When most young girls put on their uniforms and step onto the field or court, they do not imagine playing sports for the rest of their lives, especially in the sport of softball.
Despite the success of the Women’s College World Series and the large number of girls playing travel or Little League softball, many are not aware of the professional opportunities in softball.
The National Pro Fastpitch League is the only professional softball league in the U.S.. Commissioner of NPF Cheri Kempf said she feels passionate about building a league to provide young girls with similar aspirations to their male counterparts.
“I believe that these little girls are born just like boys with extraordinary talent in athletics,” Kempf said. “If we don’t secure the professional level and allow them to continue past college, we never get to see what their potential is in their gift.”
In sports today, men are paid significantly more than women, forcing women to consider other career options to make a living from a young age. According to USA Today Sports, in 2017, the average salary of a major league baseball player was an estimated $4.47 million per year. On the other hand, the average professional softball player made between $5,000-$6,000 per year in 2017, according to an article by the Huffington Post.
Former Mississippi State University softball players Kayla Winkfield and Alexis Silkwood were not aware of NPF until they arrived to MSU. Once they knew the opportunity to continue their softball careers existed, their journey to two of roughly 100 NPF positions began. Their experiences within NPF differed greatly.
Winkfield’s experience in the league was comparable to a roller coaster ride. She was drafted by the Pennsylvania Rebellion in 2016, but the team folded at the end of the season, resulting in Winkfield being traded to the Scrap Yard Dawgs, in Houston, Texas. After one season with the Scrap Yard Dawgs, the team’s contract with NPF was terminated after they decided to leave the league.
With the NPF season only lasting a few months each year, Winkfield came back to MSU to continue her education and prepare for the reality of life after softball.
“For me, playing professional softball isn’t something I see myself doing for the long run because I have such a passion for helping youth, which is why I am getting my master’s degree in human sciences,” Winkfield said.
Traveling a different path, Alexis Silkwood had a calmer experience in her first year with NPF, playing for the Akron Racers in Ohio. She is set to begin her second season with the Racers, who relocated and are now the Cleveland Comets this summer.
Silkwood, like Winkfield, is back at MSU finishing up her undergraduate degree in secondary education, with the hopes of pursuing a master’s degree in sports administration. Silkwood wants to continue playing softball for at least the next few years. Once her playing career is over, she wants to stay involved with the sport in a coaching capacity.
“Softball is never going to be over for me,” Silkwood said. “Even when I get done playing, it’s still going to be there.”
Those associated with NPF have a common belief that exposure of the league, especially to young females, is the best way to become a league to one day provide female athletes with a full-time job.
Kempf, Winkfield and Silkwood said they believed the opportunities to grow the league are readily available, beginning with the NCAA.
“No program in the world exists like the NCAA,” Kempf said.
Another aspect of creating exposure for the league is branching out beyond the few cities home to the NPF teams. The league consists of five teams, with only three of them being U.S.-based.
According to Winkfield and Kempf, the main aspect of being able to branch out through expanding the number of teams and reaching new markets is backing from corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsorship is essential to grow any league because it provides the funds for marketing opportunities. NPF has 30 sponsors, but not all are well-known, which is an essential part or corporate sponsorship marketing. Some of the main sponsors are Demarini, Easton, Evoshield and Louisville Slugger.
There are many positive steps being taken to grow NPF as it enters its 15th season. However, the strength and longevity of the league depend not only on business matters like corporate sponsorships and expansion but also on the future generation of softball players. Encouraging these young girls to have a passion for the sport and believe from an early age that being a professional softball player is no longer a dream, but a reality.
“It’s out there,” Silkwood said. “It’s easy to access, it is right there for them to grab, and we just have to show them that.”