Does Major League Baseball care more about scripted television than softball?
The Fox drama “Pitch,” starring Kylie Bunbury as a screwball-throwing pitcher for Major League Baseball’s San Diego Padres, wrapped its first season Thursday night. With melodramatic flair, the show tastefully dissects the hypothetical politics surrounding the first woman in professional baseball while poking fun at the league’s hypermasculine hijinks. The first season was as corny as you’d hope. It’s quality network television!
It’s also officially supported by MLB, which gives “Pitch” full access to franchise names, stadiums, and other intellectual property like logos and team uniforms. National Pro Fastpitch, the top professional softball league, receives none of this institutional support. To NPF representatives, the contradiction burns.
“It’s not that [MLB’s] particular support of ‘Pitch’ is disheartening,” NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf told Excelle Sports. “Their lack of support of the NPF is what’s disheartening.”
When the Women’s Pro Softball League rebranded itself as National Pro Fastpitch in 2002, MLB joined as an official partner. For most of NPF’s history, MLB has offered consulting and some capital, but the relationship has been minimal—at least compared to the robust partnership in basketball. The WNBA launched with eight teams owned by NBA franchises, is the NBA’s official “sister” league, and receives regular cross-promotion. Since Rob Manfred became MLB commissioner last year, baseball and softball’s partnership has reportedly grown even weaker.
“When I became commissioner in 2007, there at least was a more active relationship,” Kempf said. “But the relationship now is really not where I think it should be.”
Pro softball’s primary challenge is securing television coverage. The league is currently partnered with the regional CBS Sports Network, which broadcast less than 20 percent of the league’s games last summer. Yet ESPN televised over 600 college softball games this year, which some argue demonstrates that NPF has room for serious growth, if corporate sponsors bought in. Official MLB support would help.
“The difference is television. These women deserve national broadcasts,” NPF commentator Barb Jordan told Excelle Sports. “But there are some people in corporate America who still just look at it as girls’ softball.”
MLB seems to recognize pro softball’s potential. NPF teams competed this year during baseball’s All-Star weekend in San Diego, and baseball’s senior vice president of youth programs Tony Reagins told Excelle Sports that the relationship is “just scratching the surface.”
“We understand that softball is wildly popular and it’s something that gives us opportunity to grow,” Reagins said. “We’re not taking that lightly and we’re going to reach out eventually.”
In the meantime, MLB will continue promoting and supporting 20th Century Fox Television’s generous fictional portrayal of baseball’s progressive gender politics.