On TV, softball touches 'em all
Women's finals prove a hit in the ratings
By AMY MORITZ
News Sports Reporter
"The games are competitive, exciting,
dramatic . . . everything that a fan wants to see."
It may be premature for the softball community to put the National Hockey League on its Christmas card list.
After all, for the past 10 years, the Women's College World Series has been steadily gaining audience on ESPN that surpasses most college sports championships - and in fact, has produced better numbers than the NHL.
Still, the programming void created when the NHL canceled its season has generated excitement for many traditional niche sports, including Division I softball.
Combine more and better time slots due to the hockey lockout, the creation of ESPNU and the growing popularity of women's sports, and the NCAA softball tournament has become a hot ticket for cable sports.
Consider the numbers:
• Overall ratings for the WCWS are up from last season. This year, games on ESPN averaged a 0.9 cable rating while games on ESPN2 averaged 0.7. In 2004, the same numbers were 0.6 and 0.5, respectively. Compare this to the NHL, which through 46 playoff games last season averaged a 0.7 rating on ESPN and a 0.4 on ESPN2.
• Wednesday's championship game between Michigan and UCLA attracted more than 4 million - the highest-rated college softball game ever on ESPN.
• Through Game One of the WCWS, an estimated 28,150,820 viewers had watched the softball tournament, up from a total of 24,384,000 last year.
• The first televised softball championship was on ESPN in 1996. The game between Arizona and Washington drew a 0.5 cable rating and was seen by 166,000 households. Monday night's Game One of the best-of-three championships finals drew a 1.01 rating and was seen in 913,000 households. (Michigan defeated UCLA in the final game Wednesday night.)
• Including Team USA games, ESPN will televise as many as 59 softball games this year, up from last year's 24.
While ratings for the championship game dipped between 2003 and 2004, viewership for the regionals and entire WCWS has increased every year.
"There are differences this year from last year. Obviously, there's no hockey, and with the launch of ESPNU, we're able to go deeper in the regionals and in the regular season," said Josh Krulewitz, director of media relations at ESPN. "We feel it's an emerging sport. The games are competitive, exciting, dramatic and fun - everything that a fan wants to see in a championship game."
The ratings have pleasantly surprised those at the NCAA. The Women's College World Series is now the fourth-highest rated NCAA championship behind men's basketball, women's basketball and baseball.
"When the softball ratings kicked in a few years ago, we tried to figure out why people watch it," said Chris Farrow, manager of broadcasting for the NCAA. "I think part of it is because the average Joe who works 9 to 5 goes out to his neighborhood park to play softball and can relate to it. It's a quicker game and easier to watch than a baseball game. It's also a family sport."
The NCAA softball committee increased exposure by making several changes this year. It changed the tournament format to mirror baseball's, with regional winners advancing to super regionals. It changed the final from a one-game to a best-of-three series. And it moved the final from its Memorial Day weekend slot to the beginning of June.
"I think a lot of (the increased viewership) had to do when the national coaches association voted on moving the world series out of Memorial Day weekend," UB coach Marie Curran said. "There were so many national championships at the same time, now we're it and it's nice to get that coverage."
The quality of the game has much to do with its popularity on TV. The games usually fit into a manageable time frame (around 2 hours, 15 minutes) and the size of the field means quick action.
"Once you get someone to watch a game, they usually come back to watch it," Canisius coach Mike Rappl said. "If you haven't seen softball in a while, you can be amazed at how talented these girls are. They have power, speed and good pitching, and every once in a while, a hitter will get the best of a pitcher."
As the game sells itself, continuity of coverage has helped create an atmosphere where it's easy for the casual fan to follow college softball.
ESPN has dramatically increased the number of games broadcast. In 1996, the network showed only three games of the WCWS. This spring marks the fourth straight year that the network has broadcast every game. Because of the hockey lockout and the launch of ESPNU, for the first time there were 18 regular-season games aired nationally on ESPN's networks. The rights for those games were negotiated between the network, conferences and schools.
"With that regular-season coverage, people were more aware and perhaps it gave us a stronger starting point for the national tournament," Farrow said.
A key starting point was broadcasting the softball selection show on ESPNews.
"That was very important and it built that bridge," Farrow said. "Instead of three games on TV and no one aware of what was going on with softball, we have a bridge from the selection show to the championship final. Now ESPN is filling in the middle of that bridge with more games. Before a pitch was thrown, we knew we had full commitment that four of the eight super regional sites would have national TV exposure. Building parts of that bridge really helps increase exposure and fan awareness."
How softball fares on ESPN networks
Year Matchup Rating Viewers
1996 Arizona vs. Washington 0.5 415,000
1997 UCLA vs. Arizona 0.7 877,500
1998 Fresno St. vs. Arizona 0.7 1,007,500
1999 UCLA vs. Washington 0.7 1,190,000
2000 Oklahoma vs. UCLA 1.0 1,907,500
2001 Arizona vs. UCLA 1.2 2,489,700
2002 Cal vs. Arizona 1.02 2,255,360
2003 UCLA vs. Cal 1.57 3,466,613
2004 Cal vs. UCLA 1.27 2,849,880
2005 UCLA vs. Michigan* 1.8 4,175,760
*Game Three of best-of-3 final. Source: Nielsen Media Research/NCAA
Number of Division I softball tournament games on ESPN networks: