On the upcoming 50th anniversary of Title IX, professional softball opportunities remain unequal

Athletes Unlimited
Athletes Unlimited is one of the few options available for college softball players to pursue a professional playing career following graduation. Gwen Svekis (center) was one of the founding players of the league. (Photo courtesy of Gwen Svekis’s Instagram, @gsvekis21)

By Molly Keshin
Medill Reports

In the middle of Akron, Ohio, Kelley Montalvo and her teammates stood in yet another Chick-fil-A to pass out flyers promoting their next softball game. Some would take the paper and show genuine interest, while others feigned support until they got to the garbage can to throw it out.

But this wasn’t a high school team trying to garner a good showing for a rivalry game. It was the Akron Racers, a former professional softball team in the National Pro Fastpitch league––more commonly known as the NPF. On top of being a professional athlete, Montalvo and her colleagues were seemingly the marketing department for their team as well.

But this wasn’t anything new for Montalvo. If there was one thing she expected coming into a professional softball league, it was this: You have a lot more jobs than just playing.

Montalvo, a standout for the Alabama Crimson Tide from 2006 to 2009 and now an assistant coach at Bethune-Cookman University, is just one of the many softball players who took the chance to continue playing the game they had always loved after graduation, just to find out it wasn’t necessarily what they had dreamed of.

“We thought it was a privilege to continue even playing,” Montalvo said. “We were like, ‘Holy crap, we could still play this after college,’ not thinking that you’re going to be broke in three months.”

Though a decade has passed since Montalvo first entered the NPF, not much has changed in the professional softball landscape, despite the explosion of support for college softball in recent years. According to ESPN Press Room, the 2021 Women’s College World Series was the most-viewed ever, averaging approximately 1.2 million viewers––up 10% from 2019.

Shot Clock Media also posted a tweet comparing the women’s and men’s College World Series following the 2021 championship, showing the baseball postseason tournament lagged with an average of 755,000 viewers.

Yet, professional opportunities for softball players after college remain a struggle for those choosing to participate.  In fact, for most college softball players, the thought of playing professionally is just that: a thought.

Former Boston University catcher Alex Heinen –– who was with the Terriers for three consecutive Patriot League championship victories –– said playing professional softball never seemed like a viable option.

“Coming from a high academic conference, none of my teammates were ever thinking of playing softball afterwards. That was never a conversation,” Heinen said. “I just didn’t think that was in the works for somebody that wasn’t in like the prime, top 25.”

But maybe it’s starting to be.

Gwen Svekis walked out of the elevator on a top floor of a New York City skyrise and let out a quiet gasp as the conference room overlooked the expanse of Central Park. As she sat down with prospective Athletes Unlimited founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros to discuss a new professional softball league, Svekis and the two other players also invited to the pioneer meeting, Haylie Wagner and Victoria Hayward, all immediately agreed on one thing:

“We made it.”

“When I got to the pro league (with NPF), I was so inspired and also disheartened by how little support there was because when I was with University of Oregon, I don’t remember a single game where the stadium wasn’t totally packed,” Svekis said. “We were treated as female athletes should be treated; we were on a pedestal of sorts. I remember just feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this. I have to work to make this better.’”

Svekis said newer leagues like Athletes Unlimited and Women’s Pro Fastpitch (WPF), which is set for its inaugural season this summer under commissioner and former Oklahoma great Lauren Chamberlain, are beginning to take a step in the right direction. Recently, AU penned a television deal with ESPN for the entire 2022 season in hopes of continuing interest following the College World Series.

For veteran pros like former Marshall University standout and current Miami (Ohio) assistant coach Morgan Zerkle, the pay is still not where it needs to be, as players often need to coach or give lessons on the side make a living.

As an NPF rookie in 2017, Zerkle was paid $3,000 total for a three month-long season. Now with AU and its individual ranking system –– which aims to appeal to society’s increasing tendency toward following professional players rather than teams –– players can make between $10,000 and $25,000.

“I do a lot of things to acquire my income,” Zerkle said. “But I definitely could not just play.”

While Zerkle and Svekis said pay has improved, more work remains, as professional softball is still more comparable to Minor League Baseball than the majors. Triple-A Minor League athletes receive an approximate minimum salary of $14,700 compared with the multimillion-dollar contracts inked by baseball’s biggest stars, according to Sporting News.

These women each said it’s hard not to think about how much money MLB players like Bryce Harper and Aaron Judge make in just one at-bat. It’s a goal that, at this point, still seems impossible. However, with athlete endorsements and hopefully a working relationship between the WPF and AU to play year-round, softball gets at leastone step closer to equality.

“We’re still at that level where these athletes are not playing for ourselves, we’re playing for the hope that the next generation doesn’t have to get two jobs,” Svekis said. “Every time I go to a pro sporting event, no matter what sport or what gender, I’m always asking if softball can ever get to this level. I do believe that we can get there.”

Molly Keshin is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @mollykesh22