Women's softball scores a hit with US audiences

There are no thrown helmets after poor performances at the plate, no giant wads of gum tucked inside cheeks.

Instead, these teammates unreservedly hoot and holler for one another, sometimes performing choreographed cheers to get their point across. They have crazy rituals and silly mascots, and tuck their ponytails behind rally caps when the going gets tough.

But don't let the occasional heavy eye makeup fool you. These women mean business.

Women's fast-pitch softball is quickly approaching women's basketball as one of the hottest female sports. Not only is ESPN broadcasting the entire Women's College World Series this week for the fourth year in a row, but the network also aired the superregionals for the first time this year.

Fast-pitch softball parallels women's basketball in that it has a growing collegiate following and a women's pro league that has partnered with a male pro league. Softball has also enjoyed exposure at the Olympics, as well as a promising TV audience. And with the recent launch of both College Sports TV and ESPNU, also dedicated solely to broadcasting college sports, an even larger number of people will be exposed to women's softball in the coming years.

"We feel women's softball is only going to continue to increase in popularity," says Josh Krulewitz, director of media relations for ESPN. "It's got all the elements we want in a live sporting event: drama, great athleticism, rivalries, school pride. Plus, it's something a lot of people can relate to, at least from a participation standpoint."

When ESPN broadcast the Women's College World Series last year, he says, an average of 569,000 viewers tuned in to watch each game - similar to the numbers watching regular-season National Hockey League games.

This year's championship, in Oklahoma City, features two-time defending champ UCLA and top-ranked Michigan. UCLA took the first game Monday in the best-of-three series. The second game was scheduled for Tuesday night.

Other highlights this year include Cat Osterman of the University of Texas, whom some call the best pitcher - man or woman, pro or collegiate - in the country right now. Now in her junior year with the Longhorns, the 6 ft., 2 in. left-handed pitcher had the best earned-run average, 0.32, in regular-season play - plus 20 shutouts and 539 fanned batters. She pitched six no-hitters and three perfect games.

Last week, in fact, she was named the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year - the second time she has received her sport's highest award.

Another stellar performance this season was turned in by the University of Arizona's Caitlin Lowe, who had the second-best batting average in the nation this at .527, with 27 stolen bases. And the strikeout skills of Michigan's Jennie Ritter sent 357 batters packing.

The growing interest in women's softball isn't happening in a vacuum. More than 3 million adults play softball on amateur leagues in the United States today. While efforts to establish a women's professional league have gone through of series of starts and failures, going back as far as 1976, its current incarnation, the National Pro Fastpitch League, shows the most promise.

With six independently owned and operated teams playing 144 games in the 2005 season (running from June 2 to Aug. 28), NPF has secured an ESPN2 contract for coverage of the playoffs and championship game. It also has a financial partnership with Major League Baseball.

Women's softball also got a boost in 1991, with the announcement that it would be added to the Olympic Games in 1996. Since that time, the number of countries with national softball teams has doubled to 126. Last year, the USA Softball National Team dominated the games, displaying the country's best sluggers, hurlers, and fielders.

"Softball has been a longtime high school and college sport, but when you receive exposure on television, that contributes to girls making the decision to want to play," says Donna Lopiano, CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation in East Meadow, N.Y., and a softball Hall of Famer herself.

Celebrity status is also important to its popularity, she says, and many softball players have achieved that - especially after last year's Olympic gold medal win. Osterman, for instance, appeared on "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," and David Letterman after the US win.

It also appeals to the nation's fast-paced way of life, says Ms. Lopiano. "I'm not saying it's more fun to watch than baseball, but if you don't have two or three hours and you love the nature of this sport, you can see the compact version in 60, 70 minutes."

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