Oklahoma’s Jordy Bahl (98) celebrates with Rylie Boone (0), Tiare Jennings (23) and Jayda Coleman (24) following a softball game between the Oklahoma Sooners and Stanford in the Women’s College World Series at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in in Oklahoma City, Monday, June, 5, 2023.

This year, and much of the past four to five years, have felt like a new era for women’s collegiate and professional sports. Interest in women’s college basketball has peaked since Arike Ogunbowale hit two back-to-back buzz beaters for Notre Dame in the 2018 Final Four and national championship game to win the Irish the title. Then stormed in Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks winning the 2017, 2022, and 2024 national titles. And of course we cannot mention the rise of women’s college basketball without noting the influx of fans due to the Caitlin Clark effect.

But college basketball isn’t the only women’s sport having a momentum shift. The WNBA has seen record viewership and attendance numbers the past four seasons. Women’s college volleyball saw over 92,000 fans attend the Nebraska vs. Omaha game this past fall. The 2023 women’s college volleyball title game had a 112% improvement in viewership numbers from the 2022 final. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) saw over 800,000 viewers watch the 2023 championship match on CBS making it the second most watched NWSL game ever. This led to the NWSL announcing a landmark partnership for media coverage with CBS Sports, Prime Video, Scripps, and ESPN.

There are new professional leagues being introduced and invested in at every turn with the introduction of the Pro Volleyball Federation, League One Volleyball (LOVB), Athletes Unlimited (hosting lacrosse, basketball, volleyball, and softball), and the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) which is backed by longtime women’s sports advocate, Billie Jean King’s BJK Enterprises.

In this women’s sports era it is easy to get swept up in the viewership records being broken by NCAA volleyball and basketball. After all, it is no easy feat to shatter records multiple years in a row, but softball has been conquering this feat for quite some time.

Viewership for the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) has held at 800,000 viewers or higher for the last decade. The WCWS final recorded 1.85 million views in 2021 and passed the Men’s College World Series (CWS) championship with 1.6 million views in 2022. Last season, the WCWS finale drew an average of nearly 1.9 million viewers and peaked at 2.3 million on ESPN. This is in large part due to the investment from ESPN, as they air nearly 3,200 regular-season NCAA Division I softball games.

Attendance has also consistently boomed for the WCWS especially since the 2019 renovation of Hall of Fame Stadium which allows for 13,000 fans to attend the games through the addition of the upper deck. The 2021 WCWS registered 115,514 fans in attendance over the eight-day tournament. In 2023, the single session attendance record was broken with 12,257 fans watching the finale between Florida State and Oklahoma.

It is no secret that Oklahoma Sooners softball has had a dynasty the past several years winning the last three national titles and posting a 71-game win streak throughout the 2023-2024 seasons. The Oklahoma Sooners beat its single-season attendance record (43,647 across 30 games in 2018) in just 11 home dates this season. The Oklahoman newspaper receives more attention for Sooner softball than any other sport in the state from a coverage perspective, a new trend demonstrating the popularity of the team led by Hall of Fame coach Patty Gasso.

However, this year the Sooners are not the overall number one seed, this is claimed by Big 12 rival Texas and one of only two teams this season to take two games from the Sooners. This demonstrates the parity that is continuing to build in college softball. This is especially apparent with the storytelling and attention given to softball superstars and teams the past several seasons.

In 2018, Jessie Warren, third basemen for Florida State University made a diving double play that landed her on SportsCenter’s Top 10. In 2021, Odicci Alexander took mid major James Madison University to the World Series and took the softball world by storm making her game-saving diving tag against Oklahoma State.

Last season, attention was on then Oklahoma pitcher Jordy Bahl and the power hitting that led the Sooners to another national title, but with Bahl making an unorthodox move back home and playing for Nebraska, this year other teams in college softball are zeroing in on taking the title away from Oklahoma. As the #1 seed, Texas, built off the hitting of Reese Atwood (86 RBIs and 22 home runs), will make a run. The University of Tennessee (3rd overall seed), who had a stellar pitching staff last year led by Ashley Rogers is somehow better this season with their one-two punch of sophomore Karlin Pickins (SEC Pitcher of the Year and National Player of the Year nominee) and graduate transfer Payton Gottshall. Not to mention the Lady Vols have power hitting up and down their line-up, especially with Tennessee’s all-time home run leader Kiki Malloy. The Lady Vols will attempt to take their team to the WCWS for the second year in a row.

NiJaree Canady for Stanford is having another stellar year in the circle after winning Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year last season as a freshman. Miami University, led by the bat of Karli Spaid, is two home runs (159) shy of the single-season record set by Oklahoma in 2021. The Florida Gators are coming off an SEC tournament championship and igniting their offensive fire power at just the right time for the postseason. Duke softball, a program that played its first game in 2018, has made the NCAA Super Regionals the past two years and this year as the regular season and ACC tournament champs they could potentially be setting themselves up for their first trip to Oklahoma City.

There are so many other teams and storylines to follow this year in softball as the road to Oklahoma City begins this weekend. So as a reminder, among all the hype for women’s sports, Caitlin Clark, and the WNBA, don’t sleep on the excitement and incredible play of women’s college softball.

About Allison Smith

Dr. Allison Smith is a former Division I and II softball student athlete who is now an assistant professor of sport administration who studies and writes about the current state of women in sport. Outside of writing about women in sport, Allison has taught sport management and marketing courses for over ten years at various undergraduate and graduate programs. Follow Allison on Twitter @allisonbsmith15.