Washington gets women’s professional softball team

November 20, 2013

The number of professional sports tenants at Consol Energy Park doubled Tuesday. That’s when National Pro Fastpitch, a 16-year-old women’s softball league, announced that Washington will be home to a franchise for the 2014 season. National Pro Fastpitch is the only professional women’s softball league in the country.

The team will be called the Pennsylvania Rebellion, and it will be one of four franchises in the league. The Rebellion will inherit the roster of the New York/New Jersey Comets, who were unable to find a permanent home after playing only one season that produced a 10-38 record. A manager is expected to be named within a month.

The team is owned by WC Fastpitch LLC, a group headed by attorney Francine Williams, the franchise’s managing partner/general manager. WC Fastpitch LLC is similar to the Washington Wild Things’ ownership group and includes attorney Stuart Williams and Jeff Coury, the president of Coury Financial Group. Kate Billings will serve as assistant general manager/baseball operations.

The Rebellion hope to capitalize on the growing popularity of girls fastpitch softball. According to team officials, Western Pennsylvania has the third-largest participation level in the country.

“Western Pennsylvania is known worldwide as a sports powerhouse, and there is a thriving community of fastpitch players and fans at the youth, high school, and college levels, who can now experience the game at its highest level of play,” Francine Williams said.

“This is the top level of the sport. These are people you watch play on TV. This is the best of the best.”

The other teams in the league include the Akron Racers, Chicago Bandits and USSSA Pride. The latter is the defending champion and plays home games in Osceola, Fla., and Orlando, Fla. The league will begin play in early June with a 48-game schedule.

Cheri Kempf, who is in her seventh year as commissioner of NPF, and Williams each said putting a franchise in Washington has been a multi-year project. As part of last year’s Frontier League All-Star Game festivities at Consol Energy Park, the Racers played an exhibition game against Frontier League players and the event drew positive feedback.

This is the first time NPF has placed a franchise in an established minor-league baseball market.

“The people in Washington initially reached out to us two years ago and started doing their due diligence to acquire a franchise,” Kempf said. “That this franchise is being operated by people already successful in business, and already successful in pro sports, is a plus.

“Our product is a 10. For our growth, we need television exposure and business people who understand softball also is entertainment. We see that the people in Washington know how to operate under this umbrella.”

Last year, NPF had six games televised by ESPN2 and another 12 available on the Internet via ESPN3. Kempf said a television package for 2014 is currently being negotiated.

“We will have TV. It remains to be seen where and when,” she said.

Kempf, a former player on the U.S. national team, said those who venture to Consol Energy Park for a Rebellion game will be pleasantly surprised by the level of play in the league, which includes several players who were members of the last U.S. Olympic softball team. USSSA Pride pitcher Cat Osterman and shortstop Natasha Whatley, for example, were members of the gold medal-winning team in 2004.

The Rebellion inherits a team that struggled in its only season of competition, joining the league as an expansion franchise. The Comets played only 13 home games at ballparks in New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, averaging 629 fans per game.

“Part of the problem in New York/New Jersey was they didn’t have a home. How do you build a loyal following without a home base?” said Stuart Williams. “Playing almost all road games is not the way to connect with and build a loyal following. We have a loyal following here.”

Kempf said she expects NPF teams to draw 1,000 to 1,200 fans per game, but the break-even mark varies for each franchise, based on things such as sponsorships, rent and souvenir sales.

Single-game tickets for Rebellion games will range from $5 to $15. Ticket packages split between Rebellion and Wild Things games are available.

Consol Energy Park has been home to the Wild Things since 2002. It was home to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds minor-league soccer team for two years (2005 and ’06).

“Consol Energy Park is a baseball venue, but it’s gorgeous,” Kempf said. “It’s the perfect setting.”

Chris Dugan has been covering local sports for more than 30 years and has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1986. He was named sports editor in 2006. Before joining the O-R, he was sports editor at the Democrat-Messenger in Waynesburg. He is a former member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. If you have an idea for a story, send him an email at dugan@observer-reporter.com.

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