A few years ago, softball was rarely televised. Flash forward to the present, the Women’s College World Series is now one of the most watched sporting events of the year nationwide. But how did it happen so fast?
With origins dating back to the late 19th centuryth century, the sport of softball had always seemingly taken a back seat to its sibling sport, baseball. However, as time went on, more and more people started to realize its true nature: an athletic, fast and stealthy game that mixes power and wit to create a dynamic competition.
Thanks to the rise of nationwide touring teams as opposed to standardized city leagues where athletes only compete locally, the sport was able to spread rapidly throughout the United States. This created a need for a program that could not only help out organizationally, but also give budding elite athletes the opportunity of a lifetime.
Allison Honkofsky with Athletx grew up playing the sport at a young age. “I was also grateful that my mom was an athlete and she understood the sacrifices it takes to become the best player I could be. Right out of high school, I started playing collegiate softball before moving up to coaching at the Division 1 level. I coached there for 10 years before moving to the company I work with now.
According to its official website, Athletx got its start as a “powerhouse baseball brand” in 2012 under the leadership of founders John Ruby and Jim Haddaway in Louisville, Ky. There, the two began exploring the possibility of creating a week-long youth baseball experience called the Youth Baseball Nationals. There, players would have the chance to experience large-caliber tournaments held in the best venues in the nation. In 2013, their dream came true and the first Youth Baseball Nationals took place. Fast forward to 2015, and the first youth national softball was held.
In 2016, Aaron Flaker joined the duo and Athletx was officially incorporated as the parent company. The following year, Baseball Youth, also with Softball Youth, joined the Athletx family. In 2018, sports brand Gameday USA joins the group, followed by the merger of Pastime Tournaments and Mid America Baseball. This merger was able to help the group now serve youth from first graders to college-aged athletes. In 2020, the group was able to launch two new events, the Youth World Series for Division 2 and Division 3 teams, as well as a weekend tournament series called VERSUS. New tournaments were created and TravelBall Select catering for Division 1 teams joined the pack. In 2021, NET Elite came on board.
Together, all umbrella groups led by Athletx, a play on the word “athletics”, reach over 605,000 households worldwide, host more than 600 events in the United States, feature over 15,000 teams, 194,000 players, 38,000 coaches, and have attracted 371,000 spectators.
Honkofsky, who serves as director of sales and recruiting, says, “I wanted a change of pace, but I still wanted to get involved in the sport in some capacity. I have two kids, so the youthful side of things was perfect for me.
Honkofsky, who also helps out at the Softball Youth umbrella group, says, “All American games are a crucial aspect of engaging youth.”
At the All-American Games, instead of competing for a spot, players are nominated to play in the series by their coaches and peers. Players who are nominated then have the honor of playing with other athletes who are not from their zone/region, and can see a
a traveling tournament.
“It really adds a different aspect to the game,” Honkofsky says. “We want to pair players with people from across the nation, not the region, so they can really see what it’s like to play with a team made up of other top athletes from around the world. The players are then coached by high profile people in the softball world. We’ve had former Division 1 coaches, national team members and Division 1 athletes. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of the girls and we make it the best it can be for them. We want to empower these young athletes in a way that keeps them going.”
Honkofsky wishes he had something like the All-American Games growing up.
“Going out and playing with top level athletes coached by people who were once in my position would have been amazing. These games open the door to more opportunities and open up the next step in a playing career if that is what the athlete wants.
Regarding athlete empowerment, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) signed a rule last year effective immediately allowing athletes to sign endorsement deals with companies that use them for a branding, likeness or profit campaign. from their name. This new policy is called the NCAA Name, Image, and Likeness policy (NIL).
Since the Women’s College World Series has repeatedly been one of the best college programs on television, it’s no surprise that several female athletes have signed such deals including the Oklahoma Sooners softball team, the defending champions who defeated Texas to a win for 7-2.
According to several news reports this past spring, a company called 1Oklahoma, led by Hall of Fame football coach Barry Switzer, formed a collective that signed Oklahoma student-athletes to most of the NIL deals in the country, funded by volunteers and donors offers.
Ohio State softball has also seen deals from the new policy. Their version of the 1Oklahoma collective, the Columbus Dugout Club, will see 80 percent of proceeds go to the players, with 10 percent going to a charity of their choosing — this year, it’s the Boys and Girls Club.
Even though several players are now able to capitalize on their similarity due to the dedication they show for their sport, Honkofsky says the way forward is to embrace the professional leagues.
“The recent NIL deal is a big deal not just for softball but for all sports. However, we don’t have to stop there. We need, as an organization, to grow professional softball. These players must be able to make a living by playing. It’s huge with the Women’s College World Series and the return of softball to the Olympics last year that we’re capitalizing on the sport’s popularity. If we want to keep our sport on track, expanding the big leagues is a must.”
Averaging 1.7 million viewers and peaking at 2.1 million, the Women’s College World Series proved that it was in the regular ESPN lineup, not to mention the popularity of softball at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. However, if the sport wants to continue to grow , the industry must show young players that it could be a career, just like Major League Baseball is for its brother sport.
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