Women's softball grows as exposure, crowds increase

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Carol Hutchins remembers what coaching college softball was like when she began her run at Michigan three decades ago.

She recalls facilities that weren't much different than those at high schools, limited media coverage and little television exposure.

This year, her Wolverines advanced to the Women's College World Series earlier than other teams, giving her a chance to sit back and watch the other Super Regionals on television. That's when she got a clear view of how much the sport has changed.

''Watching all those filled stadiums all across the country and the fantastic TV coverage - it's a dream come true for some of us who have been around a long time, because this sport has gone through the roof,'' said Hutchins, who is wrapping up her 31st season at Michigan. ''And it's a credit to, of course, the power of TV, and it's a credit to the institutional support that we've all received, and all the great coaches and student-athletes in the game.''

Division I softball continues to grow, despite the fact that the sport is no longer played in the Olympics. The number of schools sponsoring the sport has increased from 143 in 1982 to a record 293 this year. The NCAA Tournament had just 16 teams in 1982 and drew 17,740 fans. In 2012 and 2013, the 64-team tournament drew more than 150,000.

The WCWS, which features the top eight teams and is played at Oklahoma City's ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, has grown, too. Even without a local team in the field, four of the top 10 sessions in event history have come this year. Seating capacity at the stadium was about 2,000 in 1999, but expansion and increased interest has brought crowds above 9,000. Plans are in place to increase capacity to about 13,000 by 2020.

''There's not a better place to be,'' Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. ''The stadium, the people, the media - the coverage has doubled, tripled since we started. And it is so much fun for us.''

Sharon Cessna, the NCAA's director of championships for the past 11 years, said the players have consistently improved and made the NCAA want to promote the sport more.

''Their skill level, their speed and agility make it a much higher product than was out there 11 years ago,'' she said. ''The bar has been raised, because the student athletes have made us raise it.''

Hutchins agreed that incoming players have more advanced skills.

''There's more talent than ever,'' she said. ''There's more dreams for young kids because going to college and playing softball is their dream.''

The WCWS has become one of the top showcases for Team USA talent. Eight members of the senior national team made it to Oklahoma City, and seven of the eight teams had at least one player on the national team.

The connection between the Division I game and USA Softball is significant. The U.S. national coach, Ken Eriksen, coaches South Florida and is a member of the Division I national committee. He said the level of play at college has helped keep the players at a high level so that the national program can be ready if the sport returns to the Olympics as hoped in 2020.

''It's the minor leagues,'' he said. ''It's our Triple-A program.''

ESPN has broadcast every WCWS game since 2001. The Big Ten Network has aired an average of 30 softball games per season since 2008, and this year streamed about 100 games on the network's digital app. The SEC Network broadcast more than 50 games this year.

As the sport has grown, the funds required to keep up have increased. Most of the schools at the WCWS have had significant stadium renovations the past 10 years. Oregon is building a $16.5 million stadium that is scheduled to open next year.

It's no coincidence that the top eight softball schools this year - Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Alabama, LSU, Tennessee, UCLA and Auburn - are traditional football powerhouses. The money filters down from the football programs, and top players follow the funds.

Tennessee, for example, has a jewel in Sherri Lee Parker Stadium, which was built in 2008. Beside it is a 7,000-square foot clubhouse with a team room, whirlpools, training area and conference room. It also includes a kitchen, 30-seat theater, trophy room and a recreation room with a big-screen television, a pool table and video games.

Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said it's all because of football.

''That's what generates the money for the other sports, believe me,'' he said. ''If you don't know that, you don't know what's happening.''

In the old days, UCLA, Arizona and other western teams dominated college softball. Oklahoma started changing that by winning the title in 2000. In 2005, Michigan became the first championship school east of the Mississippi River. Oklahoma won again in 2013.

This year, five of the eight schools were from the Southeastern Conference, including defending champion Florida.

''It's just so exciting right now to be in this sport, as a coach, as a team,'' Oregon coach Mike White said. ''And to see the spread of the wealth of talent across the country - it's not just the West Coast anymore.''

---

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.