“If you want your sport to survive, you have to develop the world”
It’s been a dramatic off-season for the NPF, but the professional league’s 15th season is underway. After losing two teams, Texas Charge and Scrapyard Dogs, the NPF has five teams competing for the title. The Chicago Bandits and the USSSA Pride have been strong contenders for years. The Akron Racers has morphed into the Cleveland Comets, which has a roster of several Chinese players. The Shougang Eagles from Beijing, China and the Aussie Spirit from Australia round out the foreign contingency. This season, most games will be available to watch for free on NPF TV. Some games will also appear on ESPN+.
We spoke to NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf about the State of the League today.
Softball Nation: This is the 15thseason for the NPF, what is the state of the league and what are you hoping for this season?
Commissioner Kempf: We’re celebrating the 15th season, that’s quite an accomplishment especially in women’s professional sport. But we’re very much still in the developing stages of a professional sports league, so I think it’s really not a lot different from the way it has been every year since I’ve been the commissioner in the way that we want to continue to strengthen our partnerships. We want to continue to increase our exposure and we’re doing that through various digital platforms and the expansion of NPF TV. And we want to continue to increase our team expansion so we’re able to get more great players and continue our great level competition.
SN: The Texas Charge and Scrap Yard Dogs are out of the league now. How are you dealing with the loss of those teams?
CK: I think it’s fair for the public perception to say that losing teams is a negative. I would say that it’s not always a negative. And I think that what we know is that we have to have the right people with the right vision and the right intentions and folks who want to be team players, that are involved in the development of this league. So I will tell you that it’s not my way to look back. It’s my way to look forward and that sometimes the public perception is exactly that. I’m optimistic and the only thing negative that I see is just a bit of time consumption on negativity. And I think anytime you’re spending time on negative things whatever that might be at any level, that’s not efficient and where you want to be.
SN: The NPF added the Aussie Spirit from Australia this year. The Shougang Eagles were added last year. What do these international teams add to the league?
CK: They add an international flair an international field, global coverage, global appeal to different partners. And all of that is from the business side. From the softball side, at its very core, it is the most dramatic addition and contribution to the survival of our sport as it sits right now. And when I tell you that, I will tell you that you have to recognize history. You have to understand that how successful Australia has been in the sport. Their softball program is one of the most successful Olympic programs in Australia. And China played for the gold medal in 1996. Both those teams are a shadow their former selves currently because of the natural waxing and waning process that comes with the funding in their respective countries, or if they are an Olympic sport or if they are not an Olympic sport.
The only way to take away that waxing and waning is to have that professional level survive of the ability for these countries to participate because iron sharpens iron. And I think that if you don’t see that, a lot of people say that “China they’re just not strong enough,”. Well as softball fans, that should bother us because China was a world power back in 1996 and 1992. So if you want your sport to survive, you have to develop the world you have to care about surviving everywhere and that is represented in every major professional sport look at the major sports league what they’re doing look at the Major Leagues (MLB) in Japan. Look at the Major Leagues in the Dominican Republic. Look at the NBA in China. That’s not just about money, it’s about securing the sport. And the broader that coverage is the broader that participation is, the harder it is for it to go away.
SN: There seems to be an opening in relations for NPF players to play on Team USA now and the relationship seems to have improved. What do you think about that?
CK: For the record there was never a restriction for NPF players to play on Team USA. There was a restriction from Team USA that started in 2010 of players playing on team USA and playing on the NPF. Somehow that restriction has gotten lost again and people don’t know the history of the sport. I’ll tell you what I think about it, is that it’s crazy. First of all we should be winning gold medals, dominate this sport as a country. Look at our college program. We should gold-medal every single time. To do that, the assumption is that you should have your best players on the national team and I think that most people would agree with me that the highest level of competition has been the NPF. So what I think of it is that it is an absurd concept that we would not operate as one that the professional level of this sport would not be cooperating with Team USA and vice versa.
I am a former team USA member, I am a former team USA coach. I believe we should win. And I think that my position has always been, and if you look at the public record, we should always be that we are holding hands. We should be working together. And I agree with you that it’s better and I would say further that it could still be better.
SN: We have a new draft class coming in the NPF. They are some of the best players in the NCAA. What are your hopes for them?
CK: The future is always in the next class but I think it’s great that Kelly Kretschman is still playing and better than ever at 36 or 37 years old. And it tells you how important the professional level is. But the draft classes and the fact that every year we take the top talent are the college game into this league and continue to get better and continue to reach their potential. As a teacher and trainer in the sport, I think it’s incredibly rewarding to see women reach their athletic potential. Some of the women that are in the league have extraordinary talent, and I mean that in the true sense of the word. Their abilities are extraordinary. It’s a very small percentage of people. And if you don’t have a professional league you’re going to see them stop at age 20 or 21? 22 years-old they’re gonna walk away? That’s like having a third grader walk out like they’re going to know everything they need to know in the third grade? They haven’t even touched the surface of what they can learn. I’m excited about the draft class I always am. But I’m excited about seeing some of these talented players continue to get better.