As the Commissioner of National Pro Fastpitch, I wanted to take some time to re-cap the year of 2011 and especially to say “thank you” to each one of you for your visible efforts in supporting the professional level of fastpitch softball. 2011 was a year of firsts in special events, and another year of exciting talent and action when it came to the competition.
NPF action in 2011 began with a bang as we hosted the NPF College Draft for the first time ever, at a professional sports venue. The Draft was presented by Miken and held at the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic. There were 5 rounds of 4 selections each for a total of 20 draft selections. Once again, the #1 Draft choice hailed from the University of Alabama, as the Diamonds selected pitcher, Kelsi Dunne. (Charlotte Morgan of UA was chosen #1 by the USSSA Florida Pride in 2010.)
On February 17th, NPF announced the establishment of the NPF Board of Advisors. A who’s who in sports and softball dotted the 10 positions. The Board ranges from tennis legend and women’s sports advocate, Billie Jean King to former Chicago Bandit and Olympic Gold Medalist, Jennie Finch. John Kruk, Sue Enquist, Mike Candrea, Jane Sage Cowles, Denise Michaels, Beth Mowins and Cindy Bristow all accepted positions along with the NPF active player representative, Jessica Mendoza. The Board of Advisors met periodically throughout the season and have provided a reliable resource for the League, both as a group and individually.
On April 20th, NPF launched a grass roots fund raising campaign - Twenty for 20. The idea of the campaign was to ask regular everyday people, who had perhaps had their lives touched in some way by the sport of softball, to donate $20 to the cause of securing the sport at the professional level. Donations in 2011 were committed to contribute to the television broadcast of the Championship Series. The campaign in its initial run, raised over $16,000, which helped greatly in the airing of the Championship Series on ESPN in August. The single largest contributor was fan Sherry Lister, who gave an amount that coordinated with the numbers of her favorite players, Danielle Lawrie (#15), Cat Osterman (#8), and Megan Willis (#5). Lister was not alone in her generosity however, as hundreds of people punched the $20 donation tab in honor of grandparents, parents, coaches, players, umpires, brothers, sisters, teammates, friends, championship teams, and many more. The Twenty for 20 Campaign is set to re-launch in 2012.
One of the NPF’s major supplier categories opened up in 2011 for the first time since the existence of NPF - Team uniforms. After notifying every major uniform manufacturer and offering them the opportunity to “dress the pro’s”, it came as a bit of a surprise that the only company that stepped forward with enthusiasm was a little known (in fastpitch) direct-sell company named Boombah. There’s a saying about being thankful for unanswered prayers and it couldn’t apply more than in this situation. Boombah saw an opportunity to put their brand on the very best fastpitch players in the game and rose to the occasion. Our League has never looked better than in 2011! Anyone and everyone that watched the play - watched the players, and noticed the class, quality, and fit of their uniforms. Players also gave rave reviews regarding the fit, comfort, style, and of course - the look! We are so happy to have Boombah as our uniform supplier and look forward to the future in helping this company grow their business.
The NPF is fortunate to have a great group of manufacturers that supply product to the Teams and athletes. The product includes shoes, socks, uniforms, headwear, bats, gloves, balls, bags, software, training aids, equipment cleaner, and protective gear. Those manufacturers include Adidas, Academa, Baden, Boombah, Combat, Diamond, Easton, Espro Clean, EvoShield, Louisville Slugger, Miken, Mizuno, Nike, RevFire, Right View Pro, Ringor, Rip-It, Schutt, The Game, Under Armour, Wilson, Worth, and 3n2, and are listed in the “About NPF”/ “NPF Partners” section of our website.
As a League, it is our goal to be a good partner to the folks that support us. We want to insure that being involved with the League, its Teams and players is a positive situation that truly affects the bottom line of our partners. In 2011 NPF attempted (and I believe accomplished), to over-deliver exposure to partners by:
•Creating a Scavenger Hunt (directing consumers to each partner website monthly);
•Broadening our traffic on streaming video of live action as well as live stats (Over 200,000 page views to NPF Live Stats alone, in 2011);
•Opening a world of exposure through 3 nationally televised games on ESPN2;
•Offering commercial inventory to accompany those television broadcasts at rock bottom prices;
•Drastically increasing website (19 million hits from 9/2010 to 9/2011 - an increase of 4 million from the previous year), Twitter, and Facebook (703,543 views to FB during Championship Series Week alone) traffic;
•Once again placing a group of All-Star players on Tour through 3 additional months showing off equipment, shoes, and apparel to college and pro softball fans and consumers across the nation on the 2011 Back to School Tour.
We look forward to bigger relationships and more accomplishments in our partnerships in 2012.
The regular season once again saw fantastic fastpitch competition in 2011. A total of 87 games were played with most being streamed live through our Team and League websites along with 2 games streamed on ESPN3. The USSSA Florida Pride captured the regular season Title by dominating league play with an impressive 30-9 record.The NPF Diamonds played in 8 separate venues (in addition to the NPF opposition venues), against their League competition, with 6 of those locations being minor league baseball stadiums in the United States and Canada. Crowds were enthusiastic to see their favorite players from all 4 Teams compete in their home venues as well as the additional locations.
