Fight for Pro Supremacy

Chicago Bandits Sweep the Mighty USSSA Pride

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

ROSEMONT  The USSSA Pride have been an unstoppable juggernaut this season.  Prior to its recent series with the Bandits, the Pride was 29-6 and with a seven-game cushion at the top spot in the NPF standings.  But the Pride has looked unbeatable in several prior seasons, only to have its hopes dashed by late surging teams like the Chicago Bandits.
 
Those painful memories of past seasons came streaming back this week as the formerly imposing Pride  lost back-to-make games against the Bandits in Chicago.  Could there be a chink appearing in the Pride's armor late in the season again?
 
The Bandits went down early 0-1 but rallied in the 7th inning with a bunt, a double and a walk-off single by Danielle Zymkowitz to beat the Pride and complete the sweep.  The USSSA Pride put its best pitcher statistically over the past two seasons, Jordan Taylor, in the circle.  This loss was Taylor's first since 2014!
 
But as interesting as the Pride's pitching performance was, the Bandits was even more interesting.  Chicago started Australian national player Kaia Parnaby, who pitched a complete game with 1 run and 3 hits.  Parnaby had a quality start against the most potent offense in the NPF.  Her arm was crucial to the Bandits winning effort.
 
It sure will be interesting to see how the Australian players improve this season (looks like the pitching sure is improving!) and to see how the Bandits fare late in the season.  Especially against the #1 USSSA Pride. Read more.

 

 

Aussies Invade America's Pro League

Struggle to Excel in National Pro Fastpitch

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD  This summer the Chicago Bandits of the National Pro Fastpitch league signed eight Australian players.  The players are:

Janice Blackman  (has not played)
Chelsea Forkin - Outfielder
Rachel Lack - Infielder
Stacey McManus - Infielder
Kaia Parnaby (has not played)
Samantha Poole  - Outfielder
Ellen Roberts - Pitcher
Taylah Tsitsikronis - Catcher

So how are these imports faring so far this season?  Let's go to the numbers!

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The first item to note is that two of the players have not played at all: Janice Blackman and Kaia Parnaby.  I am not sure where they could be—perhaps they had a conflict or decided not to make the trek for this season?  Hopefully we see them sometime later this summer.  

Only two of the eight players, Chelsea Forkin and Tayla Tsitsikoris, have received playing time commensurate with what you would call a "starter."  The other three non-pitchers (who have logged stats) have only played part-time at best and only have 21 at-bats between them. 

Unfortunately the players who have been taking at-bats have been pretty poor so far.  The highest batting average is owned by Stacey McManus with a .222.  The lowest is Rachel Lack with a 0.00.  McManus also has the lone home run of all of the Australian imports.  The only other extra base hits are two doubles from Taylah Tsitsikronis.  The Australians have a power outage problem! 

The pitching has been of pretty poor quality too.  Ellen Roberts has actually received the 3rd most innings of all Bandits pitchers (behind Haylie Wagner and Lacey Waldrop).  But even with the 3rd most innings, Roberts is 1-3 and has allowed the 2nd-most hits of seven Bandits pitchers, and has the 5th worst ERA.  

Of course the Australian players are new to the league, and I am very confident the NPF is the highest level of competition they have faced.  I am rooting for these players and hope they turn things around by season's end.  Read more.

 

 

NPF Gets No Respect

Women's Pro Softball Longs for Attention It Deserves

By TSC Contributor JESSICA URBAN

LOMBARD  Certainly the NPF is home to some of the finest female athletes, and the games are as exciting as they get. But after a decade, the league still struggles for the respect it rightly deserves.

Unfortunately, in our popular sports culture, the amount of attention a sport SHOULD get has almost nothing to do with the attention it DOES get.  This is especially true for women’s sports: people are not going to tune in simply because the athletes are good or the games are shorter or there are some exciting plays. People SHOULD pay attention, but those things alone won’t do the trick. In reality, women’s sports/athletes have to HUSTLE! You can’t wait for the population at large to find you—YOU have to get your own name out there. 

I am not sure what type of PR apparatus the NPF has, but it should be knocking down the door of every sports outlet—local and national—to get its story out there. I have never even seen a Bandits highlight on local Chicago news, and they are the league champs! I just watched a story on the local news about a dog wearing a Halloween costume! If people will tune in for that tripe, certainly they would like to see a few highlights of their home team!

I’m thinking about where the average sports fan goes to get their fill of sports news, and I’d have to say SportsCenter is at the top of the list. Except during the NCAA tournament (and when the US was in the Olympics), I NEVER see or hear anything about women’s softball. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the NPF mentioned, and I watch a fair amount of ESPN.

