Lauren Chamberlain is no stranger to attention. Since she first emerged as a power hitting first baseman at the University of Oklahoma in 2011, she has captivated softball fans throughout the country with her prolific collegiate numbers (95 HRs, 254 RBIs, .960 SLG), and even bigger personality.
The four-time All-America and NCAA home run record-setter built a large fan base while with the Sooners, as she gained more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook during her time in Norman. Chamberlain, 22, now a rookie with the USSSA Pride of the five-team National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) women’s professional softball league, will look to use her immense popularity for an even greater purpose than just personal gain: to garner more recognition and support for a league that has struggled to maintain a consistent fan base.
“I know that part of my job is to interact with fans and get more eyes and ears on the NPF and just keep the league moving in a positive direction,” says Chamberlain. “By using social networks to connect with more fans on a daily basis, I think it is going to help the league tremendously.”
NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf is optimistic that the star-power of Chamberlain and other young players will provide the league with its best chance to maintain a fan following and establish a national presence in the sports world. “Lauren has the type of audience reserved for superstars in our sport,” says Kempf. “She and other young players have the opportunity to make part of their legacies the gift of professional opportunity to future softball players and carry the torch they’ve been handed.”
Women’s professional softball was first established in 1991 as the National Fastpitch Association (NFA) in Boulder, Colo. After a series of rebranding efforts saw the NFA become the WPF, and then the WPSL, the NPF was back in 2004 following its partnership with Major League Baseball. Throughout much of the last decade, however, the NPF has been thwarted by folding teams, scant media coverage and the loss of star players to the international ranks. Amid such instability, some of professional sports’ most hidden gems have essentially been concealed from the national media landscape.
Over the past two seasons, however, the future has looked brighter. Last season, the league inked a deal with CBS Sports Network to broadcast 18 games. The network again made a commitment to the NPF this season, agreeing to serve as its exclusive television home for the second-straight year. CBS Sports Network will air more than 25 games throughout eight weeks of Monday and Tuesday night live primetime telecasts, as well as every game of the Championship Series in August. The league declined to comment on the specifics of the deal.
“In the past, it was just one game here, and another game three to six weeks later,” NPF veteran pitcher and Chamberlain’s USSSA Pride teammate Cat Osterman says. “All along I think we’ve needed to find consistent TV coverage.”
In January, the league also announced its addition of the Dallas Charge, a team based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which will look to capitalize on the southern popularity of softball. “With increased attendance in all markets in 2014, along with the sheer volume of our television coverage, we realize expansion will naturally happen, but to be able to permeate into one of the nation’s hotbeds for fastpitch softball makes this addition really special,” says Kempf.
Chamberlain’s commitment to the NPF, alone, reveals that the league is moving in the right direction in being able to attract the sport’s top players. Despite playing for Team USA in 2013, Chamberlain chose to forego another opportunity to wear the red, white and blue this year, and opted to sign with the USSSA Pride after her college season ended in May. “When I was a kid, the dream wasn’t the NPF, it was Team USA,” says Chamberlain, who was the No. 1 pick in the NPF Draft. “But as soon as I started really understanding what the league was trying to do, I was just absolutely thrilled to be a part of the growth of the NPF.”
While the NPF will lean on Chamberlain and other young stars to help the league emerge on a national level, it won't be an easy task. Similar to other women’s professional sports leagues in America, like the WNBA, NWSL and NWHL, the NPF has had a hard time keeping its talent due to a lack of funds in the league. The average NPF salary is currently $6,000 per season, which leaves some players without endorsement deals and other sources of income with no choice but to hang up their cleats in the midst of their athletic primes.
But coming off the most-watched Women’s College World Series to date, along with the league’s increasing television coverage, there are new reasons to believe that the improving popularity of the sport could help change this trend in the coming years. “Although not all of the games are on TV, we’ve seen our crowds increase and we know more people are following now than ever before,” says Osterman. “We gage a lot of our growth based on how much interaction we have with fans on social media, and we’ve started to receive a lot more comments and tweets because we are on TV.”
Osterman, 32, a former Olympic gold medalist and four-time All-America at Texas, is in her eighth and final NPF season. The two-time defending NPF Pitcher of the Year announced her plans to retire from professional softball earlier this year.
As an unofficial ambassador for the NPF throughout her illustrious career, Osterman is confident that Chamberlain and other members of the younger generation of NPF stars will continue to build upon the groundwork that has already been laid for the league. “The future looks bright,” says Osterman. “Just to see the talent level that we have in the NPF now with the younger generation is exciting because every game can be close. That’s just going to make the product that people see that much better.”
For Chamberlain, carrying the torch that has been handed to her means more than just serving as the face of professional softball, it means helping to make things happen for the NPF that have never happened before. “In five years, I’d like to see 10 or more teams in the league, more ESPN televised games, more money circulating through the league and a lot more respect for our athleticism and sport,” says Chamberlain. “I don’t really shy away from any type of challenge, so I will do my best to make the NPF even better for the players of the future. I’m ready to accept that next step for me.”
In the meantime, college softball’s home run queen will attempt to do what she has done with just about everything that has been thrown her way—hit it out of the park.