When National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) revealed earlier this year that the Pennsylvania Rebellion had folded, it seemed that the league was once again in the same cycle that has haunted it since its inception in 2004. The NPF, America’s only women’s professional softball league, has endured a slew of collapsed franchises and restructuring since then, as it has often floundered to find sustained growth and stability.
But hope was restored on Tuesday, when the NPF announced that Chinese team Beijing Shougang would join the league’s existing five squads for the 2017 season, marking the first international expansion team in its history.
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Beijing Shougang, managed by the Chinese Softball Association (CSA), will be made up of players from the Chinese national team pool as well as some American players. While the team will not have an established home in the United States this year, Beijing Shougang will play on American soil, competing at the league’s existing venues once the season starts June 1.
“We want participation from the world and we want to represent the best softball players in the world,” NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf told Excelle Sports about the expansion. “I think we have a really good platform and everyone agrees that the NPF is the most competitive place for fastpitch softball in the world.”
The move comes on the heels of a similar international expansion within the NPF from earlier this offseason, although not to the same extent. In February, Softball Australia and the NPF reached a deal that allowed eight Australian players to sign American contracts for the 2017 season as part of a partnership between the two sides.
“It shows this league has the best players in the world,” NPF color analyst Barb Jordan told Excelle Sports. “There’s a reason why Australia is sending players over and at the final hour China asks if they can be involved. They can’t get this competition anywhere else. Everybody understands that this is the elite level, that these are the elite softball players.”
Kempf believes the decision by Australia and China will spur other countries to follow suit, especially as national teams worldwide attempt to prepare for softball’s return to the Olympics at the Tokyo Games in 2020. With the re-entry of softball into the Olympic program also comes the return of funding to softball federations around the world—capital that many lost after the sport was removed from the Games following the 2008 Olympics.
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“For anybody that is serious about competing at the Olympic level, and also anyone who is serious about growing the sport in their country, this is the logical and most beneficial move for them,” said Kempf, who has been at the helm of the NPF since 2007.
Although the driving factor behind the NPF’s recent influx of international players appears to be the Tokyo Games, Kempf insists it marks a long-term strategy initiative for the league. She says the invitation is open to other countries that want to develop their players for 2020 and beyond.
“We’re not talking to these teams about coming here on a short-term basis,” Kempf said. “The case with the NPF is that we want these teams to get a presence in this country and we want them to be competitive in the league.
“We want to all work together to grow this sport on a global basis.”