Kempf: Pro softball on the rise
Kempf: Softball business should expand in U.S.
Prior to becoming commissioner of the National Pro Fastpitch softball league in 2007, Cheri Kempf was a player, instructor and a color analyst. She also wrote a book, “The Softball Pitching Edge,” and has worked with ESPN, Fox Sports, MLB Network, Cox Sports, YES Network and Comcast Sports. She has a large role in ESPN’s coverage of the NCAA Softball Tournament and the Women’s College World Series.
Kempf spent 15 years as owner and lead instructor at Club K, the women’s fastpitch training facility she founded in 1990 and established the NPF’s championship series that determines the league champion.
Recently, she was in Washington for a Rebellion game and discussed with Observer-Reporter sports writer Joe Tuscano some of the issues concerning the team and league.
Q. What is your view – postive and negative – on the Rebellion organization and the state of the league in general?
A. The pluses are the athletes, the talent. They are extraordinary, the best of the best. There is no college platform like this in the world. Everyone knows the college athletes are tremendous. Consequently, your professional league is going to be tremendous if you get those athletes and we are. In this league alone, we have Danielle Lawrie, who was a Most Outstanding Player, and Dallas Escobedo, who as a Most Outstanding Player.
I think the negatives is we need expansion and we need quality ownership, like Stu Williams here, who understand this is a sports entertainment business and not a glorified travel team. We just came out of a tough economic time and survived. Now, we have to look at expansion.
To some degree, the state of women’s professional sports in this country is not as important to corporate America to tag onto women’s professional sports more than it is for men. Hopefully, that climate changes because it would be a big deal for us.
Q. Were you following the Rebellion situation with manager Rick Bertagnolli resigning and did you have any reaction?
A. I wasn’t close enough (to the situation). It seemed like an odd situation to me. It’s not my business or my concern. It didn’t seem like anything that affected the players other than it was a coaching change. So I didn’t get involved in that at all.
Q. Are Frontier League baseball teams being targeted for expansion?
A. This makes all the sense in the world. There is a ton of synergy with baseball and softball. The fans understand the game, and it doesn’t cannibalize your existing audiences. It enhances it. You have a lot of shared responsibility in the front office and on the field. You have people who understand the business, and that’s what we need. This is a business.
There are definitely other baseball owners who are talking about it and looking at this organization very closely. Baseball people are watching this and asking, ‘Can it work?’ I think they’ve done such a great job here, and they are averaging 1,500 here, which is terrific.
Q. Would that take time?
A. No, I’m not afraid of expansion. If we had a half dozen teams come to us and say we want in in for 2015, I think we can do that. I think we’re ready for that. One thing I would tell you is I would feel better if those people came from the sports entertainment business. You have no idea how many people it will take to make this happen, and there is a big learning curve.
Q. What does a team have to average to hit a break-even point?
A. It will cost between $350,000 and $500,000 to operate one of these teams. You get a combination of ticket sales, sponsorships, souvenirs, concessions, a lot of ways to make it up. But that’s the number you are trying to hit.
Q. The league signed on with CBS Sports Netowrk. What options did you have with the television package?
A. We had good conversations with ESPN; been with them since 2011. The problem has always been availability. This year, (ESPN) had the World Cup, and we want a bigger presence. We had options there, but it didn’t compare to this. CBS really came back aggressive, and we had an opportunity for more games so we took advantage of it.
Q. The Pride not only has the most talent on the team but play a lot of games at neutral sites. How is that possible from a cost standpoint?
A. Individual teams spend as much as they want on individual travel. There is no limit on that.
Q. Some owners have much more revenue, then?
A. (USSSA) is the largest amateur sports association in the world, so I think they have a lot of resources. Their model is totally different. When they play in Disney and play at home, there are times they don’t charge admission. They had 10,000 for a game a few years ago and didn’t charge admission. Their thought process is different from everyone else’s. Their goal is to grow their youth level registrations in USSSA. Their thought process is if you show everyone the top level, it will trickle down, and it has. Their (registrations) have increased the last three years. So those are their goals, expose girls to the pros and inspire them and then get them to play USSSA.
Q. Does every team have that opportunity for outside income?
A. Sure, every player has that opportunity. Every player standing (on the field) for the Rebellion works somewhere else, outside of softball. Unfortunately, none of our athletes make their entire living on the league salary so they all are able to have outside employment. So, a Rebellion player has options.
Q. Why was Birmingham, Ala., selected for the championship series?
A. Our ownership voted that it could not be held in a home venue anymore. They didn’t like the advantage. Birmingham was talking to the NCAA about the College World Series and wanted a major event. You have to realize that 50 miles down the road is Tuscaloosa, which leads the nation in softball attendance. … It’s a good spot geographically and we need to go into an area that has people on the ground who want us there and know how to put on a good performance.