Fastpitch league tries to create interest

by Michael Rand

Fact: The Women’s Professional Fastpitch softball league begins spring training today and starts its inaugural 72-game regular season May 30. Fact: Whether there will be a season number-two is up for debate at this point.
Women’s professional basketball, with two new pro leagues this year, attempted to ride the success of the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning women’s basketball team. The new softball league will similarly look to benefit from the interest generated by the Olympics, in which the U.S. softball team also won gold.
The WPF appears to have solid financial backing, with AT&T Wireless Services as its sponsor. One of the league’s predecessors, the International Professional Softball League, began play in 1976 but folded four years later because of inadequate funding and marketing.
Creating a niche in the already glutted sports market will be of primary importance for the WPF. Aside from promoting and selling the concept of professional softball, generating the interest of quality players will be another key to the survival of the league. So far, the results are mixed.
The rosters of each of the league’s six teams, last updated Thursday, look pretty thin. The Georgia Pride and Orlando Wahoos, for instance, have only seven players on their rosters, which is not even enough to field a team. The other franchises — located in Charlotte, N.C.; Tampa, Fla.; Durham, N.C.; and Hampton/Newport News, Va. — have between nine and 11 players.
Jennifer Johnson, Rachel Nelson and Ann Bartholmey — all seniors on the Gophers softball team this year — were selected in the league’s draft on March 20. None of the three, however, are going to play this year.
Johnson, a pitcher, needed time to rest her arm after the end of the Gophers season on May 4.
Bartholmey said she was excited when she found out Georgia drafted her in the 10th round.
“I ended up getting a phone call from my sister early Saturday morning,” Bartholmey said. “She was screaming on the phone, ‘Did I read the paper right?'”
But Georgia was already set at catcher, as were the other five teams in the league, so Bartholmey’s opportunity vanished.
Nelson, a Durham, N.C., draftee, never considered playing professionally.
“The interest level just wasn’t there at my first thought,” Nelson said. “I wanted to finish up with school. It was my gut feeling not to pursue it.”
The lack of players currently on rosters could be partially attributed to the rule modifications employed by the league. In an attempt to create more offense than college softball offers, WPF games will feature a livelier ball and a longer pitching distance. League officials even experimented with letting runners lead off bases.
Although none of the former Gophers players said the new rules affected their opinions of the league, some said they seemed unusual.
“It will help hitters a lot because the ball is more lively,” Bartholmey said. “It did strike me as odd. It would be a whole new style to adjust to.”
Nelson added, “It’s like they’re putting a middleman between softball and baseball.”
The emphasis on offense was met with a fair amount of enthusiasm during the league’s trial run in 1995. The WPF tour two summers ago, which featured two all-star teams that played in 16 Midwest cities, generated good crowds, including a high of 4,307 fans at a game in St. Paul.
WPF officials are hoping that affordable ticket prices ($3 to $7) and increased national exposure through six games televised on ESPN2 will give the league a share of the sports market. Even though she won’t be playing, Nelson thinks the league has a chance.
“I hope it catches on. It’s another opportunity for women in sports,” she said. “I hope people give it a chance.”