The future of National Pro Fastpitch was thrown into doubt this week by the departure of the league's reigning champion and the effective dissolution of its oldest franchise.
Days after the NPF's annual owners meeting, and four months before the anticipated start of the league's 15th season, the Scrap Yard Dawgs announced the franchise would leave the league and continue operations as an independent entity. In a statement, the Houston-area team that was launched in 2016 cited a difference of opinion as to "the mission of the NPF."
In just their second season on the field, the Dawgs won the 2017 NPF championship last August behind pitcher Monica Abbott.
This week also saw the end of the Akron Racers, the only franchise to participate in each of the NPF's first 14 seasons. As reported in the Akron Beacon Journal and confirmed to espnW by Racers minority owner Joey Arrietta, Racers majority owner Craig Stout will continue with a franchise utilizing mostly Chinese players and financed in part by Chinese interests. As a result of those changes, Arrietta was dismissed after being the only general manager in franchise history. She told espnW that per her request, NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf assured her that the new franchise will not be called the Racers or use its logo.
Arrietta estimated that the total operating budget for the Racers in 2017 was around $800,000, and that is even with one of the league's smallest payrolls and a favorable stadium arrangement with the city of Akron, which owns the softball-specific Firestone Stadium. Arrietta said that made it financially impractical to continue with the current model.
"At the end of the day, corporate America has to wake up to this women's sports platform," Arrietta said. "If they don't, it's going to be more and more difficult for us to secure a place in sports. The platform is not going to be there because you just need the influx of support so you can get on television. But you need butts in seats -- it's like a chicken and egg thing.
"Our game is wildly successful at the collegiate level. It just blows my mind that there is not that transfer of collegiate interest."
The Texas Charge, a team that initially shared ownership resources with Scrap Yard, also ceased operations last fall after three seasons in the NPF.
In all, the turnover leaves the NPF with five teams and just two that are not committed to majority-foreign rosters for 2018: the Chicago Bandits and the Florida-based USSSA Pride. After longtime Bandits owner Bill Sokolis stepped away prior to the 2017 season, the Bandits are operated by the Village of Rosemont, the Chicago-area municipality that built and owns the softball-specific Ballpark at Rosemont and adjoining indoor sports facility near O'Hare International Airport.
The league's remaining three entries are the newly launched Aussie Spirit, a cooperative effort with Softball Australia, and two Chinese teams, the still-to-be-announced team based in Akron and the Beijing Shougang Eagles, a traveling team that went 3-44 in its first NPF season in 2017.
Already without major national corporate sponsors or a national television contract, the NPF now faces more obstacles in selling itself as the preeminent post-college softball experience.
Scrap Yard's exit brings to an end a brief but turbulent stay in the league. The franchise made immediate waves when it signed Abbott to a million-dollar contract in 2016, far and away a record in a league in which few players make even $10,000 for the summer season.
"Our game is wildly successful at the collegiate level. It just blows my mind that there is not that transfer of collegiate interest." Joey Arrietta
Along with the Texas Charge, Scrap Yard also took the lead in bridging a longstanding divide between the NPF and USA Softball, the organization responsible for the national team.
With softball eliminated from the Olympics after 2008, most American players were forced by intransigence on both sides to choose each year between playing for the national team or playing in NPF. Upon entering the league, the two Texas-based franchises were more flexible in allowing players under contract to do both and even scheduled exhibition games against Team USA, at times to the consternation of other NPF owners, according to Scrap Yard management.
Yet the resulting thaw led to rosters for the two senior national teams that will compete in events this summer that include around a dozen players expected to play for the Dawgs or remaining NPF teams, including Abbott, widely regarded as the best pitcher in the world. Softball will return to the Olympics in 2020.
However, Scrap Yard's sudden exit raises questions about both its own and the NPF's long-term viability. While the team's statement promised "significant salary increases" beyond what was allowed under the NPF salary cap and a schedule of games that would be "globally televised" and played in "packed stadiums," it is unclear how they intend to achieve those objectives that have thus far evaded every attempt at professional softball in this country.
Both Scrap Yard and the NPF declined further comment to espnW.