Some of the world’s best softball players are competing in Rosemont, Ill., this weekend.
The village is hosting the 2019 National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) Championship, a best-of-five series between the Chicago Bandits and the USSSA Pride. The Pride won the first game Thursday, and there will be one game every night until the winners are crowned.
These two teams have been here before.
“Last year they swept us,” said Bandits General Manager Toni Calmeyn. “So we’ve got a little work to do.”
Still, Bandits pitcher Danielle O'Toole feels good about her team’s chances. She said the Pride has been plagued by injuries this season. Plus, she thinks the Bandits might have the strongest fan base in the NPF.
“We know the fans personally, they know us, they call us by first names,” O’Toole said. “Sometimes they make us stuff.”
National Pro Fastpitch is a professional women’s softball league formed in 2004. It currently features six teams. After a 46-game regular season, the two best teams meet in the championship series.
“This is the best competition on the planet, played by the best athletes on the planet,” said NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf.
But Kempf said there's a larger message surrounding the NPF's biggest event of the year: there's growing awareness that women’s professional sports are not given the same platform to which men’s sports are given. A study published in Communication & Sport found that from 1999 to 2014, coverage of women’s sports on ESPN’s SportsCenter made up around two percent of all sports coverage. Bandits Head Coach Lauren Lappin said she’d like to see more television broadcasts of NPF games, and more corporate sponsorship.
Then, there’s the issue of equal pay.
“It’s fairly common knowledge that our players are not able to make a living as professional athletes specifically in the NPF,” Kempf said.
Kempf said a few players compete in Japan to supplement their income.
“[Major League Baseball] players, they step on the field for an inning and they make more in that inning than I do in, like, two summers,” said O’Toole, who has worked as a coach in the offseason. “It’s a little hard to swallow.”
The NPF is an official development partner of Major League Baseball (MLB), but Kempf said the partnership is in name only. She wishes the MLB would see more value in women’s softball.
“MLB could make the biggest difference of all in securing professional softball for girls and women,” Kempf said. “They have the most influence and the largest ability to do that, and it would not have to involve them writing a check.”
Major League Baseball did not respond to WBEZ’s request for comment.
There are similarities between the NPF and the early years of the MLB. Both had teams frequently forming and dissolving. O’Toole recognizes that the NPF is still a young organization, and she’s hopeful for the future.
“You know, the NPF is in its 16th season, and the MLB was in their 16th season light years ago,” O’Toole said. “I think that within the next twenty-ish years, we’ll be at a good point.”
Lauren Frost covers news for WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur.