Shasta Averyhardt took the long, hard road to the LPGA. She was born and raised in Flint, Michigan, one of the most economically depressed cities in the country and certainly not a hot-bed for golf.
New broadcasting deals for professional women’s sports leagues are leading to more exposure to women’s sports. The WNBA is competing in a bubble for its 2020 season, and the NWSL just wrapped up the first-ever Challenge Cup, which broke women’s soccer viewership records. In late August, Athletes Unlimited, a new sports league, will begin its inaugural season with softball as its first sport, and games will be broadcasted nationally.
Fans have the ability to watch college softball and soon professional softball. But, what about fans of women’s baseball?
Girls and women playing baseball aren’t new. Up until the 1890s, women played baseball until the two sports, baseball and softball, were determined as a “man’s sport” and a “co-ed sport”. There’s been a noticable increase in participation for girls in baseball, and the U.S. even has a national women’s baseball team.But somewhere in between little league and the professional level, girls and women fall out of the sport. Ava Benach, who is an attorney and coaches a 13-and-under girls baseball team, founded DC Girls Baseball, which gives girls the opportunity to play baseball competitively on an all-girls team.
“Girls should be able to play baseball as long as they want to,” Benach said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “Don’t stop playing because there isn’t opportunity, but because they maybe lose attention, or find other interests, the same reasons that some boys stop playing.”
Girls have the opportunity to compete in baseball despite sexist pushback at all levels.. According to the Chicago Tribune, as of 2017, there were 100,000 girls playing little league baseball. As of 2019, Statista shows there were 1,284 girls participating in baseball at the high school level. Malaika Underwood, who is a veteran infielder for Team USA, said that people often correct her when she says she plays professional baseball. Many other female baseball players experience the same thing — that women don’t actually play baseball but softball, and those who say they do must be mistaken.
“It’s the only sport where we’ve allowed the equivalent for women to be something totally different,” Underwood said in an interview with SB Nation. “No one was telling Serena Williams to play ping-pong.”
There are no baseball programs at the NCAA level for women, only softball. This leads to women switching from baseball to softball in order to become a collegiate athlete. It’s clear that baseball and softball aren’t the same sport. They have different dimensions on the field, different pitching motions and types of pitches (like a riseball vs. a slider), and use different equipment (metal bats vs. wooden bats). Therefore, in order to play at the collegiate level, girls are encouraged to make the switch from one sport to the other.
At the end of the spring college season, ESPN airs the Women’s College World Series. Softball will return to the 2021 Olympic lineup after a 13-year hiatus and Team USA is set to play. These events help propel softball to the national and international stage, but there’s still a lack of coverage of girls and women’s baseball.
MLB has slowly helped promote the sport more with its Play Ball Initiative, promoting boys and girls to play baseball and softball. MLB recently helped run a tournament for girls in baseball in Compton, California, the Trailblazer Series, which had 100 participants. In 2018, the league also promoted Team USA women’s baseball by including in-stadium promotions and on social media. Games were aired on Youtube while some were featured on MLB’s website.
“Increasing youth participation and fostering the development of high-potential athletes continues to be a priority commitment for our sport,” said Tony Reagins, MLB executive vice president of baseball & softball development, in a MLB press release. “With our 2020 calendar of activities, we will not only introduce more youth to baseball and softball, but also provide them the necessary tools to develop a lifelong connection with the game.”
Fans of baseball also don’t see women at the MLB level either, but that’s starting to change. In 2014, Mo’ne Davis became the first girl to record a win and pitch a shutout at the Little League World Series. More recently, the New York Yankees hired Rachel Bolkvac as a hitting coach for a minor league affiliate and the San Francisco Giants hired Alyssa Nakken, the first full-time coach at the MLB level. Giving girls and women the opportunity to see themselves at the MLB level will help increase the participation of girls and women in baseball. And while athletes like Mo’ne Davis and coaches like Bokvac and Nakken are inspiring, Underwood believes continuing to treat female baseball athletes as an anomaly is harmful for girls who want to play the sport.
“If we continue to frame it as this novel story — like, A girl can play baseball? Who knew?! — then that’s how we’ll be treated,” Underwood told SB Nation. “Without the history and the context, any girl who sees that feels like Mo’ne is the exception, and so she would also have to be the exception. But that’s just not the case.”
Kelsie Whitmore, a player for the Sonoma Stompers (an independent league baseball team) explained in an interview with Chris Landers for Cut4 why it’s important for women to play professional baseball.
“Growing up I never really had a female baseball player that was at a high level that I [could] look up to. To think that, ‘Hey, everything’s gonna be okay because they’re doing it, so I can do it.’ I never had that growing up. I want to be that for younger girls.”
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