Has softball surpassed basketball as the top women’s collegiate sport?

The success of the recent St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational raises the question.
Fans pack the stands Sunday on the final day of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational at Eddie C. Moore. Fields in Clearwater. The tournament's success raises the question: has softball surpassed basketball as the top collegiate women's sport.  [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Fans pack the stands Sunday on the final day of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational at Eddie C. Moore. Fields in Clearwater. The tournament's success raises the question: has softball surpassed basketball as the top collegiate women's sport. [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
Published February 19

Some reports indicate softball now stands as the NCAA’s fourth-highest revenue generating sport, behind only football, men’s basketball and baseball. The throngs who came out for the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational indicate the game’s appeal also has created a strong niche of followers. But we’ll see similar attendance when Tampa hosts the Women’s Final Four in April. Which sport reigns? We ask our roundtable team.

Throwback sports possess appeal

Joey Knight, USF and colleges reporter @TBTimes_Bulls: Spit-balling here, but I’ve discovered a lot of women’s sports — including basketball and softball — appeal to an older demographic that generally appreciates those sports in their purest forms. This season alone, a number of senior-adult USF women’s hoops fans have told me they appreciate women’s basketball because it’s played mostly under the rim, with seemingly crisper ball movement and fundamentals. Similarly, softball is steeped in moving base runners, dugout chatter, finding gaps, and pitchers actually tossing complete games. Which is to say, it’s a variation of pure baseball, the national pastime senior adults grew up playing and watching. They’re still watching it today, as evidenced by the ratings.

Basketball remains the ratings winner

Bob Putnam, prep sports writer @BobbyHomeTeam: If success is measured in television ratings, basketball still is the leader among women’s collegiate sports.. The 2007 Game 3 final of the College World Series had 2.3 million viewers, the sport’s highest-rated game according to Sports Media Watch. By comparison, the championship game of the Women’s Final Four that year had 2.9 million viewers, and it was not even the most watched final. But softball could eventually surpass basketball, particularly when you look at the ratings at the grassroots level. The Little League softball championship game, aired on ESPN or ESPN2, has gone from 193,000 viewers in 2016 to 535,000 last year.

A Healthy Debate

Ernest Hooper, columnist/assistant sports editor @hoop4you: The question alone is a sign that women sports are deservedly rising in prominence. Second, softball’s success ties directly to increased participation and greater exposure on television. But let’s not underestimate the value of the sport. It’s exciting. It’s expanded beyond pitching dominance and slap hits with terrific fielding prowess and power at the plate. The game has grown beyond the state of California and now we’re seeing greater parity. And, locally, we’re seeing far more home-grown softball players rise to elite levels in the sport. Despite being one of the nation’s largest markets, we haven’t seen the same caliber of talent in women’s basketball.

The problem with comparison

Mike Sherman, sports editor, @mikesherman: Women’s basketball suffers from comparison. Fairly or unfairly, it gets compared to men’s basketball because fundamentally it’s the same game. Women’s softball does not get compared to baseball. It is judged on its own merits because fundamentally it is a different game.

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