes to big name sponsorships and solid media coverage. This type of direct competition is just one reason why leagues fold, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Sponsors can start valuing women athletes the way they value men. Owners can start making real financial and emotional investments to make their teams the best they can be. Media outlets can stop covering women’s sports in sexist, lazy, and inconsistent ways.
The graveyard of women’s sports leagues is all too full. It’s time to put in the time, energy, and (most importantly) money that will let them thrive.