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How can Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo change the game for pro softball?

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Jocelyn Alo is the greatest hitter in softball history. Full stop. No question mark.

She’s the 2022 Women’s College World Series Most Outstanding Player, a two-time national champion, two-time USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year, No. 1 all time in career home runs (122), No. 2 all time in career RBI (323) and has the highest career slugging percentage of all time (.990!).

Much has been said about her premiere performance and all its done to popularize softball. The game has experienced augmented growth in the glow of her stardom, although national interest has been consistently increasing for some time.

“I think that I've definitely left my mark,” Alo said after Oklahoma won its sixth national championship Thursday. “I've definitely enjoyed my five years, and I'm excited to see what the Sooners softball team does. And I'm just excited to see what little girl's gonna work hard out there to come and break my record.”

Over 1.3 million players annually participate in the USA Softball youth program. The first season of Division I softball (1982) included 2,532 athletes compared to 6,892 in 2021, according to the NCAA. ESPN’s prime-time broadcast of Oklahoma and Texas’ first matchup in the championship series (which fought Game 3 of the NBA Finals on ABC for eyeballs) averaged 1.4 million viewers. The title game on ESPN2 averaged 1.7 million viewers, peaking at 2.1 million.

Despite this, professional softball in America has yet to take off. What could Alo and her championship pedigree do to change that?

The answer: It’s complicated.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 09: Jocelyn Alo #78 of the Oklahoma Sooners celebrates with the national championship trophy after the game against the Texas Longhorns during the Division I Women's Softball Championship held at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on June 9, 2022 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Jocelyn Alo celebrates with the national championship trophy after the game against the Texas Longhorns on Thursday. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Here's what is next for Jocelyn Alo

Yes, Alo’s profile can only enhance professional softball. But its main problem is a tale as old as women’s sports: Lack of investment and visibility.

Alo will play in Women's Pro Fastpitch on the Smash It Sports Vipers, she announced on Instagram Live Monday. She allowed the momentum to build over the weekend, after telling media Thursday night that she would continue to play softball but didn't specify which league(s). At the time of her announcement around 2,100 viewers tuned in.

“She's making decisions, and people are kind of waiting to see where she goes,” said Lauren Chamberlain, former Sooner and former NCAA home run record holder. “That's what we want for the sport. That's what the former players want. We want that attention around an athlete and a decision that she makes just like it would be for the men in the professional space that are choosing to go somewhere next.”

Chamberlain,played professional softball for four years in the National Pro Fastpitch. Now she serves as the commissioner of the Women’s Professional Fastpitch (WPF), a fledgling league that launches its inaugural two-team (the USSSA Pride and the Smash It Sports Vipers) exhibition season Tuesday and will stream games online.

"Jocelyn is the epitome of the modern female athlete," Chamberlain said after Alo's announcement. "The attention that she’s garnered is all deserved, and to see the world respond in a craze to a woman dominating her sport should be normalized. This is another big step for our sport and for women as a whole."

Savanna Collins is a digital reporter and producer for Athletes Unlimited, a fantasy style women’s professional sports league. She views Alo as the kind of talent who transcends softball. Tom Brady, the seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback, sent Alo a direct message on Instagram to congratulate her on such a dominant career. Her story from Hau’ula, Hawaii, to Norman, Oklahoma, is all over sports media’s biggest outlets. Fans feel like they know her and want to root for her.

“It really is kind of a once in a blue moon situation where they're hitting all the marks that makes sports fans go crazy,” Collins said. “So I think she's going to be huge for pro softball whichever league she chooses. I know that that league will have a huge influx of fans. … I think she is famous and a fantastic athlete in a way that we very rarely see.”

While she’s a generational talent, she wouldn’t be the first collegiate softball player ESPN has fallen in love with during the WCWS and then abandoned. Take Florida softball alumna Amanda Lorenz or Michigan’s Sierra Romero for example.