Some might be saying “Well, of course they don’t talk about it, it’s not popular enough.”  I see it more as a “wag the dog”/chicken/egg  type thing—if ESPN talks about it, then it becomes popular. Maybe not as much as in previous years, but ESPN really does control the sports conversation, not the other way around.

SO, the NPF and their PR team have to HUSTLE—they should be knocking down the door with highlights. I see SO MANY high school sports highlights; I would think ESPN would show pro fastpitch as well. Is the NPF doing enough to get their name out there??? 

One thing the NPF needs to do is develop its stars in the media so they are household names! Think about soccer—it is not any more exciting than softball, and its athletes are just as talented, but the US Soccer team has done a much better job of marketing itself. The players get publicity, and yes sometimes it’s negative (looking at you Hope Solo…), but in the women’s game ANY publicity is GOOD!!! 

The NPF doesn’t have any household names, and that is a HUGE problem. Of course there are stars that all softball fans/players know, but I think Jennie Finch is probably the only player an “average” fan could name.  HUGE PROBLEM. 

Overall, my main point is this: pro softball of course deserves more respect and a larger fan base. I think we can all agree on that. However, fans aren’t going to flock to the game because they “should”—NPF needs to do a LOT more to get themselves out there!! YOU HAVE TO HUSTLE! Read more.

 

 

New Pro Pitching Triumverate

Today's Top NPF Hurlers: Abbott, Taylor & Haegar

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN

LOMBARD  For many years the NPF had three elite pitchers: Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman, and Monica Abbott.  Now that Finch and Osterman have retired and only Monica Abbott remains, it is time to reassess who are the NPF's new elite pitchers.  Here is my list: 

1. Monica Abbott - 2016 stats: 19-3 record, 0.98 ERA, 142 innings pitched, 185 strikeouts, 1.30 strikeout-per-inning ratio.

Abbott is still the class of the NPF.  She led the league in innings, wins, strikeouts, and games started.  She ranked 2nd in ERA behind only the USSSA Pride's Jordan Taylor.  Monica Abbott signed a $1 million contract last season and so far is earning every penny with her performance on the field—even if so far it is only during the regular season.  Even though Abbott had a great season last year, she still disappointed in the playoffs and led the Dawgs to an early postseason exit.  But there is no reason to think Abbott won't pick it up next season and try to lead the Scrapyard Dawgs on another title run. 

2. Jordan Taylor - 2016 stats: 3-0 record, 0.70 ERA, 40 innings pitched, 54 strikeouts, 1.35 strikeout-per-inning ratio.

Jordan Taylor is, statistically, the 2nd best pitcher in the NPF.  Taylor had a great 2016 season for the Pride, but I'm sure the team wished it saw more of her.  I'm sure the fans thought the same—especially in the postseason!  Taylor pitched brilliantly in 2016, but she only pitched 40 innings—not even enough for six complete games.  I hope that in 2017 Taylor gets an opportunity to pitch more innings and show just how good she can be.  Taylor could prove herself to be an all-time great if she started to pitch in the NPF full-time. 

3. Lauren Haegar - 2016 stats: 10-7 record, 3.01 ERA, 111 innings pitched, 100 strikeouts, 0.90 strikeout-per-inning ratio.

Lauren Haegar is my pick for the 3rd most elite pitcher in the NPF.  Haegar had a great season in 2016, and what makes it more impressive is that she did it for the 2nd-worst team in the NPF: the Dallas Charge.  Even on a poor team, Haegar tired for 2nd in the NPF in wins at 10.  She also ranked #2 in the league in strikeouts and innings pitched behind only Monica Abbott.  Haegar performed exceptionally well in her 2nd NPF season, and hopefully she can continue to improve and cement herself into the NPF's most elite pitchers.  Read more.

 

 

Pro Softball Can Learn Much from Soccer

NPF Should Carefully Consider NWSL Growth Strategy

By TSC Contributor JESSICA URBAN

LOMBARD  I found a good article from The Guardian about Jeff Plush, the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), and his quest to grow the league. There are several very interesting points, and a few things I think the NPF can use in its  attempts at growth.

For those who don’t know, the NWSL is a 10-team league (teams in Boston, Chicago, KC, Orlando, Portland, Seattle, NJ, DC and Western NY). The season spans from early April to September, with a four-team playoff culminating in a championship game. The Western New York Flash are the reigning champs! The league is HQ’d in Chicago and is supported by the US Soccer Federation, Federation of Mexican Football, and Canadian Soccer Association. All the major stars from the US National Team play in the league.

