One glance around PeoplesBank Park on Tuesday night showed a relatively empty stadium.
In a way, Tuesday's National Pro Fastpitch season opener between the Akron Racers and Pennsylvania Rebellion perfectly summed up both the struggling and flourishing nature of the professional softball game.
The product on the field isn't the problem for the premier professional softball league in the United States. That much was evident in Akron's 9-3 victory in a game that showcased power and great defense, which you'd expect out of the sport's very best athletes.
However, in the second year that York has hosted the NPF, you couldn't help but notice the empty seats. One year after drawing two good crowds for a series between the Rebellion and the USSSA Pride, Tuesday's attendance of 1,623 was a source of disappointment, especially for York Revolution president Eric Menzer, who said for last year's games, the Revs didn't have to pay for any extra advertising to promote the event.
That's part of the struggle still plaguing the NPF.
Lack of national exposure: Like most women's professional sports in the country, the popularity isn't there quite yet and there's little support to help the game grow. Of the major women's professional leagues in the United States, only the WNBA can truly say it has a legitimate television contract. The NPF has a minor deal with the CBS Sports Network, but only select games are actually televised. A true TV deal would go a long way in helping grow the sport and the game.
"I think getting as many games as possible on major television would help," Rebellion third baseman Raven Chavanne said. "When you see college softball and even high school softball on TV, the fans will eat it up. So, I think as many games as possible on like ESPN and even college networks like PAC 12 Network and SEC Network, diehard fans are going to have those channels."
Aside from growing the game, a TV deal would also generate more revenue that would help pay the players a lot more than their current wages. Right now, teams need to field rosters of at least 18 players, while restricted to a salary cap of $150,000. Simple math indicates that the average player won't make much more than mid-to-high four figures, while very few will earn up to $20,000 for the three-month season.
So, like most other women's professional sports leagues in the country, athletes are forced to find work outside of the season, either going overseas to play — Japan is a popular destination — or going back to college to further a degree, help coach their former college team, or teach.
"It's hard to find jobs that let you have summers off like this," Rebellion rookie Chayley Brickey said. "Some of our girls even leave in the middle of the summer to go back and help at their colleges and summer camps, so I think it's finding a job that will let you have the summer free."
Continuing to grow: So, even as the game still has a ways to go in order to reach its potential, in a way, it's still flourishing.
Much of that is because, despite having just six teams, the league is in its 13th year of continuous operation, a major improvement from the previous league, the Women's Pro Softball League. That league was formed in 1997 and folded by 2001, only to be revived in 2004 by the NPF.
While the league has gone through several teams folding and new teams forming elsewhere, the league is in a stable spot right now. Before this year, the Scrap Yard Dawgs was formed as the sixth member of the league and didn't wait long to make huge national headlines for women's professional sports.
It signed Monica Abbott, the game's best pitcher, to a six-year, $1 million contract, reportedly the first ever million-dollar contract offered to a professional female athlete in American sports.
Introducing new markets: Then there's what took place in York on Tuesday night, and will continue on Wednesday night and then transition over to Lancaster for Friday and Saturday nights. The Rebellion, based out of Washington, Pennsylvania, open their season with four home-away-from-home games as a way to help promote the game.
So, while the York crowd wasn't as large as last year's, it was still a way for fans in the area to attend a professional event and get a taste for what the league has to offer. And for a league still trying to catch on in other parts of the country, outside of the six cities that have teams, attracting new fans any way possible is the least it can do for the sport.
"It's an NPF move, but also good for the Rebellion," manager Craig Montvidas said about playing games in different parts of the state. "We are the Pennsylvania Rebellion. But, realistically, if you live in the eastern part of the state, say Philadelphia, you're not really going to hop in the car four or five hours to go watch a softball game. So, spreading it around I think it's a good idea. ...For the good of the game, I think it's a good marketing tool."
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com