The 2011 Season started and finished on the sports broadcast leader, ESPN. On June 11th ESPN2 covered the Opening Weekend match-up of the 2010 defending Champion USSSA Florida Pride, against the always-a-contender, Chicago Bandits. Fittingly, the 2 teams faced off at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, FL in front of 4000+ fans. Fast forward to the Championship Series in Sulphur, LA in August - the finals - the culmination of the 2011 season- and it was the same two teams dueling it out for the title. Three months after the first match-up though, the Pride was sporting their first ever Regular Season Ringor Cup Title and attempting to defend their Championship from 2010. The Bandits would play the spoilers, as the MVP Monica Abbott would take charge with a mission in the circle, and rookie Megan Wiggins would show true grit in willing their team to take the Cowles Cup home to Chicago. The Championship game aired live on ESPN2 on Sunday August 21 at 2:00 EST and re-aired on Monday August 22nd at 10:00 pm EST. Over 500,000 households tuned in for the televised 2011 NPF Championship Series.
The 2011 season marked a couple of notable milestones not just for NPF, but for professional softball and for women’s professional sports. 2011 marked the 10th Anniversary of the Akron Racers. Akron has long been a city that has consistently shown support for women’s professional fastpitch. Akron President and GM, Joey Arrietta, had the idea to bring pro fastpitch to Akron even before 2001, but once given the nod by the WPSL has never looked back. Racer fans have avidly followed their team and players and have seen quality teams take the field for 10 years of incredible pro softball in their city.
In another NPF market, Mayor Bradley Stephens made history in Rosemont, IL as he cut the ribbon, (along with Chicago Bandits owner, Bill Sokolis, GM Aaron Moore, Jennie Finch, and Rachel Folden), on abrand new $7 million stadium located just a few miles from O’Hare airport in Rosemont, IL. The stadium is a first - being built solely for a women’s professional sports team - and is appropriately addressed at 27 Jennie Finch Way. We are looking forward to many years of fastpitch memories being made inside that wonderful stadium and our hat goes off to Mayor Stephens for his commitment in supporting women’s professional sports.
Following an exciting season, the League again launched a Back to School Tour to extend play to the fall months. Following the overwhelming success of 2010, it made perfect sense to repeat the BTS Tour in 2011. With the unconditional support of USSSA again, along with the cooperation of Major League Baseball and the commitment of 20 college and university programs, the NPF hit the road beginning September 30th. From Memphis TN to Oxford MS, Conway AR, Daytona FL, Columbia SC, Tuscaloosa AL, Hattiesburg MS, Baton Rouge LA, Athens GA, Raleigh NC, Seattle WA, Corvallis OR, Portland OR, Eugene OR, Norman OK, and finally wrapping up in San Diego, CA, Team NPF had a blast playing 19 college teams including some of the nations very best programs. Team NPF also made additional stops and appearances including St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, and 6 player clinics at various locations, to share their expertise and inspiration with young people. In addition, NPF’s game against the Crimson Tide of Alabama helped raise nearly $5,000 that will go toward relief efforts for an elementary school in Tuscaloosa that was devastated by last spring’s tornado.
In Seattle, Team NPF squared off against the 2009 NCAA Women’s College World Series Champion Washington Huskies at the home of the Seattle Mariners, Safeco Field. Over 2000 fans watched a great game that saw the return of Washington Alumni (and members of the 2009 Championship Team at UW), Danielle Lawrie and Ashley Charters and a great 1-0 ballgame. The game at Safeco was the first women’s professional softball game to ever be played in a Major League Baseball venue.
As we reflect on the past year, there are many positive accomplishments to think about - so many wonderful memories to enjoy. Overall, it was a year of firsts and of accomplishment for the NPF, its Teams, and players. But the challenge of growing this sport in the professional arena and of establishing it, remains. A huge debt of gratitude should go out from all softball fans and NPF supporters to the combined group of Don DeDonatis, John and Amy Scott, Bill Sokolis, and Craig Stout for their generosity, dedication, and commitment in developing the NPF. Without these individuals, professional softball would not exist.
And without our current group of dedicated and committed players, professional fastpitch softball would be absent its heartbeat. It is the passion of these women and the purity of competition they deliver, that endears the sport to so many. They are a group that embrace teamwork whether it means winning a softball game or fighting to secure a professional team sport in an environment that is dominated by men.
The challenge is still in front of us. It remains necessary for NPF to secure corporate partnership and hand in hand, more television coverage. These athletes are the 1 percentile of elite level accomplishment in their sport. They play, they entertain, and they are grateful for their opportunities. Fastpitch softball is a sport that America can relate to, is entertained by, and can appreciate and enjoy. I remain optimistic and hopeful for the future of this wonderful sport, for the sake of today’s players, as well as tomorrow’s dreamers.
Finally, I want to thank NPF fans for a great year! Whether you cheered for the Bandits, Diamonds, Pride or Racers, you followed the game’s top players, and supported pro fastpitch. When we launched Twenty for 20, so many of you willingly and generously contributed and you wrote dedications that were heartwarming and inspiring. On behalf of the players, owners, and staff, I thank you for traveling the road with us - for dreaming of the future while cheering for the present. Please help us continue to spread the word of supporting women’s sports at the professional level, and we hope to see you at an NPF ballpark or event real soon.
It takes a lot of different aspects working together to secure something as big as a professional sports league. As you can see from this re-cap, we are fortunate to enjoy so many positives, and so many positive people. I look forward to broadening our circle in 2012 and in making more progress for the future of professional softball.