On to the article: there are three major areas that are explored, and I think the NPF can learn from each. First, the league’s positive relationship with US Soccer and the MLS (men’s Major League Soccer). Second, the league’s approach to marketing and its success with expansion. Finally, the league’s forward-thinking use of new media to gain exposure.

Let’s start with the NWSL’s relationship with US Soccer.  The NWSL works closely with US Soccer (the governing body for all levels of National Teams–men, women, and youth). This is so important because all of the stars on the National Team also play in the NWSL, and the league works closely with the Federation to insure there are no major conflicts when players are “called up” from a club to play for their country. It really has been a seamless relationship, and both sides know  they need each other to both be successful: a strong professional league helps develop talent for the National Team, and a strong National Team brings attention to the pro league.

It is no surprise that not only is the US Federation behind the NWSL, but Canada's and Mexico’s National Federations as well. The NPF needs to learn from this! They should be working overtime to create a strong working relationship with US Softball; mutual support means the growth of the sport. So far, it seems that the NPF has a bit of an adversarial relationship with US Softball, especially surrounding National Team players having to take time off for tournaments, etc.

The NWSL also has a good working relationship with Major League Soccer. Even though there is no formal relationship between leagues, three teams—the Portland Thorns, Houston Dash and Orlando Pride—are all affiliated with MLS teams. The article also states that several other MLS teams are actively looking to create NWSL arms.

The league commissioners talk frequently about what is/isn’t working in different markets. Why? The NWSL can be a worthwhile investment. For example, the Portland Thorns generated a profit in their very first year. The Orlando Pride, an expansion team, had 23,403 attend its home opener. Those are eye-popping numbers for the NWSL and even the MLS. The fact that the men’s league is eager to work with NWSL is proof that women’s soccer is a legitimate moneymaker. It gives me hope for the potential for women’s sports in general.

What can the NPF lean from this? I looked through the Chicago Bandits’ website and saw that “Major League Baseball is the Official Development Partner of National Pro Fastpitch,” but the partnership was created in a “league-wide effort to help Major League Baseball and the 30 Major League clubs build stronger relationships with female audiences.”  Huh.  Seems like a one-way street, and a partnership in name only that has no tangible benefits for the NPF. Certainly not anything close to what the MLS and NWSL do for each other.

Now, obviously, MLB needs nothing from the NPF in order to be successful, so there is no reason for them to play a more active role in the development of women’s softball. I am wondering: IS there a men’s equivalent that the NPF can work with in order for mutual growth? Can the NPF work with local minor league teams? I’m not trying to say the NPF needs the help of men in order to be successful, but if you look at how such a relationship has been beneficial for the NWSL (and MLS), it’s worth looking into.

Finally, the NWSL has used forward-thinking marketing strategies to grow the league. The article states the NWSL’s marketing committee meets every week with the goal of finding a marketing strategy for each city. Plush acknowledged that each market is different, and it takes some effort to figure out the “ideal women’s soccer fan.” Plush’s goal for expansion is to make the league and its clubs work hand-in-hand to help all teams grow.

The article also mentions the TV contracts that the NWSL has garnered. Some games are broadcast on Fox Sports, but the league will make games available to ESPN3 and other online forums. Most importantly, the NWSL has allowed for the expansion into new media platforms. For instance, National Team and Orlando Pride superstar Alex Morgan streamed a Pride game on Facebook Live. The stream of the game “garnered more than 361,000 views”!! It was also the first time a pro sports event was streamed on Facebook Live. These are incredible numbers, and the NWSL is wise in allowing her to stream the game. This is how you grow a league in the 21st century!!!

The NPF needs to learn a lot from the way the NWSL has marketed its teams. I read an interview with NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf wherein she discusses the growth of pro softball. She consistently talks about how popular NCAA softball is, but says nothing tangible about how that can be converted to popularity for the NPF. The whole article borders on wishful thinking about how sponsors will “discover” the NPF is a good investment. But what is the league DOING to market its teams? How will it work with each team to figure out the best way to navigate each individual market? It all seems very unorganized.

The NPF can grow, but it will need to learn some lessons from its soccer counterparts. First, it needs to have a better working relationship with US Softball.  Second, it needs to seek out partnerships (informal are fine!) with men’s leagues. Finally, it needs to be much more organized and effective with its marketing, and it needs to find new ways to get its product out there. Read more.

 

 
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