Social media and the NIL age are helpful, relatively new developments that keep fans engaged. And AU’s deal with ESPN is huge. Kayla Lombardo, lead editor at Softball America, said Alo and other elite softball players are reaping the benefits of living and playing in a historically great time for women athletes.

“She's really the first superstar in our game who's going to have the opportunity to go from playing on ESPN in college at the highest level to then going and playing on ESPN family of networks at the professional level,” Lombardo said. “That's significant because that means that eyeballs will continue to be on her and that she has the opportunity to continue to grow her brand and help softball in general.”

Jun 9, 2022; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma Sooners utility Jocelyn Alo (78) hits the ball for a single during the sixth inning against the Texas Longhorns in game two of the 2022 Women's College World Series finals at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium. Oklahoma won 10-5 to win the National Championship. Mandatory Credit: Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports
Jocelyn Alo leaves Oklahoma as the all-time NCAA home run leader in softball. (Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports)

Pro softball’s challenges mirror women’s sports hurdles in general

As a society, we've been duped into thinking women's sports are worth less without really testing that hypothesis. You’ve heard of the question, “Which came first: The chicken or the egg?” When it comes to the business of women’s sports, it goes more like this: “Which should come first, interest or investment?”

Lombardo says investment.

“A lot of men's sports leagues were not profitable for decades, so it takes time for you to get a return on your investment,” Lombardo said. “But you need to be in it for the long run, for the long game and see the potential for the investment to pay dividends.”

The NBA saw a net loss of $15 million to $20 million in 1982, roughly 35 years into the league’s history. The NWSL is in its 10th season but came up on the graves of shuttered leagues like the Women’s United Soccer Association and the Women’s Professional Soccer league, which lasted three and four years, respectively. The WNBA is 26 years old and, even with the NBA’s backing, is struggling to get high-profile games broadcasted on national television. The National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league folded last August after 17 years.

“Give us [women’s sports leagues] time,” Collins said. “Give us the same grace that men's pro leagues were given and continuously are given.”

Athletes Unlimited launched in 2020 with a five-week, 30-game softball season. Each week the rosters change, as top players become captains and draft new squads to compete for a championship.

Since 2020, AU has added volleyball, lacrosse and basketball to its repertoire. An abbreviated version of its championship softball season (three 12-game series over two weeks) called AUX premiers Monday. In April, ESPN announced a multi-year deal with AU to air pro softball and lacrosse games on the network’s platforms, including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU and streaming on ESPN+.

“There aren't many leagues in just Year 3 that are already on linear TV with that amount of access,” Collins said of the deal. “And a big part of growing the investment from fans on that side of it, I think, is having access and ease to be able to watch the game. For Athletes Unlimited, being on ESPN was a big part of that.”

The reason for college softball’s popularity, Chamberlain said, has been investment from the NCAA and visibility from ESPN. She called these “nonnegotiables for success.”

NCAA softball games are available on ESPN or streaming all season long, and the sports’ postseason tournament gets Sunday matinee or prime-time treatment. Between steady exposure on one of sports media’s biggest platforms, social media and their newfound ability to profit off name, image and likeness, college softball players have plenty of tools available to craft a brand that resonates with fans. (On Alo’s Instagram, she has promoted a local car dealership and law firm, McDonald’s, Outback, Fabletics and her own line of merchandise.) But once NCAA eligibility is up, the spectators who’ve followed their journeys have few avenues for continuing to do so.

Chamberlain said professional softball leagues and superstar players should work together to elevate each other’s brands. A sort of help-me-help-you relationship, rather than leagues drafting off their players’ popularity alone. Instead of relying on dedicated college fans' ability to track athletes down, leagues should fight to guarantee athletes exposure in a way that boosts both parties' status.

“I've been in that same seat, and a lot of the women that are in professional softball still have made that choice to go pro and I don't think we're equally supported by the league,” Chamberlain said. “And that’s something that we [at WPF] are striving to do is provide a platform for them to continue so that it's not so much that professional softball rides on them, but that we can equally support and benefit each other to continue both of our brands.”

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