On May 31, National Pro Fastpitch will begin its 2016 season, and the hype is already mounting. NPF received significant coverage recently as the result of pitcher Monica Abbott’s record-breaking six-year, $1,000,000 contract with the Scrap Yard Dawgs.
“I was surprised by it, because we haven’t been anywhere close to that in contracts,” said NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf. “The closest player in 2015 was $15,000.”
Growing the earning potential for its players is something that has been on the minds of Kempf and the NPF. While Abbot’s deal represents a step towards more lucrative compensation in softball—and perhaps women’s sports as a whole—NPF sees room to grow.
“College softball is hot,” said Kempf. “Softball is a likely sport to do some groundbreaking things when it comes to salary and those types of things. We want to step up and take that responsibility. We have a fan base, there is a lot of enthusiasm, and this a great potential for convertible fans.”
By convertible fans, Kempf is referring to a fan base that can crossover to another sport, and softball already has a tailor-made fit. “Baseball is widely popular in this country. We are so close to the game—in the rules and concepts—that people can understand it.”
Fostering the league’s growth is at the forefront of the agenda for Kempf, a gold medal winner for USA Softball in the 1992 Olympics and the commissioner of NPF since 2007. For her, the plan follows models that are seen elsewhere in professional sports.
“We have 138 roster spots, 137 of those players will have to make a living outside of softball,” said Kempf. “You get it to change on two fronts. We need solid corporate partnerships and a national television partnership. That’s something we continue to pursue in meeting the economics. It’s the economic model. You don’t see $40 million salaries to baseball players without the deep corporate partnerships that exist in Major League Baseball.”
In addition, NPF also encourages its owners to follow the league’s outlook. Kempf lauded the league’s current slate of owners, and said that the Abbott contract shows that the Scrap Yard Dawgs owners are an example of the “quality, qualified owners that have a vision for this sport and believe in what we believe in, which is that this is a valid career option for these women.”
NPF has several corporate partnerships this year, highlighted by two recent announcements. One of them is the continuation of a television deal with the CBS Sports Network, which aired the league in 2015. Starting with last month’s draft, CBS Sports Network will cover NPF significantly this year, including 23 regular season games and at least five playoff matchups.
“We’re very happy,” said Kempf of NPF’s partnership with CBS Sports Network. “We needed exposure, we needed regular airings and that’s what CBS offered us. CBS gave us a chance to come on much more comprehensively. In that regard, we have been very happy with their support and the prospect of us being able to be on a lot.”
Some of the groundwork for this year was laid last year, which resulted in a very beneficial arrangement for both sides. According to Kempf, NPF produced 22 regular season games for CBS Sports Network, plus draft coverage, playoff games, and a pre-championship special. The network re-aired the regular season games a total of 35 times. “There is no question that we have felt the conversations—the addition of new fans, all of that,” said Kempf.
Furthermore, NPF agreed to an equipment partnership with Rawlings. The centerpiece of the deal is that Rawlings—which replaces its sister company Worth Sports in the agreement—will become the league’s exclusive helmet supplier, and will have access to provide players with gloves, batting gloves, and more.
“They recognize the growth in women’s fastpitch,” said Kempf. “They have stepped it up a bit—there was no question that they wanted to take over the helmet spot. A brand like Rawlings is something we all recognize. I grew up with a Rawlings glove. They’re with us, and they’re supporting us.”
Even for fans outside of one of the league’s six markets, there will be an opportunity to catch some NPF action. The league will make stops in several independent and minor league baseball markets, including the Pennsylvania cities of York, Lancaster, and Allentown, as well as Salisbury, MD. NPF will also feature a pair of games in San Diego the weekend before the MLB All-Star Game, as the Dallas Charge and USSSA Florida Pride will play at San Diego State University on July 8 and July 9.
Kempf views the partnerships as an opportunity for NPF to work with minor and independent league owners to benefit both organizations. She added that front office officials in these markets have delivered positive feedback about not only how NPF games draw, but how attentive the fans are.
“They say that it amazes them because when they bring softball in, the playgrounds [in the ballparks] are almost dead,” said Kempf. “They’re always shocked at how much people sit in their seats and watch the game when it’s fastpitch softball.
“When you got into these places, some of these people are seeing [Pride star] Lauren Chamberlain for the first time. They don’t want to take their eyes off of her.”
Furthermore, Kempf sees where MiLB and independent owners can serve not only as models for NPF owners, but perhaps provide some crossover. “I am a huge fan of the Minor League Baseball model, and it makes sense for us and it makes sense for the owners. I’ve been pushing strongly for half a dozen years for Minor League Baseball’s owners to jump onboard with this.”
Beyond this year, the league is eyeing expansion. Two markets are on hold to possibly receive teams in 2017, with NPF expecting to make a decision by July 1.
“Expansion is really important, for a lot of reasons,” said Kempf. “We want corporate partnerships, and we know the corporations want a broader reach.”
The league’s television contract will be a key piece to this plan, as Kempf sees it as something that will push the league forward. “One of the things we have done over the last five to seven years we have proved that we are a viable fit for television. We have put together a small, but extremely talented production staff that is all in. That has probably been our most significant push.”
With Abbott’s contract now official and these corporate partnerships in place, Kempf sees NPF as having the ingredients to not only be a leader in softball, but in all of women’s sports. “I think we are the likely candidate to do some things that are perhaps groundbreaking. It’s refreshing to see something like this garner the attention that it has.”